Wyoming’s beloved principal retires after 40 years in district
Not a spot was to be had in the Wyoming Elementary parking lot May 22. Seemingly the entire city packed the school gymnasium, and the man in the spotlight seemed to know each person by name.
The gathering honored Mike Conway, who retires this week after 40 years in the school district, 30 in Wyoming and 24 in the principal’s chair.
Whether wearing lederhosen to a staff meeting or buying the entire school ice cream treats on his birthday, the Maplewood native’s passion for the job has never wavered. Just on Friday, he and a group of teachers tried to camp overnight on the school’s roof for a fundraiser.
Conway’s infectious spirit has made him a beloved figure over the years, said John Kay, a fifth-grade teacher who predates Conway at Wyoming Elementary.
“As far as a staff goes, he’s the best guy you could ever work for, from just being there when you need him to creating an atmosphere in our building of caring and not wanting to work for anybody else,” Kay said.
The public open house was only the first of many honors for the outgoing leader. The district held an in-house recognition event, and before Conway took to the roof last week, students sang to him during the school’s annual talent show.
“All the attention is not my thing, so it’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s very nice,” he said this week.
No looking back
Even growing up, Conway enjoyed the presence of young children, so it’s surprising that he nearly set out in a lonely farming career. It was only after a suggestion while in college from his then-girlfriend Rose (now his wife of 41 years) that the light bulb went on regarding teaching.
“I should’ve known it,” Conway said, adding, “But I never looked back.”
He came to the district fresh out of college in 1973 as a sixth-grade teacher at Scandia Elementary. After two years he was picked to lead a science center at the newly built Columbus Elementary. He moved to Wyoming Elementary for a lead teacher position in 1983.
Then came a crucial point in his career, as he became teaching principal in 1985.
“It was just a natural progression,” he said. “By then I was enjoying (administration) a great deal and it was a great transition. … I was still teaching and then I had my dabbling in administration.”
Conway in 1989 was the school board’s choice from more than 70 applicants for the principal post. Though his hiring came via a 5-2 vote, it also came after the hiring of another candidate was motioned and seconded.
“All of it had to do with the public and the community and the support they gave towards me,” Conway said of his hiring.
The move to principalship came as the school moved out of a building it had occupied since 1938 and into the current facility. The old school itself was unfit for its duty, but it was the heartbeat of the community and that was not lost on Conway.
“I believe the culture for (this) building really started at the little building, where we were very community oriented, very inviting, very inclusive of the community,” he said. “(The public) wanted to be up there. They were right in the building.
“It was just a natural. I liked that, so when we came here, that was kind of the focus we wanted to bring with us: keep it a small-school feel.”
That goal became difficult as enrollment swelled to more than 800 near the turn of the century. Students packed in portable classrooms, the band practiced in a hallway, and the school day was cut in thirds for kindergartners. Yet families were devastated when boundary changes due to busing routes eased the space concerns by moving some students to other schools.
“(The overcrowding) was OK, parents were so accepting,” Conway said. “What was tough is when we did the boundary change because we just didn’t have enough room, even with the add-ons. Parents were going to be going to Linwood and Columbus and Forest View. That was very difficult.”
Happier moments in Conway’s tenure include milestones such as the School of Excellence designation in 2010.
However, the father of two will most cherish smaller memories like the annual Halloween classroom parades or the school song playing on the intercom to rally the staff to a meeting.
Conway said his enthusiasm has been matched at every turn. The number of parents helping at the school once hit 40 per day and remains around 35.
“Everybody’s raising everybody, it’s that whole community thing,” he said. “You have so many parents in talking about kids, talking to kids.”
The result is an environment that can produce tangible benefits.
“I think the teachers truly respect the kids, and they realize that and feel that,” Conway said. “There’s just a common respect that seems to do away with some of the (need for) discipline.”
Much about Conway is well known and celebrated in Wyoming. At the open house, students honored his classic look by sporting ties and glasses pushed up on their foreheads. He is also reputed to know the name of every student. While that may be a stretch, it’s not for a lack of effort.
“When you’re with somebody, you’re with them, you’re not thinking of the next thing,” Conway said.
Even when that shared time is but a passing moment in the hallway.
So what’s next? That question has been posed to Conway regularly of late, along with requests for his time and services in retirement. The Forest Lake resident will stay involved in the community but will also take hard-earned time for himself. He and Rose have grandchildren to visit in Oregon and a cabin to tend to in Wisconsin.
He also might be found in his garage, working on projects that, he jokes, likely cost him double the amount they’re worth by the time he’s through with them.
“I like building things, I just haven’t had the time,” he said. “I’ve lost the energy.”
Being principal is rewarding, Conway said, and he will miss it. He takes comfort in his belief that the school and district are in good hands.
“It’s great to be leaving the district in such a healthy, healthy spot,” he said.