It’s the last week of school at Hodge Elementary and Principal Mary “Sam” Kelley is briskly walking up and down the hallways.
With a pink mug of coffee in hand, Kelley greets families who’ve arrived at the school for one of two kindergarten graduation ceremonies. She high-fives students in the halls and calls out “good job.”
Kelley kneels down to hug one kindergartner waiting in a line before the graduates are escorted into the school cafeteria for the ceremony. She stops to fix the cap of another graduate.
As she makes her way back to the school cafeteria for the ceremony, she throws her arms in the air, shaking them from side to side, and does a little dance.
Once graduation begins, Kelley’s still hard at work making sure the microphone works, that students make it to the spot where they are to stand and fixing graduation caps. At one point, she stops to take in the names of students being called and occasionally runs back to take a gulp from her coffee cup. She hugs family members, poses for portraits, smiles and applauds the graduates.
While watching the kindergartners cross to receive their certificates, she imagines them as high school and college graduates “fulfilling their greatest dreams for a bright, happy future,” she says afterward.
“That is my hope,” Kelley says.
As the graduation ceremony concludes, she makes her way to a microphone. With her hand to her chest, she struggles to fight back tears.
“Thank you for sharing your greatest gift with me and the Hodge family,” Kelley told the audience. “Thank you for making my dreams come true.”
It’s among the final acts Kelley performed this week as school principal. She will officially retire June 13 after serving 12 years with the Denton school district and 28 years as a North Texas educator. She’s also worked in both the Dallas and Lake Dallas school districts.
“It just is the right time. My family needs me,” Kelley said. “Being a mom and being an educator, those are two full-time jobs. I had to decide which job I was going to dedicate my time and energy to.
“They both deserve 100 percent, and [at] this point in my life it’s time to dedicate ... to my own children.”
She and her husband have 13-year-old twins, a child who will enter as a sophomore in high school next year and another who is about to finish college.
Kelley joined the school district in 2002 as an assistant principal at Hodge Elementary. She said she was recruited by the late Rod Southard, the school’s principal whom she had previously worked with in Lake Dallas. Four years later, Southard was tapped as principal at Savannah Elementary School, and Kelley was promoted to principal at Hodge.
“I really didn’t want to be the principal, but it’s just kind of the way things work out,” she recalls.
Fast-forward eight years and Kelley says she’ll miss everything about her job. When asked to sum up her time at Hodge, it only took two words: “a gift.”
“I’m very grateful to end my career at this point,” she said. “I think we’ve had a lot of success here at Hodge for our children, our staff members, and those can be measured in several ways, but perhaps the greatest measure of our success has been the relationships and the belief in our ... children.
“I truly believe that education is the great equalizer, and to be a part of that, to have some impact on a child’s future, that’s a gift.”
Happy Carrico, head of school at Newton Rayzor Elementary, first met Kelley when she joined the school district. The two speak every morning by phone about how things are going and collaborate over work, she said. Carrico calls Kelley someone who’s gone the extra mile for students. Kelley, who Carrico refers to as her “confidante,” “supporter,” “rock” and “compadre,” is someone she’ll miss terribly, she said.
“She has a heart for kids like no other,” Carrico said. “Sam is out of the box. She’s willing to do anything.
“She looks at every single kid as an individual and uses the resources she has ... in order to give the kids what they need.”
How those from the Hodge community feel about Kelley did not go unnoticed earlier this week.
As a parting gift, one parent presented her with a green handbag of her favorite things: coffee, a scented candle, a gift card to a deli and candy.
Kelley’s retirement caught Becka Goad off guard. Goad’s teenage son is a former Hodge student, and twice a year, the two bring cookies and fudge to the school on early-release days.
Without Kelley, Hodge won’t be the same school, she said.
“I am so going to miss her. I really am,” Goad said.
She recalls Kelley going “out of her way” to ensure her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, felt safe and welcomed.
“With the Asperger’s, he was very withdrawn and socially awkward ... but [Kelley] went out of her way to help him blossom. He’s a completely different kid,” Goad said. “I wish her well in her retirement. She deserves it.”
Kelley said she looks to leave Hodge confident.
“I think I will be filled with gratitude, joy and confidence [that] I did the best I could do,” she said. “I’m leaving it in the capable hands of Dr. Patty Jensen, Kelly Francis and a dedicated staff. I’m very confident.”
BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.