With 16 teachers and staff members retiring with a total of 367 years of service in Creston Community Schools, there was a lot of nostalgia in the room Friday afternoon when those retirees were honored in the high school auditorium.
But, the heavy dose of emotion was reserved for the moment their leader, retiring Superintendent Steve McDermott, came out in a wheelchair to join his class of retirees on stage. He had made the trip from EveryStep, the Greater Regional Hospice Home. He is currently staying there during an aggressive treatment regimen for his case of renal cancer.
Having a chance to join in the farewell with his school family was as emotional for McDermott as it was for those in attendance.
“It’s just overwhelming,” McDermott said quietly Saturday morning in his hospice room. “I could have tried to say a few things. I didn’t even go down that road. I would have been a mess. We just left it at that. We had an awesome turnout Friday and it is very definitely an honor to go out with some of those folks who have had such an impact in our schools.”
While he has been on medical leave for a few weeks after announcing his retirement in a letter to the editor in the News Advertiser, McDermott has continued to do some work from home and has checked in at the office on occasion before his retirement is official on June 30. His successor is current Clarinda Superintendent Deron Stender.
The loss of so many experienced colleagues in one year is unique, McDermott acknowledges, but he has been encouraged by the new makeup of the staff.
“Of course you worry about losing that many people and that much experience,” McDermott said. “That is important. But, my goodness, we’ve made some really nice hires. Not only some really good beginning teachers, but I’m really excited about some good folks with three to five years experience who have proven themselves out there. You don’t want a school to weaken.”
In his April 9 message to the district patrons, McDermott explained that his recent health challenges have significantly limited the amount of energy he has to dedicate to the responsibilities of his position. He reluctantly resigned, because the Greenfield native enjoyed working in a district so close to his roots and intended to work until age 70. He turned 60 last December.
“There was a new direction in my diagnosis,” McDermott said. “It had gotten worse. There was a change in my treatment approach. It’s pretty aggressive with the chemo and radiation. The oncologist said, ‘Let’s give him a little break and see how it goes.’ So, I sit here in hospice. I get great care, but I am considering now how soon I can live at home again.”
While the career in education, which began as an art teacher in Prescott in 1981, was cut short by a decade, it’s been fulfilling, he said.
After graduating from Greenfield High School in 1976, he started at Iowa State University as an animal science and pre-vet major and ran on the track team there. But, it wasn’t for him.
“I was the most homesick kid and just didn’t like it,” McDermott said. “I had been recruited in high school to play quarterback at Westmar College in Le Mars. Dave Huff from Greenfield was also playing there, and I decided to go up there. I did not end up playing football, but I had always liked art and took some art classes. I started thinking that one way to make a living was teaching, and I loved coaching.”
After 12 years of teaching art in Prescott and Adel-DeSoto, McDermott decided to take administrative classes at Drake University. Soon, at age 34, he was hired as a principal at Battle Creek-Ida Grove and after a year became curriculum director and principal in his home county in a shared position between Bridgewater-Fontanelle and Greenfield.
McDermott was had succeeded Fred Whipple as superintendent when Greenfield and Bridgewater-Fontanelle were consolidated into the current Nodaway Valley School District. So, when he returned to the area as Creston’s superintendent after eight years in Newton, he was prepared for the merger of the Creston and Prescott districts.
“I think it helped that those people in Prescott knew me. Two of the board members were my former students in Prescott,” McDermott said. “They wanted to consolidate and not tear the district apart. Out of respect, we added ‘Creston Community’ to the name of the district. I think it’s been accepted very well.”
McDermott said he originally got into administration to become more involved in the decision-making process of school districts. There have been many advances in the infusion of technology into the learning process, significant upgrades to athletic facilities and construction of the bus barn and adjacent parking, and curriculum refinements during McDermott’s six-year tenure in Creston.
But, he’s the first to acknowledge those advances are the result of talented staff members working together.
“My leadership style, if I have one, is to find the best people you can and get out of the way,” McDermott said. “It was a matter of letting the support staff and teachers do their thing within the requirements of the state and the objectives of the board.”
Colleagues said there was a renewed sense of unity under McDermott’s direction, which was evident in the outpouring of support at Friday’s reception. McDermott was overwhelmed when he was presented a picture of the entire Creston staff standing in the formation of a commerative cancer support ribbon. The photo was taken near the end of the school year and the inscription on the bottom states, “In This Together.”
“As a leader he was terrific,” said Scott Driskell, elementary principal for first-fifth grades. “He was compassionate, yet held true to that vision for all of us. His leadership style is welcome at a time where being in education is more intense and stressful than any other time.”
Bill Messerole, high school principal, said McDermott had a student-centered approach for the district.
“As the superintendent, Steve sometimes had to be the tiebreaker if principals disagreed on an issue,” Messerole said. “Steve always did this in a way that everyone left feeling valued even if the decision did not go your way. When Steve was hired, he knew we were behind the technology curve. He was adamant that Creston would become a leader in technology and innovation. Our current CAST program has his footprints all over it.”
And, the former art teacher also put his brand on the look of the Creston “C” and Panther head on district athletic apparel and painted logos in facilities.
“He is big in developing an identity so that where we go people would recognize the C and know that it’s Creston,” Driskell said. “It’s the same with the Panther head and the new C in it.”
Lesa Downing, high school instructional coach, told McDermott that students serving on the interview committee for new superintendent finalists remarked that their current district leader has been visible and approachable to students. They frequently saw him in their building, and contributing his talent in painting the Panther in the CCHS gym and the wrestling Panther in the wrestling room.
“That’s heartening to hear,” McDermott responded. “It’s supportive of what I would hope. I got into this for the kids in the first place. When you’re in the superintendent’s office, there is a tendency to be a long way from kids. I’ve been bound and determined my whole career to still be close to kids.”
There are no regrets about that decision as a Westmar College student to make education a career.
“I couldn’t have asked for more,” he said. “I couldn’t have had a better life or a better career. There have been so many awesome people to be around.”