A principal with all the right stuff Remembrance: A fatherly voice of comfort and encouragement, Raymond Mathias was a guiding force in Winfield Elementary pupils' lives.

May 18, 1998|By This story was reported by Brenda J. Buote, Mary Gail Hare, John Murphy, Jackie Powder and Todd Richissin, and was written by Richissin.

It was about four years ago that John Hett, all of 8 years old, got the news about his father, Carl. His dad, who had driven Bus 82 for Winfield Elementary School in Carroll County, had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. He was 36.

Not long after, Hett was sent to see Raymond Mathias, the principal of Winfield.

"I thought I was in trouble," recalled John, now a 12-year-old approaching man size. "When we got outside, there was a group of teachers standing with Mr. Mathias.

"I didn't know what was going on," he continued, and a smile spread across his freckled face. "Turns out Mr. Mathias had planted a tree in my father's memory. With a plaque and everything. It was really nice."

It was such another school day last week when John Hett got the news about his principal. Mathias, the man who had comforted him at his father's death, had been killed in a car accident not a half-mile from the school.

Nobody in the middle-class crossroads of Winfield can remember when a death has had such an impact on the village. In many ways, Winfield Elementary School had been defined by its principal and, in just as many ways, the school came to define the town.

A principal has a larger role in education than ever before. In Maryland's statewide testing, it's the school that gets a grade -- and the principal who is held accountable. The central bureaucracy that used to buy books and make budgets now cedes many of those decisions to individual schools.

But if principals are now CEOs, they also are still the human face of a school for parents, children and teachers. That's a lot to get right. Winfield parents and teachers say Mathias was a principal who got it right, and they talked last week about how he did it.

Perhaps as much as anything, Mathias' involvement with the Hett family -- John is the eldest of three children -- illustrates why much of Carroll County has been so touched by the death of Mathias: He was intimately involved not just in the schooling of his students but in their lives.

"He raised about $1,000 for us and gave us a lot of support," said Pearl Hett, the bus driver's widow. "He helped us get food vouchers, and he went to the funeral. I thought the world of him."

Mathias was principal of Winfield for 17 years. He was 52 when he was killed last Monday on a narrow country road, his car hit by a truck that apparently ran a red light.

"He was like a dad. He wasn't just a principal. He was your friend. With him, what you saw is what you got," said art teacher Cristina Gruss, who started her career at Winfield six years ago. "If he had moved to another school, I would have followed him."

She would not have been alone.

A job at Winfield is considered a plum appointment in Carroll County. It has been a place where many teachers, even the district's youngest, have hoped to work until they retired.

Mathias was the reason.

He walked the halls, visited classrooms, filled in for teachers, ate lunch with the students and played with them at recess.

He was happy where he was, apparently intended to stay there, and that continuity made Winfield different from many other schools.

"There is a unity here," said Angela Nunnelly, a guidance counselor who has worked at Winfield for 22 years. "I don't know exactly how to describe it, but I know that Ray is the reason it is the way it is."

He constantly entertained students and teachers, dressing as Abraham Lincoln, as a hula dancer, whatever the occasion called for, and he was absolutely unable to keep away from the school's public address system.

On opening day of the baseball season, Mathias crooned into the intercom system with a rendition of "Take me out to the ballgame." He forgot the words but kept on singing. At Thanksgiving, he hid under a desk in the school office, gobbling like a turkey to tease the children passing by.

"We work hard and play hard here," said Lesley Long, a mother of two Winfield students. "He set the tone for the whole school."

Long met Mathias on Halloween four years ago, when the children were encouraged to dress up. She arrived at Winfield and saw a man dressed in a tutu, tights, a wig and makeup. It was Mathias.

"It scared me to death," she said, laughing.

Other schools have eliminated dress-up days, parties and other social events. Mathias protected, promoted and participated in them.

Chuck Clark, a motor development instructor, says Mathias got it right because he never got lost in abstract theories of education and management philosophy. Clark once asked Mathias' opinion a management theory.

"He said, 'Always put the children first. Some people will disagree and say you should do this or that. But if you put the children first, you'll be OK.' "

Community leader

Mathias put the children first, and the town put the principal on a pedestal. At the Westminster Bank & Trust branch in Winfield, an automatic money machine has replaced a familiar teller. There is corner grocer; most people go to the Giant supermarket. Paperboys no longer exist. Times have changed.

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