Steamboat Springs Three days after moving to Steamboat Springs in 1993, Rob Dick was persuaded by Nancy Spillane to enroll his daughter in her new school.
Dick’s daughter had attended a private school in Wayzata, Minn., but he had no intention of enrolling her in Lowell Whiteman Primary School.
But Dick said he was immediately convinced that Whiteman Primary was the place for his daughter, who was entering fourth grade. He remembered Spillane was energetic, enthusiastic and exuding confidence. He called her an unbelievable motivator and leader.
The same day he enrolled his daughter, Spillane handed him a paintbrush to paint the white picket fence outside the school. Dick and his wife also helped clean up and organize the school before its first day. He became a member of the first board of directors, a post he kept well after his daughter graduated from Whiteman Primary.
Dick said Whiteman Primary isn’t just a place where parents send their children to attend school. He said the students, parents and staff become a part of the school. Everyone’s involved. It’s a family.
“The school should be named forever the Nancy Spillane School,” Dick said last week. “She started it. She created it. She ran it. It’s her energy that made it happen.”
Spillane, 58, the founder of Whiteman Primary and its leader since it opened 18 years ago, is retiring at the end of this school year. She told the school’s students, parents, staff and board of directors about her decision in November 2009.
She said last week that time has helped her get comfortable with leaving the school.
“I am getting there. I’m working at it,” she said. “Running a school has its challenges. As any school administrator, there are days you want to throw in the towel. Some days, I think this retirement thing may not be a bad idea. But it has so many rewards. It has been such a wonderful 18 years for me.”
A new start
The Spillanes moved to Steamboat in 1979 after living in Switzerland — where Nancy and Jim were married — England and New York. Jim took a jack-of-all-trades job, as Nancy described it, at The Lowell Whiteman School. He coached soccer and served as breakfast cook and bus driver, in addition to teaching algebra and world history.
Nancy Spillane also took at job at the independent high school, teaching Russian and Chinese history and typing, in addition to running the girls dormitory and leading senior class foreign trips.
The Spillanes’ three children, Johnny, 29, Katie, 27, and Sam, 24, were born in Steamboat.
When Jim was promoted to head of The Lowell Whiteman School in 1984, Nancy left to teach at Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary schools.
Tuesday morning in the library of Whiteman Primary, a building the students helped design before it became their school for the 1999-00 school year, Nancy talked about being laid off as a teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary School after the 1992-93 school year.
And that’s where the Whiteman Primary story begins.
Knowing she had to make a living to help support her family, Spillane decided she would home-school her three children and four others. Soon after the idea spread, she was asked to start a school.
Whiteman Primary initially was located in the old Steamboat Springs Police Department, what is now Cugino’s Pizzeria. Before the school opened, she got permission from Lowell Whiteman to use his name for her school, which isn’t affiliated with The Lowell Whiteman School located near Strawberry Park Hot Springs on Routt County Road 36.
She bought school and art supplies at garage sales. Spillane said she and son Johnny were laying carpet at 11:30 p.m. the day before the first day of school in fall 1993.
At that time, Spillane served as administrator, full-time teacher and fundraiser. It was a 70- to 80-hour-a-week job those first few years.
As Spillane thinks back on her 18 years with the school she built from 32 students that first year to 63 this year, she pauses. It’s not that she can’t explain what it’s meant to her. She needs a moment to compose herself. Her voice breaks and she wipes tears away from her eyes.
She begins, talking slowly.
Spillane mentions a Whiteman Primary graduate who visited the school recently before an eight-month bicycling trip through South America to promote environmental awareness. She mentions a student working in the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital in Denver. And she talks about a student who recently graduated with his master’s degree from MIT.
She pauses again. Wipes another tear from her eye.
“When I think about Whiteman Primary helping in some way to create kids like this,” Spillane said, her voice trembling, “then I feel pretty good.
“I feel that our teachers here work really hard to instill in kids that it’s important to be givers and not takers. For all these kids it’s not about making money, it’s about giving. We have lots of kids like this. Our teachers are all givers. You don’t teach kids by harping about, but by doing, and that’s where they get it. It’s really cool.”
Forever a teacher
In addition to her duties as head of school, Spillane still teaches part time.
Watching her Tuesday afternoon in “Time With Nancy,” a period at the end of the day when she met with fifth-graders to talk about their homework, their classes or just about anything else, it’s easy to understand why Spillane has spent 38 years as an educator.
She leads the nine students, who sit in a circle around a table, through a short lesson. They open a science textbook and Spillane provides tips about how they can anticipate what might be on a test by understanding how to read it. They talk about how the textbook differs from a novel. She asks students to read.
At times she’ll extend a hand to stop students from interrupting others, or politely correct their English. Spillane offers words of encouragement, like “good job” and “very nice,” to the fifth-graders as they read from the book meant for students three years older. She refers to the students as “my loves” and “my darlings.”
“I love what I do. I’m one of those lucky people who gets to come to work every day and do something special,” Spillane said, pausing again. “When you’re a teacher, and it’s not just Whiteman Primary, you get to be with children, and what’s better than that?”
Whiteman Primary seventh-grader Drew Williamson said he was disappointed when he heard Spillane was retiring. Drew said he was looking forward to having her as his teacher again next year, his last year at the school, and the first time since he was in kindergarten.
But Drew said he’s also disappointed because he won’t get to talk about the Colorado Rockies with her during lunch. He said Spillane had a lot of relationships like that with her students.
“She’s just been here so long and everyone’s been able to bond with her,” Drew said. “She’s just so nice.”
Life without Nancy
Whiteman Primary Board of Directors Chairman Alan Keeffe said board members have been crafting a plan for Spillane’s succession for the past six years. He said they hired a consultant who helped attract applicants from across the world.
Keeffe said a search committee composed of board members, a teacher, a staff member and two parents have narrowed the list of candidates to seven semifinalists who will be interviewed next month. Those semifinalists will be further narrowed to a list of three finalists, and Keeffe said they hope to make an offer to their top candidate before Thanksgiving.
He said the next head of school would start July 1, 2011.
“Nancy Spillane is the founding head of our school,” Keeffe said. “Because of that, the school reflects Nancy’s style of leadership. We’re looking for someone who can come in and create a new sense of community with a new leadership model that is equally impressive of Nancy’s.”
Debbie Gooding said she was persuaded by Spillane to leave The Lowell Whiteman School and join her in 1993. She’s been by Spillane’s side since then, first serving as administrative assistant and now as admissions director.
Gooding said Whiteman Primary has been a major part of her life. She said she’s been blessed to be a member of the school’s family the past 18 years, a time she called a wild ride that’s never dull. Gooding said Spillane has prepared the Whiteman Primary staff for a change, but it won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be very different,” Gooding said. “There will be a big hole. I’m personally not expecting anyone to fill that. There’s never going to be another Nancy. But she’ll always have a presence at this school. It will always be Nancy’s school because she started it and made it what it is.”
— To reach Jack Weinstein, call 871-4203 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org