By Elizabeth Riggs

On Friday, June 30, Mark Ward will walk out the doors of Ellicottville Central Schools for the last time as the ECS superintendent, as he officially hands over the reigns to Bob Miller on July 1. This week, the Ellicottville Times sat down with Mr. Ward to talk about his vast history with the district, various roles in the school, highlights as superintendent, and advice to others who are thinking of embarking on a similar career path. Here’s what he had to say:

ET: How did you start out at Ellicottville Schools?

MW: I was born and raised here, and graduated from Ellicottville in 1971. I went to St. Bonaventure and I came back after graduating to fill in as a long-term sub for a maternity leave from 1975-1976. Then the teacher got pregnant again and took a second year off. When she was finally going to come back, I was not going to have a job. The superintendent at the time was C. Clifford McLain, and he said to me, ‘Mark, my advice to you is make yourself indispensable.’ I’ll never forget those words. And then the board created another history position and I remained on for another eight years.

ET: Why did you end up leaving Ellicottville Schools at one point, and then coming back?

MW: I was here for 24 1/2 years until February of 2000. In 1998, the superintendent retired. I applied for the job, but did not get the job. I wanted to be a superintendent and it was clear that I was going to have to leave here to do it at that time. I got the job at Salamanca and was superintendent until August of 2004, and then I got the Superintendency of Olean City Schools until the end of 2008. In the fall of 2007, Pat Haynes, the former superintendent here, announced she was retiring. A few board members from ECS contacted me and asked if I would consider coming home. We worked it out so I could come home.

I probably was a better administrator by having gone to other districts and coming back here. Sometimes you just don’t have the staffing at smaller schools that you do at bigger ones, so I think becoming an administrator through a small school prepares you for the challenges of bigger schools. I was involved in everything. In a big district, you might be a principal but you wouldn’t even be near a superintendent so you wouldn’t get that district level experience, where at a small school you do.

ET: What does the Ellicottville school system mean to you?

MW: I went to school here, my daughter graduated from here in 2005, so all that time [that I was working at other schools] I was still coming back as a parent. I’ve been a student, a teacher, a coach, a principal, a parent and then ultimately, a superintendent. I even met Barb, my wife, here in the old gym in January of 1976. The school really has a slew of meaningful things for me. It’s sort of been the centerpiece of my life. It never was a job, it was a way of life. There were very few days that I came here that I didn’t enjoy being here.

ET: What do you think has made you a successful superintendent during your time at ECS?

MW: I’ve had such great opportunities with the boards I’ve worked with and for, and the great teachers. If anything, I want to be remembered for hiring good people. I feel I’ve always been a good judge of people. I’m proud of the people I’ve hired. It’s sort of a legacy because it’s a people business. People make the school great. That’s something I do think I’ve been good at. I’m very good at people. I’m easy to talk to. My interviews are like that too. I’ve always prided myself in that.

ET: What are some of the most important decisions that you’ve been a part of at the school?

MW: In 1986, we passed the elementary wing and built that. Before that, we had portable classrooms. That was exciting to build that. This capital project, the new gym and weight room and performing arts portion of the gym— it’s wonderful that we were able to do it.

It’s an exceptional school. We rank high in Western New York. We’ve improved over the time I’ve been here, but we were solid before I came. It’s a community that supports the school and that allows us to have small class sizes and have the best of technology so that we can pay our teachers a fair wage.

ET: What do you think has changed the most in your 42 years as an educator?

MW: The family has changed the most of any one factor. It’s more challenging than it used to be. Forty years ago, the father worked; the mother didn’t. It was like Leave it to Beaver or Mayberry. Life was simpler. Obviously, all the inventions and technology are a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because of the wonderful things we can do to it, but sometimes it become a detriment to kids communicating and interacting.

ET: What’s one of the most challenging things that you’d encourage the district to keep working on?

MW: Sometimes the support may not always be there [from the parents] and sometimes that’s because students who are now parents didn’t have a good experience in school. We need to continually work on building relationships with our families and our parents. I think that’s one of the things education needs to stress. We need to help parents understand that we are all on the same team. We are all pulling for that kid. Everybody wants the best for the child. Sometimes maybe we don’t always express ourselves the way that we should and I think that’s one of the ways we could improve. If those parents and families trust us and believe in us, we can go so far.

ET: What makes the Ellicottville district so special?

MW: We have around 200 kids that are open enrolled. People bring their children here because I think they feel that it’s a good school; that it’s safe, that we have a good staff, a good caring staff. It’s a family. It’s not just one thing. I think it’s the staff, whether it’s a cafeteria worker, bus driver, teacher aid – I don’t care what role you play in the organization, the people make it. The bus drivers are kind to the kids in the morning and make them feel like they are going to have a good day. We have high expectations for our staff and we have a staff that I think really responds to that. I think there’s a lot of factors that make the place special in my mind and in my heart.

ET: What made you decide that it was finally time to retire?

MW: There were things we wanted to do. I’d like to spent some time in the south in Florida in the winter. I’d like to perfect my golf game, which isn’t very good. You don’t know how long you’re going to live and be healthy. I’ve had a good number of my friends who have retired and it didn’t last too long. You see others in your circle of age and I think you have to be ready. I feel I am ready. I think it’s a feeling you get. I can’t really tell you what it is. I’m ready not to deal with certain things. I’m ready to try some different things. I’d like to get the garden going and read more.

ET: What do you think you’ll do during your retirement?

MW: So many people ask me what I’m going to do. To some degree, I’m not sure on that. I think I’m just going to have to feel my way through it. I don’t want another job. I’ve been blessed to be in a profession where you have a retirement. I feel it’s time now for Barb and I to do more things that we can do together.

I’ve had a great career. I’ll miss it, there’s no question. I can’t possibly have done this for this long and been this involved to just walk out of here on Friday the 30th. And then comes Monday – that’s going to be the weird part. The even more difficult part will be September.

ET: How do you think Bob Miller will lead as the superintendent going forward?

MW: Bob is ready for the job. He’s going to be an excellent replacement. He knows the district and he’s well respected. He holds many of the same values that I do, but he has his own, too. He will lead in his own style and he will be his own person and he will do an excellent job.  I have faith in his ability to take the district to the next level. Any place should be continuously improving. If the organization is the way it should be, it will just keep going, and ECS will for many years to come.

ET: What would you say to students who are thinking about a career in education?

MW: I would encourage them to get involved. I don’t think there’s a more rewarding profession than education. You’re dealing with the future. You have a chance to work with young people to guide them to get them to think, to encourage them. Every single child is a little different and that makes it fun, but also exasperating sometimes. They’re going to screw up and make mistakes. Some are going to be easy to deal with and others will be a nightmare, but that’s all part of it. I think that’s what makes it neat. We need great teachers. We need administrators and leaders for the next generations of children.
When you have a kid come back and tell you how much you meant to them or how you impacted their life … it’s pretty special. Not every field is like that. If you’re cut out for it, I would encourage anyone to get involved because the rewards far exceed the disappointments.

ET: How would you sum up your career?

MW: I’ve had a great career. I’ve had wonderful opportunities. It sure has been a great ride. It’s been a wonderful journey and I’ve had so many blessings that who do I thank? There are so many people that have touched my life. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently.