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About Utah: Q&A with former Kearns, Cottonwood principal Reed Wahlquist

Published: Monday, July 21 2014 4:04 p.m. MDT

Retired principal Reed Wahlquist in his Salt Lake City home.

Lee Benson

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a year or two now since he retired. His days are no longer filled with deciphering the teenage mind. His waking minutes aren’t absorbed with trying to put names to the faces of all 3,000 kids at his school. He no longer has to check to make sure the band door is locked before he goes home at night.

Nope. Time marches on for all men, even high school principals, maybe especially for high school principals.

Reed Wahlquist was in actuality a high school principal for just 11 years out of the nearly 81 he’s been on Earth.

But they were memorable years, made all the more so by the constant feedback he receives from the “kids” who were once his students who are constantly bumping into him a quarter of a century and more later, reminding him of the differences he made in their lives.

He “broke in” two high schools. He was the principal when Kearns High opened its doors in 1966-67, and three years later, when Granite School District unveiled the brand new Cottonwood High School on the other side of the valley, they asked him to take over as principal there, where he remained for eight years.

The circumstances surrounding his departure from the two schools couldn’t have been more different.

At Kearns, where he rallied the community and the student body with his hands-on, people-first approach, he was given a hero’s sendoff.

At Cottonwood, he was fired, done in by the same collaborative approach that worked at Kearns. The final straw was his acceding to a student petition to install a coffee machine in the school cafeteria.

True story. He put the machine in. The school board removed it — and him.

He finished out his career as a principal at three Granite District elementary schools before retiring at the age of 57 when his 30 years were up and he qualified for his pension. After that he worked for a computer firm as its HR director until he retired for good at age 65.

These days he spends his time playing with his grandchildren — six and counting — serving as a part-time missionary for the LDS Church in the Utah Salt Lake City East Mission, and continuing his quest to read every book ever printed.

The Deseret News recently had an opportunity to sit down with Reed Wahlquist and talk about education then and now.

DN: No matter how many years go by, you’ll never outrun that coffee-machine story. If you had it to do over, would you do it again?

RW: (Laughs). Well, if I knew I was going to get fired, I wouldn’t try it again. But I believed then, and I still firmly believe, that the only reason coffee isn’t sold everywhere in Utah schools is because of religious standards, and I don’t know how you justify that. I’ve never tasted coffee, to this day. I don’t use it and won’t, but the point is I should not be telling Randy Horiuchi that he has to keep the Word of Wisdom, and I shouldn’t have to tell a good Catholic, Frank Pignanelli, that he cannot have a cup of coffee because that’s verboten.

DN: Randy Horiuchi, the current Salt Lake County Council member, and Frank Pignanelli, the former member of the Utah House of Representatives who currently writes a political column for this paper?

RW: They were two of the students who came in and asked for the coffee machine. Randy Horiuchi was our student body president, and a good one — a very good one. They were both great students. They came in and said, "The (student) senate has voted for this, the student government has approved it, and can you give us a reason that doesn’t border on religion as to why we shouldn’t have it?" And I couldn’t. Anyway, that made me a radical.

DN: Any lingering bitterness?

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