1 of 2
Lee Benson
Retired principal Reed Wahlquist in his Salt Lake City home.

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?

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?

We used to have truant officers to make sure you stayed in school. Now it’s almost to the school’s advantage to have the problems drop out. No one is really working to try to keep them in. They’re kinda glad when they leave, and that’s a tragedy. It shocks me that many of our high schools have a lower percentage of graduates today than we had 30 years ago. Lots and lots of kids are deciding in the 10th grade or 11th grade that they’ll just go out on their own. Graduating from high school is no longer a must in our society. That, to me, is unconscionable.

DN: Why isn’t more being done to correct this trend?

RW: Powerful voices in the state Legislature no longer fully support a free public education for "all the children of all the people." They are moving away from public education, and supporting private academies and charter schools, with entrance requirements established by the private schools. To whatever degree they succeed, there will be fewer dollars remaining for public schools that accept everyone.

DN: And money is always a factor?

7 comments on this story

RW: As most people know, the amount of tax funds being allocated per each pupil in Utah is the lowest of all 50 states. It is often pointed out that the high birthrate in Utah makes that necessary. "If we only had the money, we'd do much better." However, I've never heard anyone suggest that since Utah is a very large state in size and requires more miles of roads than smaller states require, we will therefore fund road construction and maintenance at the lowest level of any of the other states to compensate. Somehow, we always find the money, often through bonding, to pay for what we need.

DN: Obviously, education was and is dear to your heart.

RW: I grew up in Ogden and we had a Carnegie Free Library on Washington Boulevard. Right above the door was this statement chipped in stone: "In the education of its people lies the safety of the republic," by Abraham Lincoln. I believe that. I always have. I always will.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com