Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Principals and Principles, III

Mike Lenzo, Principal
from Aurora Middle School yearbook, 1972-73

Mr. Michael P.Lenzo.  Mike.

He was the third middle school principal I worked for--and  he was one of those (imminent cliche warning...) transformative figures whom lucky people occasionally encounter in their lives.

1968-1969.   This was my third year teaching, and already I was meeting my third principal (I'm sure there's no connection?).  I remember going to the middle school in August and stopping up in the principal's office to see if the New Guy was there yet.  (Remember: Earlier in the summer Mr. DeAnna and I had left a folder with the year's schedule in a drawer for him.)

When I entered the room, I saw him standing there looking a little puzzled; he had that what-have-I-gotten-myself-into? look.  I introduced myself, and he replied by shaking my hand and saying, "Mike Lenzo."  He called me "Dan"; my previous two principals had stuck with the "Mr. Dyer."  And so right away I was encountering the informality of Mike Lenzo, a gentle sociable nature that surrounded his fierce determination to do what was best for kids.  Always.

But Mike  was discomfited  that day: He hadn't found the folder we'd left for him.  He thought he was going to have to start from scratch.  But when I showed it to him ... well, let's just say that clouds parted and sunbeams danced and stars partied and ...

I was very uncomfortable at first, calling him "Mike."  But that was what he wanted.  (By the way, he reverted to "Mr. Dyer" in two situations: (1) in front of kids and parents; (2) when I'd screwed up, which I did fairly regularly.)  Soon, it was normal,  calling him  "Mike"--and I soon learned that informality does not really shift anything between a supervisor and employees.  I learned that he was every bit as serious about his job--about his wish for excellence from everyone--as he would have been had he worn three-piece suits and insisted on Victorian formality.

Mike was my principal for the remaining years of my first stint at the middle school (1966-1978).  He was there when I married in 1969; he helped Joyce and me find our first apartment in Kent (323 College Court--right across the street from his house, a house, by the way, where he did not long remain--coincidence?); he was there when our son was born (16 July 1972); he was there when I started graduate school and finished my Ph.D. (1977).  And he was there in every other way that mattered, too.

He continued--and expanded--some of the programs his predecessors had started: the 6th grade camping trip, the 7th grade Ohio trip, the 8th grade Washington trip.  He hired good people--great people in some cases; he asked what we needed; he tried to get it for us; he watched over all like a benevolent parent.  (He did have one trait, though, that some us used to laugh about: Mike was cheap.  If he could find something somewhere in Rugby, North Dakota, that was five cents cheaper, well, we'd have to send off to Rugby to get it instead of going to K-Mart.)

Mike's key strength as an administrator was his ability to communicate his belief in us.  And this, for me, changed my life.  I found myself wanting to work hard, wanting to do what was best for kids, wanting, above all, not to disappoint  Mike.  But, of course, I did disappoint him now and then.  And he let me know it.   But I think he knew that most of us on that faculty were now and then messing up because we were trying things, not because we were lazy or careless.

Every now and then he would hire someone who wasn't so good.  But--bless him--he was always the very last to realize it.  He would continue to believe, even in the face of mounting contrary evidence.

But over his tenure at the middle school--a tenure that saw us, in 1974, move into our new building, Harmon--he assembled what I will go to my grave believing was the strongest middle school faculty in the country.  A great mix of men and women, of veterans and puppies, of conservatives  and liberals.  Because of his belief in us--his public and patent belief in us--we all worked so very hard in those days.  And I discovered something surprising: Hard work can be liberating.

Mike was a smoker when I first met him.  Kents.  (Live in Kent, smoke Kents?)  But he soon gave it up and always left an open pack atop his dresser.  (Later, he laughed and told me that when his kids turned teen, he noticed the pack grew ever more empty.)  He was also nifty at cards.  On those long bus trips around Ohio--or to Washington--I would play (i.e., lose) games of casino with Mike, over and over.  And he would laugh ...

Mike ended the long  middle school tradition of paddling students (I'd done it frequently in previous years, much to my shame).  He saw physical punishment as a failure--our failure.

When we  were on strike in the spring of 1978,  I would sometimes do my picket duty at the bottom of the Harmon driveway where it empties onto Aurora-Hudson Road.  I always hated to see Mike leaving for the day.  He would stop and talk with us, his dark eyes wet with emotion.  He would tell us the kids missed us.  But he never argued with us, never made us feel any worse than we already felt.  He saw the strike as a great fracture forming between the school and the community.  And it troubled him, badly.

I resigned that spring.  I'd finished my Ph.D. and had accepted a job at Lake Forest College.  And Mike, the following year, moved into the central office, leaving Harmon's care to another.  After only months at Lake Forest, I knew I wanted to return to Harmon.  I missed it desperately.  But there were no openings.  Not for four years.

And in the spring of 1982--I'd been teaching at Western Reserve Academy and Kent State--I ran into a former Harmon colleague (Denny Reiser) at the KSU Library.  He told me that Fayth Shirkey, 8th grade English teacher, was retiring.  I zoomed home.  Called Mike.  Wondered why he hadn't let me know.  He said, "Because we need someone who can teach German classes, too."

"I can do that!"  (I'd had two years in high school, two in college.)

"You can?"

And Mike helped me get my temporary certification in German--made sure I enrolled in German at the University of Akron--and convinced the Board of Education (by the overwhelming margin of 3-2) that I should return to Harmon.  Which I did for another wonderful fifteen years.  (Fortunately, the German lasted only one year; I was, in a word, incompetent.)

Mike eventually retired, then took the job as principal at his local Catholic School in Kent, where, once again, he devoted himself to children.  His own children were grown by that time--and he had done a terrific job with them and had also suffered the most grievous loss a parent can endure.  But endure he did, with the support of his wonderful wife, his church, his devoted friends.

Now fully retired, Mike is still Mike.  He calls now and then.  We go to meals  together.  We visit former colleagues--some of whom are in distress.  We sometimes go to funerals.  Mike still cares, you see?  Just as he has always cared.  And he remains an enormous influence in my life.  In the late 1960s, he dragged me out of a lingering adolescence, showed me qualities in myself I didn't even know were there, convinced me that ours was the greatest calling there is.  And illuminated the pathway so that I could see.


  1. Even though Mike was not my principal, I too experienced some very positive interaction with him. He was responsible for recommending to the school that I should receive the Jennings Scholar honor. That honor was a very fine educational adventure that he launched me into. Further, he and I traveled to a professional conference in Michigan. It was on this long trip that I learned how dedicated he was to making schools better, and more specific kids and teachers. Later in his life, after he continued as a principal in a Catholic school, I met him volunteering at Robinson Memorial hospital. It almost seemed like he was born to serve his fellow man. He will be missed, but always remembered.
    Jim Redmond

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