When St. Joseph’s Catholic School needed a principal, Kathleen Cleary was there.
In fact, she held the office enough times that she recalls one student commenting: “In my years here I had seven principals, and three of them were Miss Cleary.”
Now, the 76-year-old former nun is retiring from the school where she spent 26 years as a teacher and the emergency principal.
“I love the school. I liked being principal,” she said. “I liked being able to help the kids and I liked being able to make our school, whatever school it was, a shining example of God’s love for the world.”
Cleary’s career as a teacher started in 1963 shortly after she joined the sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a decision inspired by her experience going to a Catholic school in Los Angeles.
Wanting to emulate them, she joined the convent. After teaching in LA for a year, she began to travel the West Coast, including a two-year stint teaching at the Kennewick school and 15 years as principals at different schools.
I liked being able to help the kids and I liked being able to make our school, whatever school it was, a shining example of God’s love for the world.
Kathleen Cleary, St. Joseph’s Catholic School
When her mother became sick, Cleary left the order to care for her. After her mother’s death, she returned.
As she was teaching, a principal left, and St. Joe’s priest asked her to step into the role. She agreed, and filled the spot for three years.
Then, the school hired a principal who stayed just two years. She filled the spot for a year before another principal was hired.
The school went through a series of principals then, with the last one leaving at the end 2015-16. When Perry Kelly was picked to lead the private school, Cleary decided to stay on for an additional year to help guide the transition.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to let the school go through this again, where they get these new principals and they don’t last,’” she said. “I’m going to work with this new person.”
Kelly, a former music teacher in Richland and Kennewick, said Cleary helped him learn a position that is part principal, superintendent and minister.
“I’ve worked with many amazing principals and have learned from all of them,” he said. “Kathleen has definitely shown me how Catholic education has a little different heart to it, but is still based on solid curriculum and high standards.”
Part of the difficulty in making the transition is discovering that a Catholic school’s principal’s responsibilities are much broader then their public school counterparts, Cleary said. They are responsible for finances, fundraising, discipline, personnel, curriculum and even making sure the grass gets cut.
In her time as principal, Cleary remembers the fun times at staff Christmas parties or during field days, and the sad times when two of her staff members died.
“This is a place where human beings live and grow, so we have happy and sad times,” she said.
While she loves the school, Cleary said it’s time to step down. The school needs someone who understands how to incorporate technology into education.
“I just don’t have the energy to find all of that and learn all of that to be able to give that to the teachers,” she said.
The former principal will spend more of her time gardening, reading and praying, but she plans to continue volunteering at the school.
“This is a community that is willing to accept everybody and willing to work hard together,” she said. “It’s just a good place to be, and when you’ve given 26 years of your life to somebody you grow in love, whether it’s a husband or a wife, or a school or a team.”