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Tom Kusler, center, principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Bemidji, will retire this summer after working 30 years for the Bemidji School District. He is surrounded by students from Lincoln Elementary. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

'He lets you fly': 'Principal Tom' says goodbye, prepares for retirement

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'He lets you fly': 'Principal Tom' says goodbye, prepares for retirement
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Tom Kusler hears the words, "Principal Tom" almost every day from students, parents and teachers who greet him at Lincoln Elementary School.

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For Kusler, working at Lincoln has been the capstone for his 30-year career in education. This June, however, Kusler will say goodbye to students, books and desks for a new life of retirement.

"The 'Principal Tom' thing - even my secretary calls me that when no one else is around," Kusler said. "It's an endearment. I maybe would've done the school principal thing longer had I known how much satisfaction I would get out of the job."

Kusler, originally from Pierre, S.D., moved to Bemidji to work as a band teacher at the Bemidji Middle School 30 years ago.

"My wife, then my girlfriend, who had worked in Bemidji before, said it was a beautiful town built around a lake," he said. "She encouraged me to apply. Once I was offered the job, it was a no-brainer to accept."

Kusler has been a music teacher and has served in multiple administrative roles in the Bemidji School District, including as assistant principal at both the high school and middle school. Eight years ago he started as principal at Lincoln.

In his office at Lincoln Elementary School, a sign which reads, "Principal Tom is making a difference," rests on the back counter behind his desk.

For him, Kusler said, making a difference in the lives of others has always been his goal as an educator and administrator.

"Certainly it's not to make a lot of money," Kusler joked.

Someday, Kusler said, he will know whether or not he had made a lasting effect on the lives of students and staff.

"I think I won't know until I have time to reflect on it," he said. "I want to be sitting in that rocking chair on the porch and say to myself, 'Yeah, I did affect people's lives in a positive way.'"

Most Lincoln students are not likely to forget when he visits their classroom and plays a song during class, which Kusler has been known for doing.

Music has always been a part of Kusler's life. When he retires, Kusler said, he will continue to perform with his country music band, "after 5." He said he also hopes to be more actively involved in Bemidji's community theater.

"Music is a universal language," Kusler said. "It doesn't matter what kind of music you like. It's all important."

Kusler said he has mixed feelings about retirement. While he looks forward to doing more leisure activities like traveling, fishing, finishing home projects and learning how to cook, he realizes there will likely be an adjustment period to overcome.

"I'm really going to miss the people," Kusler said. "It's the kids hugging you and the teachers I've worked with. I have a fantastic staff here. They're not only coworkers, they're friends."

Most importantly, Kusler said he hopes to give back to the community as much as possible. He said he has a soft spot in his heart for helping kids with special needs to succeed.

"Bemidji has really been good to our family. This community has always been supportive of education," he said. "If it wasn't, I don't know if we would've stayed. We live and breathe education."

In talking about the future of public education, Kusler said technology will have a big influence on what direction it will go.

"It changes how we teach," he said. "We have to teach kids how to access information now. That's going to change."

Kusler also said legislation will have to change, particularly with the No Child Left Behind Act.

"While I support it in theory - I do believe every child can and should learn - I think it's punitive in its design. It withholds money away from schools when they need it the most. It's counterproductive."

He added, however, he has faith that legislators will eventually improve standards for the better.

Now that retirement is less than a month away, what will Kusler miss the most? The kids, of course, he said.

Kusler said, as a student teacher, he remembers sitting in a seminar in college and hearing his professor talk about the teaching profession.

"(The professor) said, 'Kids will keep you young. There's no other job in the world where that happens,'" Kusler said. "And I know I'm going to miss interacting with kids a lot."

His lasting legacy at Lincoln, Kusler said, was hiring a team of staff who work well together.

"People tell me when they come into the building they always feel welcome," he said. "They say the principal sets the tone of the building, but I think it's a reflection of the staff I've hired. The building's pretty, but the staff is what makes it glow."

Mary Bjerke, parent involvement facilitator at Lincoln, was hired by Kusler seven years ago.

"In all honesty, I couldn't ask for a better person to work with," Bjerke said. "He's always open to new ideas. He lets people work to their level of competency. He's always upbeat and positive. I couldn't ask for anyone nicer to work with. He lets you fly."

Retirement party

Friends of Tom Kusler are invited to attend a retirement gathering for Kusler starting at 5 p.m. Friday, June 4, in the basement of Keg 'N Cork Pub in Bemidji.

Y awilliams@bemidjipioneer.com

Tom Kusler hears the words, "Principal Tom" almost every day from students, parents and teachers who greet him at Lincoln Elementary School.

For Kusler, working at Lincoln has been the capstone for his 30-year career in education. This June, however, Kusler will say goodbye to students, books and desks for a new life of retirement.

"The 'Principal Tom' thing - even my secretary calls me that when no one else is around," Kusler said. "It's an endearment. I maybe would've done the school principal thing longer had I known how much satisfaction I would get out of the job."

Kusler, originally from Pierre, S.D., moved to Bemidji to work as a band teacher at the Bemidji Middle School 30 years ago.

"My wife, then my girlfriend, who had worked in Bemidji before, said it was a beautiful town built around a lake," he said. "She encouraged me to apply. Once I was offered the job, it was a no-brainer to accept."

Kusler has been a music teacher and has served in multiple administrative roles in the Bemidji School District, including as assistant principal at both the high school and middle school. Eight years ago he started as principal at Lincoln.

In his office at Lincoln Elementary School, a sign which reads, "Principal Tom is making a difference," rests on the back counter behind his desk.

For him, Kusler said, making a difference in the lives of others has always been his goal as an educator and administrator.

"Certainly it's not to make a lot of money," Kusler joked.

Someday, Kusler said, he will know whether or not he had made a lasting effect on the lives of students and staff.

"I think I won't know until I have time to reflect on it," he said. "I want to be sitting in that rocking chair on the porch and say to myself, 'Yeah, I did affect people's lives in a positive way.'"

Most Lincoln students are not likely to forget when he visits their classroom and plays a song during class, which Kusler has been known for doing.

Music has always been a part of Kusler's life. When he retires, Kusler said, he will continue to perform with his country music band, "after 5." He said he also hopes to be more actively involved in Bemidji's community theater.

"Music is a universal language," Kusler said. "It doesn't matter what kind of music you like. It's all important."

Kusler said he has mixed feelings about retirement. While he looks forward to doing more leisure activities like traveling, fishing, finishing home projects and learning how to cook, he realizes there will likely be an adjustment period to overcome.

"I'm really going to miss the people," Kusler said. "It's the kids hugging you and the teachers I've worked with. I have a fantastic staff here. They're not only coworkers, they're friends."

Most importantly, Kusler said he hopes to give back to the community as much as possible. He said he has a soft spot in his heart for helping kids with special needs to succeed.

"Bemidji has really been good to our family. This community has always been supportive of education," he said. "If it wasn't, I don't know if we would've stayed. We live and breathe education."

In talking about the future of public education, Kusler said technology will have a big influence on what direction it will go.

"It changes how we teach," he said. "We have to teach kids how to access information now. That's going to change."

Kusler also said legislation will have to change, particularly with the No Child Left Behind Act.

"While I support it in theory - I do believe every child can and should learn - I think it's punitive in its design. It withholds money away from schools when they need it the most. It's counterproductive."

He added, however, he has faith that legislators will eventually improve standards for the better.

Now that retirement is less than a month away, what will Kusler miss the most? The kids, of course, he said.

Kusler said, as a student teacher, he remembers sitting in a seminar in college and hearing his professor talk about the teaching profession.

"(The professor) said, 'Kids will keep you young. There's no other job in the world where that happens,'" Kusler said. "And I know I'm going to miss interacting with kids a lot."

His lasting legacy at Lincoln, Kusler said, was hiring a team of staff who work well together.

"People tell me when they come into the building they always feel welcome," he said. "They say the principal sets the tone of the building, but I think it's a reflection of the staff I've hired. The building's pretty, but the staff is what makes it glow."

Mary Bjerke, parent involvement facilitator at Lincoln, was hired by Kusler seven years ago.

"In all honesty, I couldn't ask for a better person to work with," Bjerke said. "He's always open to new ideas. He lets people work to their level of competency. He's always upbeat and positive. I couldn't ask for anyone nicer to work with. He lets you fly."

Retirement party

Friends of Tom Kusler are invited to attend a retirement gathering for Kusler starting at 5 p.m. Friday, June 4, in the basement of Keg 'N Cork Pub in Bemidji.

awilliams@bemidjipioneer.com

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