After learning of and being saddened by River Falls School Superintendent Tom Westerhaus's impending retirement, a local resident who's served and worked with Westerhaus expressed her deeply held admiration:
I found him to be a strong leader, inquisitive when he wanted to better understand, compassionate when it related to matters of the human spirit, and humble when it came it came to taking credit. Tom is one of those rare individuals who leads from his heart and can relate to a kindergartner as easily as he can long-time school board member. He didn't take the impact of district- or community-wide decisions lightly and worked diligently to consider all points of view. His energy and passion were contagious and served this community well.
School district superintendent is a daunting title. It's like being a CEO of one of the largest and, arguably, the most important entity in our town.
In 2008 Westerhaus wasted no time showing that he was anything but a passive superintendent intent on cruising into retirement. He organized a weekend community summit his first winter here that drew well over 100 people.
The summit eventually broke into working groups that created a series of continuous and far-reaching goals that included the school district's first mission statement; a list of objectives for student learning potential, health and personal character development; and "strategies" ranging from school building needs and technological systems to instructional methods and accountability to the public. Each strategy was approved after a series of "action plans" was added to achieve success.
The River Falls district's Strategic Plan is not the work of one person. It's community driven. It's also a living, breathing document that's revised and updated each year. The concept, however, was shaped by Westerhaus. It becomes part of his legacy here.
Westerhaus also helped steer the district into adding what is now the hugely popular Community Education program that offers an array of continuous learning opportunities for hundreds of adults year round. On the other end of the spectrum, under his leadership, parents of four-year-old children now have a valuable early education option with half-day kindergarten.
Yet it's often during a crisis that true leadership shines. Soon after his arrival in River Falls, charismatic and respected Meyer Middle School Principal Greg Danke died suddenly days before the start of the school year. Responsibility fell on Westerhaus, the new superintendent, to console the school community and gently but decisively lead teachers, parents and students through the hardship.
Four years later an after-school auto crash claimed the life of a local teenage student. Next of kin were still being notified while an evening choral concert had begun at the high school auditorium. Word of the tragedy was filtering out through cellphones and social media.
School officials, including Westerhaus, had just been informed of the death. They had to react with speed and compassion. The concert was interrupted as Westerhaus took the stage.
He delivered the stunning news to all assembled -- students, children, parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends. While his words elicited gasps, sobs and tears, Westerhaus's calm demeanor and reassuring tone were just what was needed. There wasn't another authority figure in the community who could have shown more empathy.
More than just a school leader, Westerhaus quickly immersed himself in the River Falls community. One of his first public appearances was marching in the Friday night River Falls Day parade. He became involved with River Falls Rotary Club, sandwiching another early morning, weekly civic meeting amid untold day and evening obligations. Westerhaus is also an active member at St. Bridget Catholic Church where he serves as a reader on Sundays.
Westerhaus also faithfully pens his observations on educational trends and what's going in our local schools with a twice-monthly column for the Journal. His anecdotes and storytelling make for lively reading. The column name, "Your Public Schools: Everybody's Business," reveals the importance Westerhaus gives to education for all local citizens.
We're sorry that it will be soon be time for Westerhaus to depart as superintendent. He has a masterful way of making everyone feel valued and appreciated. His finely honed blend of passion, humor, intelligence and modesty all define the meaning of leadership. He won't be easily replaced.
We wish him well and are pleased that he and his wife will continue to make River Falls their home.
High grades for leader
The Journal's online poll question this week asked: How would you grade the quality and direction of the River Falls School District the past 4 ½ years under the leadership of Superintendent Tom Westerhaus?
Early grading results Tuesday show: A, 42.1%; B, 21.1%; C and D, 15.8%; and F, 5.3%. Add your vote by going to www.riverfallsjournal.com.