Smith set to retire after school year

Fort Madison High School Principal Greg Smith looks through some papers in an empty office during Spring Break Monday. Smith announced his retirement from the district at the end of the school year. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

“Non-academic” to leave after 12 years as FMHS principal

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – For the past dozen years or so, most around Fort Madison knew him as Mr. Smith, or Principal Smith… maybe not Tony Night on the Overnight, or a city grave digger, or Deputy Smith, or even the front man for LMNOP.

But of all the gigs Greg Smith has had over his career, he’s ending where as a child he thought he would – behind a desk.

Smith announced this week that this will be his final year as Principal at Fort Madison High School, a position he’s held since 2010, and not surprisingly, the longest he’s ever held one job.

At the urging of then-Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Marang, the Fort Madison native took over for Bonita Gonzalez when she left the post in 2010. Smith said he’d fill in for a year until the district could do a thorough search for a replacement – but Marang had other plans.

SMITH

“He said he was getting good vibes from the high school, and so he just never posted the position,” Smith said. “He always knew – I think from day 1. He saw things other people didn’t see.”

Smith said Marang is still a mentor and a friend and they stay in touch.

Education, students, and families have been his passion during the past 28 years in education, but Smith said the balance is starting to get out of whack.

“I think the balance, and I’ve talked to others who say the same thing, but the balance gets to where the passion and love for what you do starts being overshadowed by how tired you are and how things frustrate you more quickly,” he said.

“Part of it’s age and part of it’s the stress of this job. I mean it’s crazy stressful, I think, and you don’t realize it until you start looking at it from the outside.”

Smith was named one of the top 100 teachers in the United States his first year teaching at Clarence-Lowden as a junior high social studies teacher. That award put him on the radar for other educational positions in school systems, as well educational programming and sales.

But his love was Fort Madison where he grew up in a trailer just east of the high school in a blue collar familiy. After doing his student teaching here, he was ironically passed over several times for openings in the district before finally landing a spot in Keokuk, after a three-year stint with a Moline educational publisher.

“I really enjoyed Keokuk. I stayed there for several years and taught fifth, fourth, and second grade. Second was my favorite by far. Just had a ball and really enjoyed that,” he said.

He then moved to the local Area Education Association and did that for a couple years as a reading specialist and was eventually promoted to a professional development position working with teachers on licensures and certifications.

When Marang came to Fort Madison, he contacted Smith at the AEA to write a job description for a Curriculum Director at the FM central office. It turns out Marang had Smith writing his own job description as Smith ended up taking the job when Marang couldn’t find the right person.

“I told him I didn’t think I was his guy, but he said he knew people and he thought I was the right guy and I would fit. But I told him no,” Smith said.

But Marang persisted and in 2005 Smith accepted the position and would obtain an administrative license, which he said he “didn’t really want”.

Four years later, Smith was on a beach in Mexico with his wife Sandy, when Gonzalez resigned and Marang came calling again. Smith agreed to fill in as principal for a year.

“I was scared to death. I remember standing out front the first week or so and, oh my God, these kids were bigger than me – I don’t know anything about them – they were all smarter than me. I was just freaking out,” Smith said.

“The teachers were all being professional and friendly but yet I could tell it was like, ‘You’re an elementary teacher… what are you doing here’,” he said. “That first year was kinda rocky until the spring and then I thought, ‘You know, this is kind of cool’ and I loved the fast pace of it all.”

He said the staff started getting on board with his philosophy of the whole child instead of just academics and that was working.

“This has just been the best position. I would have never thought about doing this. It just flew by, every year just flies by,” he said.

“The kids and I – I just really connect with them I think – I feel like I do, anyway. And the staff we are just centered on Social Emotional Learning. And that’s been a big change in the culture of the building.”

He said moving to high school was night and day from his time in elementary schools and working at the AEA.

“It’s a totally different world, how they prioritize things and what they feel they need to get kids ready to go,” he said. “They taught me that. And I taught them how it was to look at kids like they’re second graders that shave. We both had something to throw on the table and I think it’s worked really well.”

But the coming years for the 63-year-old former military police officer, infantry drown-proof instructor, California deputy sheriff, night time DJ, lifeguard, street worker, pizza chef – will in all likelihood include some easier breathing and traveling.

Smith said he wants to stay in Fort Madison and work in some volunteer efforts. But avoiding the winter weather of Iowa will probably be part of the plans.

But he doesn’t want to venture too far away from his roots. He said finding time to continue to work with area kids and families would be something rewarding to do with his second life.

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