KENNEWICK -- Ralph LeCompte said he knew it was time to retire when he ran into a woman who knew him and said he was a wonderful teacher.
LeCompte thanked her and asked her who her child was. She said she'd been his student.
"I asked how old she was," LeCompte said. "She said 54."
The current principal of St. Joseph's Catholic School and the Tri-City native has worked in education for almost 40 years as a teacher and as an administrator in public and private schools.
LeCompte will oversee renovation of the school's old middle and grade school buildings this summer before stepping aside for Suzanne Siekawitch to oversee the school of almost 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Fellow educators, parents and administrators spoke to LeCompte's good nature and rapport with students as being the hallmark of his approach to education. They noted on his work with students with special needs or troubled backgrounds, students LeCompte said he sought to help.
"The honor society didn't need me," LeCompte said. "Everyone else did.
Born and raised in Pasco, LeCompte said his first teaching job was in 1975 in the Vancouver, Wash., School District. He started out as a high school social studies and language arts teacher but soon went back to school to be certified in special education.
He went back to teaching in Vancouver before returning to Pasco after his father's death. He became a special education teacher at Pasco High, where he found mentors in Ray Reynolds, the school's principal, and Salvador Beltran, assistant principal.
"(Reynolds) told me, 'You're becoming an administrator, and that's all there is to it,' " LeCompte said, laughing.
Beltran, a former president of the board of trustees for Columbia Basin College, said LeCompte was one of the best special-education teachers he'd ever known who went on to become one of the best administrators he'd ever known.
"It's his personality," Beltran said. "He's a very, very good person at heart."
LeCompte went back to school to get his administration credentials and served as an administrator at Pasco High and McLoughlin Middle School.
Then, Ron Williamson, now an assistant superintendent with the Kennewick School District but who worked with LeCompte in Pasco, was hired as the new principal at Southridge High. LeCompte said he leapt at the opportunity to be Williamson's assistant principal.
"It's not often you get to build a new high school, especially with one of your best friends," LeCompte said.
They started at the school in fall 1995, and LeCompte would remain there for 13 years. Pat Charles, a counseling secretary who was there for much of LeCompte's tenure, said students respected LeCompte and his firm but gentle approach to discipline.
"My son went here, and (LeCompte) called me a few times," Charles said, chuckling. "He went about (discipline) in a good way. He said (students) had to do things 'the Southridge way.' "
LeCompte retired from Southridge High in 2008 and began helping out at the parish of St. Joseph's and its school, specifically planning for a new middle school building. He formally took on school principal duties in 2009, overseeing completion of the middle school building dedicated Thursday. He said he always sought to live his Catholic faith, even while working in public schools, and never had to speak about it for students to notice it.
"If they can't see it in your example, it may not be as deep as it should be," he said.
But there are also examples of LeCompte's light-heartedness and humor, a recent one being during the school dedication. While setting up the PA system before the event, LeCompte went to test the audio and in the process began singing a stanza or two from Elvis Presley's Fools Rush In.
Siekawitch, who was the principal at St. Patrick's School in Pasco for the past year, said she's looking forward to her new position, as St. Joseph's is her home parish and she has two children enrolled there.
She also pointed out how she came to depend on LeCompte during her brief time at St. Patrick's.
"He was a really good resource and really open and honest on questions I had," she said.
LeCompte said he expects to remain in public service, perhaps in elder care or the arts. Either way, he intends to spend time with his wife of nearly 38 years, his adult children and his grandchildren.
"It's time to catch up with life a little bit," he said.