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Principal Barnum prepares for retirement

Rhonda Walock, left, and Lisa Hajek of Horace Elementary joke around with Jerry Barnum during his retirement party at West Fargo High School on Wednesday, May 7. Carrie Snyder2 / 2

Horace and Harwood Elementary Schools Principal Jerry Barnum thumbed through a colorful stack of drawings given to him by students in his Horace office on Friday, just one week before his last day of school.

His official retirement will begin in June .

The drawings show many options for Barnum to spend retirement. But, when he reaches one that depicts him fishing, dressed akin to a pirate, Barnum throws his head back and breaks into a deep, boisterous laugh, the one students and staff have heard echo down the hallways of the two schools for more than 30 years.

It’s Barnum’s laugh and singing voice that the school communities have loved to hear and strived to evoke. The longtime principal is known for his sense of humor, compassion, work ethic and ability to balance the load of leading two schools.

“I try to make them feel important, feel loved” he said. “I think they’ll remember that.”

To do that, Barnum relied heavily on one aid: his guitar. He credits the instrument as one of the greatest teaching tools available.

The 62-year-old said he made the decision to retire this year after saying final goodbyes to a number of friends and family who had planned to spend much more time in retirement than they had.

“We wanted to retire while we were still young enough to enjoy it,” Barnum said with sly smile.

He could have retired seven years ago, but he wasn’t ready. Being principal of two schools was not a job, it was his life’s work, he said. And while two men have been hired to replace Barnum at the two schools, he knew he never could have been a solo-school principal.

“I love them both,” Barnum said. “I knew I’d have to give up one and I couldn’t pick. It was always the communities that drew me back. You become very close to the people.”

The forever young at heart educator said it’s the students that have kept him that way, and one of the main reasons that kept him at the two small schools.

“A school community is really like a family,” Barnum said. “We share common goals, we nurture, we provide guidance for children who haven’t learned yet how to interact in a respectful way. We teach them how to be kind.”

Barnum grew up in Moorhead, graduating from Moorhead High School before attending college and later getting ahead of the (Vietnam War) draft and joining the U.S. military. After serving his country, Barnum returned to the Fargo-Moorhead area where he dabbled in other jobs including construction and truck driving. Today, Barnum retains his Class 1 license.

Eventually, Barnum answered the call to education. He said he saw the way the West Fargo School District was moving in to the future, with innovation and allowances for teacher freedom to try new styles and he was attracted to the district.

He started as a teacher at Harwood Elementary School in 1977 before becoming a teaching principal in 1983. In 1987, he became principal of both Harwood and Horace.

It’s hard for Barnum to settle on one thing he will miss the most in retirement. From his favorite school lunch meal of meatballs and gravy to hearing the daily shouts of students in the hallways or the long-term staff Barnum hired. One talent, he readily admits is that of picking the right hires.

“I’ve got a knack for hiring,” he said.

Awards and accolades line the walls of his Horace office alongside framed student notes and pictures, including one titled “Super Barnum.” Barnum’s “super powers” helped earn the school a “Blue Ribbon School” in 2006, a national honor that recognized Harwood Elementary as one of the best in the nation.

Barnum and his wife, Debra, are still settling on his plans for life after retirement. His students know him well, most of the handmade drawings show him or the couple enjoying his favorite holidays such as fishing or traveling. The couple plan to stay in the area, but will likely weather the harsh North Dakota winters somewhere warmer, perhaps Belize. While he hasn’t settled on a place, one thing is for sure Barnum said, it will be near water.

With just one school week left in Barnum’s tenure – the last day of classes for West Fargo Schools is Friday – many students were still asking if he was sure he would have to retire, some tearing up at the thought. In the meantime, Barnum too, is bracing himself for what he expects will be an emotional day.

Barnum plans to get through it with a lot of smiles, sincerity, and probably a little silliness – true to form for the longtime educator.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and and at CBS Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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