RW: I’ve long since put that behind me. I have so many fond memories of my life in education — I’d do it all over in a heartbeat. After I left I spent about seven years at the computer company. It was a job that paid me well, and I worked hard, but I don’t have the warm fuzzy memories from that experience that I do as an educator. Hearing from former students all these years later, realizing that kids who haven’t seen me in 30 years or longer know my name and remember what we went through, that means something to me.
DN: How did you get those kids to respond to you so well?
RW: I think anything that I did really traced back to my dad. LeRoy Wahlquist was a farmer in the Uinta Basin during the Depression, and when he realized we’d never make ends meet doing that, he moved his young family to Ogden and went to Weber College. In lieu of tuition he was the custodian. He fired up the furnaces every morning and made sure the classrooms were warm. After two years, which was all that was required back then, he qualified to be a schoolteacher. He first taught in elementary school and then he became principal of Ogden High School and later assistant superintendent in the Ogden District for many years. He was an incredible man and very much a people person. I’ve always tried to be like that. A person who likes people, and people come before rules.
DN: You had a reputation as a principal who knew your students by name. How did you manage that?
RW: That first year at Kearns High, I remember I called Don Blair Studios, they were the photographer for the school, and I asked them for a set of all of the pictures for the next spring’s yearbook. They all had a name on them, and I memorized faces so I could call kids by their name. I didn’t get to learn all 3,000, but I tried. I’d walk in the library and I’d say, “Bill, I haven’t seen you in a while.” And Bill would say, “How do you know my name is Bill?” Anyway, I really worked at that, and I did that at Cottonwood, too.
And every time a student would ask me to sign their yearbook, I’d say, "Sure, but you have to sign mine, too." If I ever get down, I just open up those old yearbooks and read what they wrote. You know, they’re just good kids saying thanks for trying with me.
DN: You made it personal?
RW: Yes, and I did something else that I’d recommend to any principal. Every grading period I’d get a printout of the student GPAs and I would put them in a column and compare the grades from term to term. When there was a significant difference from one term to the next, I’d call the student in and say, "Mary, you went from a 3.6 to a 2.1 in one term and I’m wondering is there a problem I can help you with? "Invariably they would say, “This is freaky or this is spooky that you would ask,” because there was something going on and usually they would talk about it and we could try to do something positive about it.
DN: In your view, how has education changed over the years?
RW: A couple of things have happened. No 1., in what I call the golden age of education, the very best women went into teaching because that was essentially the only career available other than nursing or clerical work. They couldn’t easily be doctors and all these other things back then so we got the cream of the crop. Up until at least the '60s, we had wonderful, wonderful women to choose from. Then women’s opportunities opened up, good opportunities that paid way, way more than teaching does, with a lot less hassle.
As for men, more and more have quit going into teaching because the salary isn’t good enough. So we struggle. We still have a lot of very good, very dedicated teachers — don’t get me wrong — but the pool is so much smaller and qualified teachers are so hard to replace. When a qualified chemistry teacher leaves because they got an offer in private enterprise and we have to find a replacement, that’s extremely difficult, because there aren’t many.
DN: And No. 2?
RW: The second thing that’s happened is school is no longer THE thing that everybody has to do. I sluffed one hour in my school career and the principal caught me. My kids, who went to Skyline High School, sluffed all the time and it was no big deal. Everybody sluffs. To graduate with 50 sluffs, that doesn’t raise an eyebrow anymore. My kids were all good students and super achievers, but missing a class? Why not?
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