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Published May 04 2012

A ‘pal’ indeed: Veteran principal, others look back on 50 years of history at Fargo’s Nativity school

If you go

What: Nativity School 50th Jubilee and All-Class Reunion

When: May 19

Where: Nativity Elementary School, 1825 11th St. S., Fargo, 58103

Info: Festivities begin with Mass, followed by a spaghetti feed and music from the local band, Feedback, all Nativity graduates. For more information, call the school office, (701) 232-7461.

Near the start of spring orientation at Fargo’s Nativity Elementary, future kindergartners walk into a cafeteria to find small cartons of chocolate milk, donut holes and their future principal, Cindy Hutchins, awaiting them with open arms.

One of the first things they learn: The word principal contains the word “pal.”

“In many children’s books, if there’s a principal in it, the principal’s usually this scary, creepy presence,” Hutchins says. “Parents might say when they go by my office, ‘You’re not going to want to come in this office.’ ”

One year her oldest son, John, was among a group of first-graders relegated to the principal’s office for throwing snowballs on the playground.

“Even he was crying before he got to the door,” Hutchins recalls. “Later that night I said, ‘Honey, really?’ We laugh about that now.”

Thirty-six years into her time at the parochial school, which will host its 50th anniversary celebration next weekend, Hutchins has a pretty good grasp on how to cultivate the tenuous balance between hard and soft required of a good principal.

Rather than hiding out in a back office, Hutchins joins the cafeteria crew each noon to help keep track of food intake, manage student helpers and handle mealtime drama if necessary.

By the time the last bell has rung, she’s already positioned outside on “bus duty” seeing students off for the afternoon.

Her hands-on approach keeps her close to what’s most important – the students themselves. “I want every decision I make to be best for the kids,” she says. “Being in the lunchroom means I greet every child every day. If I didn’t do that, it would be a lot easier to not check in.”

Someone to lean on

Sue Thorson has been part of the school for 17 years, including as an involved parent, reading specialist and kindergarten-enrichment teacher and coordinator. For the past four years, she’s been administrative assistant – or right-hand woman – to Hutchins.

“I’m kind of that confidante, someone she can share with and support,” Thorson says. “There are a lot of hard things that come across her desk, a lot of sad things.”

Though she’s always admired Hutchins from afar, Thorson says their close working relationship has given her insight that would be easy to miss otherwise.

“She’s very tender, very, very sensitive,” Thorson says. “I don’t think people realize the depth to Cindy. She’s probably one of my dearest friends, and like we always say, ‘I don’t work for her; I work with her,’ and that’s so true. It’s just a joy.”

Thorson’s indebtedness to Hutchins goes back to her first weeks on the job, when she was feeling uncertain about the largeness of the shoes she’d been asked to fill. The previous receptionist, Carol Johansen, had been a beloved fixture, there from the school’s inception.

“It was petrifying in a way,” Thorson says, noting that she wasn’t afraid of the mechanics of the job but of replacing Johansen. Hutchins’ response assured her. “She said, ‘Yes, Carol had a history here, but I didn’t hire you to replace her. Let’s write our own story.’ And we have.”

Beginnings

Hutchins’ own Catholic-school history began at Cathedral Grade School in Crookston, Minn. Then Cindy Maves, she entered Mount St. Benedict High School in 1967. The school would serve as the launching place for her romance with future husband, Scott.

That same year, Tracy Wold Frei of Fargo was walking into the halls of Nativity Elementary as a first-grader.

Her favorite memories revolve around the Presentation Sisters who ran the school; women she remembers as being firm but endearing. “It’s not like how some teachers are today, lovey-dovey and so sweet with the children,” Frei says, “yet we really did have respect and affection for them.”

The sisters also drew a sense of intrigue, decked out as they were in full religious habits that kept much of their physical characteristics hidden. “I remember being on the playground with the wind whipping, and you’d try to get a peek at what their hair looked like underneath,” Frei says. “It was such a mystery.”

She also recalls one of the school’s first priests, the Rev. Maurice Mueller, and his gentle ways.

Years after Frei had moved through elementary school, Mueller remained, and in 1976, hired Hutchins, a St. Benedict’s College, Minn., grad who’d been working as a sixth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks.

In her first nine years at Nativity, Hutchins taught kindergarten, fourth grade and junior-high art and religion.

She’d also taken one class in school administration with hopes of someday becoming a principal. When the principal post at Nativity opened unexpectedly in 1985, Mueller asked Hutchins to fill in temporarily.

“I found it to be a fascinating year from many vantage points. Plus he allowed me to do it part time so I could be home for my little one,” says the mother of two now-grown sons.

The next year, the stint became permanent.

Settling into a life

Asked whether she’s received offers from other schools through the years, Hutchins smiles, then grows reflective.

“I have to say there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t looked forward to coming to work,” she says. “This place has become such a part of who I am that it was pretty easy to make the decision not to make a change.”

Hutchins was initially taken aback when her former students started showing up as parents of the newer crop of kids. It didn’t take long for her to reverse her mindset, however.

“That’s been a true blessing in my life, to be able to go outside at the end of the day and see all the kids I had, either as students or in my first years in administration, who have now chosen to come back with their children,” she says. “And I think it’s that sense of community that really makes this a unique place.”

All of that motivates her to continue helping keep Catholic school education as academically competitive as possible – no easy task in an area as rich in education as ours. “The bar is raised high in our community, and that’s a good thing,” Hutchins says.

The school’s shining gem is its ability to reach not only mind and body but the soul of its students, she says. Subjects like the fine arts can be taken to a whole new level when connecting it to a faith tradition, she notes.

At the same time, Hutchins acknowledges the limits of parochial education. Services addressing special needs that would draw a more diverse population lack due to funding limitations.

To help balance that out, the school’s parent-teacher organization has instituted a social-awareness committee to bring global needs to the fore.

“Because you’re given a lot to work with, I try to think about how we can help our students see their talents, the gifts they have,” Hutchins says, “and also how they’re responsible to take those gifts and make a difference in the lives of those who don’t have that.”

Happy endings

Hutchins enjoys seeing the fruits of those efforts, like learning of a former student working with low-income populations in Nicaragua, and watching her son Joe’s involvement with the Somali population in the Twin Cities.

Frei says her oldest daughter, Rachel, who teaches in a low-income, public school in another state, was inspired by her time at Nativity. “I think she loved the hands-on feel, the incredible dedication that they have for the students, and the teachers at Nativity who clearly helped inspire her to want to be a teacher.”

But that full-circle glimpse doesn’t happen every day. More often, Hutchins is focused just on getting her students to fifth-grade graduation. And when that day comes as it does each year, she’s not likely to leave the sanctuary of the church where the event takes place without grasping for a tissue or two.

“The closing Mass, when we send off the fifth-graders, that’s always an emotional moment for me,” Hutchins says. “You’ve had the privilege of helping them grow all these years and then you’re sending them off, and we all know middle school isn’t something we’d ever want to go through again. So you just sort of trust and hope they have what they need to make it through.”

As of last month, Hutchins became a grandmother for the first time to Joe’s first son, Charlie, whose presence has brought a fresh, profound perspective to her life.

“She’s got her own family, her own life outside of school, and it’s sometimes hard to have all those jobs, but she does it with a lot of grace,” Thorson adds.