By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Dr. Paul DeZarn — or Dr. D as students fondly refer to him — doesn’t have any of the sternness people tend to associate with school principals. His bright smile spreads easily across his face and he comes across as warm and friendly. He could easily be a grandfather to any student at St. Raphael School from which he retired in December after 40 years at the helm.
DeZarn, 73, was a teacher and basketball coach at Trinity High School in 1975 when the principal’s position at St. Raphael became available. DeZarn says he had to be talked into applying for the job because his job at Trinity was so much fun.
“I don’t know where the 40 years went,” he said in an interview last week.
DeZarn admits that when he started his career in 1965 he didn’t know much about teaching, but knew he loved working with kids.
He brought that passion for working with kids — and a grand vision with him — to St. Raphael. When asked if he thinks he accomplished what he set out to do, his answer is a definitive yes.
“I wanted us to be a Blue Ribbon School and we did it twice. I wanted us to be on the cutting edge of technology and we are. I wanted teachers to have a weekly professional development day and we accomplished that,” he said in listing some of the achievements of the school. St. Raphael earned National Blue Ribbon designations in 1996 and 2004.
He’s quick to add that he couldn’t have done it without the help of Jean Ann May, his trusted assistant principal.
“I had the vision, but she knew how to put it together,” he said. “We were a great team.”
May, who is acting principal while the school conducts a search for DeZarn’s successor, said “He wanted the school to be a comfortable place where students and teachers would learn and work together as a community. He worked tirelessly to make it happen and he really did build a community here at St. Raphael.”
Mary Conner, the school’s office manager who worked closely with DeZarn for 15 years, said the fact that his retirement didn’t upset the flow of things at the school is a tribute to his work and dedication.
“He did such a good job hiring the right people, that even though he’s retired everyone keeps doing what they are supposed to,” she said.
Those who worked with him agree that DeZarn was known and will be missed as much for his achievements in moving the school forward as for the personal relationships he’d formed with his students and faculty.
Father Don Hill, pastor at St. Raphael Church, refers to DeZarn as his “brother and mentor.”
“He knew how to walk beside people, he knew how to walk behind when they needed to take the lead and he knew when to go first,” said Father Hill. “I think those are great characteristics.”
One of the best things about working with him, said May, was the “deep-seated feeling that he wanted what was best for the children.”
Father Hill recalled witnessing this first-hand during a meeting at the school.
“Three students came into the office with a proposal and everything stopped for them to present this idea and seek approval,” recalled Father Hill. “Their idea was listened to, respected and eventually carried out. I love that he empowered the children.”
DeZarn also had fun with the students.
“He connected with the kids; he wasn’t the guy in the Ivory tower,” said May. She laughed as she recounted some of the funny moments with DeZarn and the children.
He made a promise to students once that if they met a certain academic goal that he’d spend the day in the big old tree which stands in the school’s playground, May said. The children met their goal and DeZarn kept his promise.
“When the children went out for recess, Dr. D would throw candy down to them,” May recalled laughing.
This memory brings a twinkle to DeZarn’s eyes.
“The story goes that long ago there was an elm disease which wiped out all the trees in this area except for the one on the playground. The sisters prayed that this tree wouldn’t be harmed,” recalled DeZarn. As he showered them with candy during recess, the students chanted, “Dr. D in the tree throwing candy down to me.”
“Silly things like that mean a lot to kids,” he said. “Unless you become childlike you are missing the boat. You have to walk in their shoes. They are looking for someone to love them and make them feel successful every day.”
Ellie Crawford, an eighth grader who has attended school at St. Raphael since kindergarten, said DeZarn was always “ready with open arms and a happy smile. Whenever he talked to you, he made you feel like the most important person in the world.”
Her twin sister Carly said it was hard for any student not to be close to DeZarn because he made himself so accessible.
When asked why he connected with the kids in the way he did, DeZarn laughed saying May allowed him to play with them while she did the “trench work.” May agrees she was the disciplinarian and jokingly referred to her office as the “scary place”.
For 40 years he established and nurtured relationships with his “saints in the making” as he referred to his students, DeZarn added.
“There’s a Sripture in the Bible that reads, ‘May you live long enough to see your children’s children,’ ” said DeZarn referring to Psalms 128:6. “I’ve been blessed. For 40 years I’ve seen children born, graduate, get married then bring their children back to me at St. Raphael. To me, that said something.”