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'A fantastic ride'

West Fargo High School Principal Gary Clark visits with students Friday in the school's commons. Clark was recently named North Dakota Principal of the Year by his peers. Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Trying to condense 40 years of service within the West Fargo School District into a single sentence wasn't easy for high school Principal Gary Clark, but he gave it a shot.

"It has been a fantastic ride," he said.

During a recent interview with the West Fargo Pioneer, Clark, 61, looked back on a career spanning four decades, and has made witness to countless changes and growth within both the city and school system. Clark announced his retirement earlier this year, and his replacement, current high school Assistant Principal Cory Steiner, will take over July 1.

Retirement was not an easy decision for Clark, who lives with his wife, Carol, in Horace. But now that the youngest of their children is about to graduate from high school - all three siblings are or will be West Fargo alums - Clark said the time was right to move on.

"After 40 years, it's probably good to let younger people with new ideas step in and take over," he said.

The journey begins

It doesn't seem all that long ago to Clark that he was one of those same young people. His career in the West Fargo school district began in 1971, as a fresh graduate from Valley City State University (at the time known as Valley City State College). Towing a history major and economics minor with emphasis on secondary education, the Valley City native was ready to begin a career doing what he'd always wanted to do: teach.

"I really wanted to work with young people. It was an exciting time for me," he said.

There was a "glut of social studies teachers at the time," he said, which made finding a position a bit daunting. But luck would have it that a teacher resigned late in the school year, thus opening a position at West Fargo High School.

The city of West Fargo was a lot different than it is now, Clark said. The town was much more "blue collar," as Clark put it, and even the high school was a bit rough around the edges.

"I remember, when I drove up to the high school, it looked like a rundown factory," Clark said, of what is now the Lodoen Center. "It was in tough shape. West Fargo kind of had a reputation as a rough school."

That's changed now, of course.

"West Fargo schools definitely have evolved into someplace people look up to," he said.

Clark was interviewed by the principal of the high school, Marvin Leidal, who eventually would go on to become superintendent of the district. By late August of 1971, Clark signed a contract and began teaching Present-Day Problems, a year-long senior social studies class.

"PDP, as the kids called it," he said.

The new gig took some adjusting, especially considering the small age gap between Clark and his students. At 22 years old, "I was barely older than the kids in my class," he said. "For a new teacher, discipline was a challenge."

In 1981, Clark began splitting his week between teaching and working as a part-time assistant high school principal. This lasted for another six years, until the new West Fargo High School opened in 1987, and Clark became the fulltime assistant principal.

It was not as easy transition for Clark, however, to move away from teaching and into administration.

"It was an interesting step. I missed the classroom," he said. "But don't get me wrong, I love my job. The people around here are top notch."

Clark worked as assistant principal until 1998, when he took over as principal when Mike Drew stepped down after 18 years in the position. Since then, Clark has kept busy leading one of the fastest growing high schools in North Dakota.

Big bang theory

Much has changed since 1971, and part of that has to do with the tremendous growth of the area. Growth in West Fargo isn't anything new, Clark said, but it has picked up the pace recently. The city and schools have come a long ways, too.

And as West Fargo grew, so too did its desire to be recognized as not just another small town.

Clark remembers the exact moment it happened: When the boys basketball team won the state title in 1983.

That year, the Class A tournament was held in Minot, and "it seemed like the whole city of West Fargo was there," Clark said. "There was unbelievable school spirit."

The Packers qualified for state by advancing through regionals as an underdog. A week later, they won the big show, and then the real celebrating began.

"We came back along I-94 and met people along the way," Clark said. It turned into a "caravan of cars like you wouldn't believe."

The title was West Fargo's first in Class A, and was a turning point for the school district.

"It was the beginning of an evolution of thought that 'we can do it,'" Clark said. "We're not just a small school anymore."

Strong school spirit and community support are aspects of West Fargo that have never changed, Clark said. In his time with the district, he said he can only remember one school bond that didn't pass besides the most recent attempts in 2009 and 2010.

"There were some tough economic times in the late 80s," he said. When a building bond referendum for the new high school came up for public vote in 1985-86, it was shot down. But the following year it was put on the ballot again, and passed.

The result was an "overflow of community pride," Clark said, when the doors opened in 1987.

"Both the schools and community have pride in having a small-town atmosphere," he said. "It's important to them to differentiate that 'we are not Fargo, we are West Fargo.'"

That same community pride can be seen today.

"The residents love their school, and they know education is important," he said. "

Life of leisure?

Clark said that, while his job was at times stressful, he enjoyed it immensely.

"Being principal is very time demanding," he said. Attending sporting events, plays, concerts and all forms of activities can wear a person out, but Clark isn't complaining.

"It's part of the job. I love attending events," he said.

While Clark won't be expected to attend as many once he's a retiree, there's a good bet he'll still make the rounds - when he's not in Florida, that is. He and his wife recently purchased a vacation house there, and plan on flying the coop once the weather turns sour during the winter.

That, and Clark said he'll stay active volunteering.

"I'm not going to sit around in a rocking chair," he said. "My wife and I will still be involved."

After 40 years on the job, Clark feels comfortable leaving West Fargo High School.

"We have a great administrative team here. They do a great job," he said.

One thing Clark is especially proud of is how many opportunities are available for upperclassmen. From dual-credit to Advance Placement courses, as well as a slew of co-curricular activities, "there is so much more to offer students nowadays," he said.

As he leaves the district, Clark said he wants to give credit where credit was due.

"My thanks go out to the staff I've worked with, the students, the school board and the community," he said. "My career has been very rewarding, and our community has been very supportive."