COVENTRY — Principal J. Robert McDermott has been working at Father John V. Doyle Elementary School for so long that some of the school’s current teachers had him as a teacher and principal when they were students.
After 43 years of what his fellow employees described as devoted and honorable service, he’s decided to retire.
With tears in her eyes, technical coordinator and computer teacher Francine Adamo spoke not only about the fact that McDermott has been her boss for the past 20 years, but also her experience of having him as an educator when she was a child.
“I don’t think of this place without thinking of him,” said Adamo, who graduated in 1980. “It feels like it’s his school because he’s been here so long. He’s kind of like the head of our family.”
Fifth grade teacher Judy Burns also praised McDermott for making the school a “family environment.” She graduated from Father John V. Doyle in 1990 before landing a job there 14 years ago.
“When I walked into the building as a substitute teacher, it was as if I never left because he establishes a relationship with every child and always remembers them,” said Burns. “It’s a place that we love coming to day after day.”
Other faculty and staff members shared similar sentiments. Reading resource teacher Edward Emmott has worked with McDermott for the last 35 years.
“It’s going to be difficult to come back next year and not see him interacting with the kids or hear his voice,” said Emmott. “The school is just not going to be the same without his presence. The tone that he sets in this school is a testament to his faith.”
Jae Smith, who served as a teacher and librarian 15 years leading up to her appointment as vice principal about year ago, feels the same. She’s been impressed with his ability to connect with students since she met him in 1991.
“He’s all about the kids,” said Smith, noting that her three daughters graduated from the school and had him as their principal. “Whenever there’s a difficult decision to be made, he tells me, ‘back up. Look at the big picture. Do whatever is best for the kids.’”
That’s because the students hold a special place in his heart. While McDermott said it will be hard leaving his “dedicated and outstanding” faculty and staff, it’s going to be particularly difficult saying goodbye to the children.
“I’m going to miss the kids the most,” he said.
And they are going to miss him. Seventh graders Elissa Makhlouf, Jada Bassette, and Isabella Dilonardo said he’s taught them a thing or two.
“He always tells us that children’s prayers are what God answers most,” said Makhlouf. “When I see him, it just brings my spirit up.”
Bassette and Dilonardo agree.
“He’s very caring,” Bassette said. “He always says good morning to us and gives us high fives,” with Dilonardo adding, “he’s an amazing principal. He’s been around for a really long time.”
In 1971, McDermott was hired by Father John V. Doyle. The school was then known as SS. John and Paul School. He spent three years teaching math and social studies before becoming principal, and also briefly taught gym, as they didn’t have a gym teacher when he was first appointed. Previously, he taught at the now-closed Sacred Heart High School in Pawtucket for two years.
Through the years, he said, he’s watched Father John V. Doyle School flourish. He’s confident his replacement, Daniel Hodes, will continue to help the school grow.
“I feel the school is being left in very, very good hands,” said McDermott, noting that while Hodes is relocating to the Ocean State from Tennessee, he’s a Rhode Island native who attended local Catholic schools, including The Prout School and Providence College, as well as St. Michael School in Conn. “He has a lot of local ties. He is very impressive.”
But before Hodes takes over, faculty and staff, along with Father Paul R. Grenon, pastor of the school’s parish, SS. John and Paul, celebrated McDermott’s legacy. On May 25, they held a Mass in his honor, with a reception that followed. Many of McDermott’s former students were in attendance.
During the homily, as well as in an interview, Father Grenon commended McDermott for his commitment to the school.
“He has a great love for education, but also for each kid,” he said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic. “He spends a lot of time with the kids and gets to know them. They know who he is, what he stands for, and they respect him. He’s effective, but also well-loved.”
According to Catholic Schools Superintendent Dan Ferris, McDermott is also well-loved by other principals. Many newer principals, Ferris said, find good counsel in him.
“He’s wise and has a lot of common sense,” said Ferris, noting that the Catholic Schools Office nominated McDermott for the 2012 Distinguished Principal of the Year Award. “He’s a really solid educator. He’s brought the school into the 21st century, and has done so with an even hand on the helm. He’s not only a principal; he’s also a father-figure.”
McDermott, who has three grown children who attended Father John V. Doyle School, said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family during retirement. He and his wife, Paula, plan to travel to Colorado to visit their son, Ryan McDermott, as well as San Diego to visit their youngest daughter, Kelsey McDermott. His oldest daughter, Erin Washburn, has three children that live locally, so hanging out with them will be a priority, too.
In addition to family fun, he hopes to enjoy a few of his favorite sports, including skiing and fishing, as well as work on his landscaping business, McDermott Landscaping. He’s also considering becoming a consultant for sixth, seventh and eighth graders at St. Pius X in Westerly.
In the meantime, he’s cherishing every moment he has with his friends at Father John V. Doyle. He reminded them that he’ll still see them often.
“I only live a mile away, so I’ll be around,” he said. “This is my parish and I hope to stay very active.”
McDermott is one of several principals who are leaving their positions this year. The list includes Sister Jeanne Barry at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich, who is also retiring after 40 years, and Sister Carmela, principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Bristol, and the last religious sister of her order to serve in a 62-year history of Fillipini principals. Jeanine Fuller, principal of Warwick’s St. Rose of Lima, has decided to return to classroom teaching, while Jack Rezendes, principal of St. Margaret in East Providence, is retiring after many years in public and private education. Erin Finn, principal at The Cluny School in Newport, is leaving this year to pursue another path in Catholic education.
This is the first in a series of profiles on principals with decades of service in Catholic education in the diocese who are retiring at the end of the academic year.