SALT LAKE CITY — Fridays are the worst day for Dean Collett. At 83 years young, he lives for Mondays, when he can again absorb the energy and enthusiasm of 1,600 teenagers at Highland High School.
“As soon as I walk into the building, I come alive,” says the freshman counselor, who has worked at the school since the bell rang for the first time in 1956. “I tried to retire once, but I only lasted two months. Being here with the kids is my life.”
Eager to hear a few stories from a man who has been on Highland’s payroll longer than most of the school’s teachers have been alive, I recently joined Collett for a Free Lunch of takeout turkey-and-Swiss sandwiches in his office off the school’s noisy main hallway.
“I’m older than everything in the school, including the brick,” he says, grinning, “and I’ve seen skirt lengths go from down to the floor to a foot above the knees and back again. If I see a girl is showing too much skin today, I hand her one of my mother’s old shawls. ‘Sweetheart,’ I’ll say, ‘would you mind wearing this so we don’t see your belly button?’”
He pauses and laughs. “Wearing it once is usually all it takes for them to get the message.”
Whether encouraging shy teens to sign up for school clubs or developing ways for failing students to turn F’s into B’s, Collett never tires of the routine. Each morning, he’s up by 5 a.m. and at his desk by 7, ready to counsel any of the 142 kids with last names from A to G who currently fall under his jurisdiction.
“We check their grades every week and if anybody is failing, we put them on a list and call them in for a pep talk,” he says. “The biggest reward is when I get to take a name off that list. There’s nothing like watching a student graduate when everybody thought he wouldn’t make it.”
Collett,who has attended every graduation ceremony in Highland’s 56-year history, recalls helping one troubled boy who was failing every class, but is now a school vice principal, working on his doctorate degree.
“Sometimes, they just need somebody to believe in them,” he says. “I tell every student, ‘There’s nobody else like you. You’re capable of great things.’”
Over the years, Collett has taught everything from yearbook class to Russian — a language he knew nothing about but figured out quickly.
“When the principal asked me if I’d like to teach Russian, I thought he was joking,” he says. “The next thing I knew, I was scheduled to teach 32 students. So I signed up for a night Russian class at the university, then I’d come in the next morning and teach everything I’d learned.”
When the same principal promoted him to the counseling office after recognizing his gift for communicating with teenagers, Collett realized that the common sense his mother had taught him would only take him so far. So he signed up for night classes to get a counseling degree.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” he says, “for a guy who initially thought he’d become a dentist.”
In his black-and-white Highland Rams sweatshirt and blue jeans, Collett is a familiar sight at every football game (he hasn’t missed a game in more than five decades) and he’s usually the one taking tickets at the school’s proms and stomps.
“I love watching our kids enjoy themselves as a group and develop some school pride,” he says. “I like to sit on the back row and take it all in.”
He often thinks back to the first time he wrote his name on the blackboard as a new math teacher when poodle skirts and bobby socks were all the rage and boys were known to wear cardigan sweaters and skinny neckties.
“Neckties!” exclaims Collette. “Imagine that. If I stick around long enough, maybe I’ll see them come back in style again.”
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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column for the Deseret News since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.