Daily Reporter staff writer
REENFIELD — Theresa Slipher has been an educator for 38 years; but before that, she had a lot of practice teaching. Just ask her mother.
“My mom said I spent a lot of time playing school when I was younger,” Slipher said.
The story goes that all she typically accomplished in those playtimes was roll call. By then, the other children had lost interest in playing school.
But Slipher never did. Years later, as she prepares to retire as principal of St. Michael School, others in the parish would say she got far beyond roll call in a real-world education career marked by faith, passion and warmth.
“I think Theresa’s done a very good job promoting, championing, advancing Catholic identity,” said Deacon Wayne Davis, parish life coordinator. “I think that will be one of her enduring legacies.”
Seventh-grader Emily Royster said in an email that Slipher “helped put more faith in the school, like how she used the motto/Scripture for the year.”
Her mother, Katrina Royster, wrote that the principal was “quite receptive to many of the ideas that the parents had, such as the parent prayer group and some of the spirit activities. We could just email her our ideas, and we usually got a quick email back telling us to go ahead.”
Davis points to Catholic devotions for students, having different grade levels make rosaries, and service projects such as a Lenten fundraiser to provide clean water for others. He said each of these moments during her time as principal “gives a concrete reality to (students’) faith.”
“She’s provided the leadership to keep that kind of project front and center,” he said.
Not that there aren’t academic achievements to point to from her tenure.
The Rev. Msgr. William F. Stumpf, who served St. Michael as parish priest before transitioning in January to a post in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, points to the school’s Blue Ribbon status. He described Slipher as “a strong woman of faith” who’s committed to the education of children to the “very fabric of her being.”
“She’s one of those special people whose whole life is about making the world a better place for kids,” Stumpf said.
Stumpf remembers going to a school band concert in fall 2011, during his first week as priest at St. Michael. Slipher helped introduce him to the families gathered that evening.
“She was so gracious and made me feel so welcome,” he recalled.
Slipher said “Father Bill” helped her grow spiritually. She said the support of priests has been vital to helping her lead.
When Slipher was the newcomer to the parish, the late the Rev. Severin Messick was the priest at St. Michael.
“He was very, very good to me,” she said. “I think he helped me become a better person and a better spiritual leader.”
An Indianapolis native, Slipher grew up attending Catholic schools. She was part of the first first-grade class at St. Simon the Apostle School and later attended St. Agnes, eventually graduating from Lawrence Central High School.
By the time she was wrapping up her bachelor’s degree at Indiana University in the late 1970s, Slipher “pretty much knew then” she wanted to teach in a Catholic school.
“I wanted to have the opportunity to share my faith in the classroom,” she said.
She began teaching at St. Joan of Arc in 1978, later earning an administrative license and becoming a principal. From there she led Little Flower for three years before coming to St. Michael in 2002.
Over her years as an educator, she’s kept in touch with former students; among them are attorneys, a recruiter for the New England Patriots football team and a priest-in-training who anticipates being ordained in about a year. She is perhaps proudest of that last young man, recalling some of his early reading struggles and how “his perseverance has seen him through.”
One former St. Michael student is the youngest of Slipher’s children. He’s a college sophomore now. Today, a grandson attends the preschool. He’s one of 278 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade attending the school.
Slipher hopes retirement will afford more time for her four children and six grandchildren, as well as her mother, who lives close to her. Even though she hopes to return to teaching, she will be relieved of much of the meeting schedule that could keep her from home until about 10 p.m.
Having navigated that schedule for 13 years, Slipher is packing up her office (“Years of memories don’t fit into one box,” she quips to a visitor.) and looking forward to a retirement/birthday party her family has planned for her. After school concludes Thursday, she’ll look forward to a vacation to Hawaii with her mother and sisters this summer.
She’ll leave behind not only the legacy Davis spoke of but also some help for her successor.
“Here’s my book for him or her,” she said, holding up a spiral-bound notebook.
A search committee interviewed teachers, parents and other parishioners during its process of reviewing applications. The committee is narrowing the list of hopefuls; Davis hopes to, in consultation with that committee, select a principal by month’s end.
Slipher said the person chosen will find a school where “the parents are very supportive. The children are genuinely invested and try to do their best, and it shows.”