Ken Payleitner, whose death last Friday afternoon mercifully freed him from a painful and lengthy battle with cancer, about two weeks short of what would have been his 85th birthday, was principal of Harrison Street School on Geneva’s East Side for fully 32 school years—from August 1953 through June 1985.
By my very rough calculation, this means that at least 1,500 (probably closer to 1,800 or even 2,000) current and former Genevans, who would now range in age from their early 30s to their late 60s, were fortunate enough to have him as their elementary-school principal.
And “fortunate” is an understatement.
An adult’s sensibility tells me that there’s obviously no way Ken Payleitner could have been as personally invested in all those 1,500-plus kids the same way he was to the four children of his own—Mary Kay, Mark, Jay and Susan—to whom he went home every night.
But a little boy’s memory recalls that he absolutely, every day, made you feel as though he felt the same way about you that your own father did (if you were lucky). The same responsibility for your welfare and future, the same pride in your accomplishments, and yes, the same subdued irritation and ire when you slacked off or misbehaved.
Most basically, he always remembered your name—no small feat when between 350 and 400 children are pouring into your school’s doors every morning. You didn’t necessarily appreciate that fact when he caught you running down the hall—or, using a word on the playground at recess that you shouldn’t.
Forty-five years after the fact, I can still hear Ken Payleitner’s raised voice over the October breeze on the Harrison Street School playground, sort of a warm, reedy baritone: “Kurt!!”
Even when the voice was raised to be heard outside, though, he never seemed as though he was shouting. Nonetheless, I instantly knew I was nailed. I winced slightly as I turned around, and there he was in his mid-’60s narrow-lapeled suit and skinny tie, always with a slight smile and the crinkled blue eyes below the balding buzzcut, as he crooked his finger my way: “C’mere, son.” Running over to him with heart pounding, I felt the firm hand on my shoulder as he looked down and said: “Son, that’s a word that really sounds terrible, especially coming from you, because I know you have a better vocabulary than that. Don’t let me hear that again, OK?” He waited for a nod before releasing my shoulder: “Now go on back out.”
Cookie Olson, who was Ken’s secretary for several years, well after I moved on to middle school in 1968, related an anecdote that was probably repeated scores of times over three decades:
In the midst of an incredibly hectic afternoon, being pulled several ways at once by meetings, phone calls and questions from teachers and staff, the principal realized he had yet to deal with a sullen-faced third-grader, swinging his feet and seated on one of the green-vinyl upholstered side chairs in his outer office. The boy had been sent to the office by his teacher nearly a half-hour before. Cookie said that Ken walked over to him and deftly took care of the situation in less than 30 seconds:
“Son, look up at me. I heard about what happened." (He may have, briefly, or he may not have. Didn't matter.)
"You know that what you did was wrong, don’t you?” Nodding from the boy.
“It’s not gonna happen again, is it?” Vigorous headshake back and forth. “You sure?” A nod, even more emphatic. “OK. Go on back to class.” Beautiful.
In 1979, freshly graduated from the University of Illinois journalism school, I began my career with six years at The Geneva Republican, during which my workdays would frequently involve heading across town to Harrison Street School to photograph and cover some activity. More often than not, as Ken took me into a classroom, he would smile and tell the kids that the visiting reporter “was a student here not all that long ago!”
Superintendent Lawrence Beaudin had installed Ken Payleitner as principal at Harrison Street at the age of 26, after just his second year of teaching. Thirty-two years later, in May 1985, he retired at 58—sooner than he had planned. He strongly objected to a plan being put forth that spring by Superintendent Roy Turnbaugh to “rotate” the principals of what were then Geneva’s three elementary schools. He decided to hang it up instead. So ended a career whose durability you just don’t see anymore, and probably won’t again: In just the 26 years since, Harrison Street has had five principals.
I was not quite 28 that spring and nearing the end of my run at The Republican; one of my last feature pieces for the paper was an “exit interview” of my former elementary school principal.
Some of his observations were startling in their bluntness, and in their prescience. “One of the things that has made this job increasingly difficult has been the breakup of the American family; I see it at its roots,” he said.
When he'd started, “Ninety percent of my students came from a traditional two-parent setting, with mother as fulltime homemaker. Now it’s less than half, and getting worse ... here, the kids still mostly come to school clean, fed, loved, and ready to learn. But that is gradually changing—for the worse.”
(One of Ken’s concerns as he left the principal’s office in 1985, however, has turned 180 degrees the other way, for well or ill. Today, young people graduate with degrees in education into an impossibly glutted job market, and wait months or even several years before securing a first job. But in the booming economy of ’85, it was just the opposite: “If nothing’s done to help the situation,” he said that spring, “we’re going to have a teacher shortage that’ll make the shortages of the 1960s look like child’s play.")
I went to Chicago and elsewhere to other jobs, our own sons were born and grew; it was 16 years, and I was in my early 40s before I heard from Ken Payleitner again. It was 2001 and I’d freelance-written a column for The Republican about declining attention to proper punctuation, and how good my training had been in the subject, by my fourth-grade teacher, Ruth Ekiss, at Harrison Street School.
The day after it appeared in the paper, the phone rang after dinner—and it was the same warm, familiar voice on the other end: “I read that, and it was just great, son ... God, I love all you guys.”
Then, finally, nearly another decade later, Ken and his wife, Margie, stood—in some pain—in line at Malone Funeral Home waiting to pay respects to one of his former teachers, Donna Brizzolara, on the death of her brother John. I approached them and said, “Mr. Payleitner, how are you?”
His face was puzzled; he didn’t recognize me through gray hair, glasses and beard. I told him my name; he instantly beamed and wrapped me up in a bearhug—as warmly as he would one of his own sons. He then uttered a declaration full of selective memory: “What a sweet boy this was,” he said to his wife.
What a sweet man Ken Payleitner was. And how lucky hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of us were, to have him in the office down the hall—working for us, cheering us on, worrying about us, and setting us straight, for 32 years.
Visitation for Kenneth Payleitner is from 4-8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, at Yurs Funeral Home at East Main Street and Route 25 in St. Charles; funeral Mass is at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 6, at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in St. Charles.