It’s about the kids

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

“We don’t want you to retire,” yells second-grader Sanae Green as she hugs Principal Pete Harter, who is doing recess duty. Harter is retiring after 23 years as principal at Needham Elementary School. Second-grader Pamela Mendisco sits on top of the slide as Nevaeh Salas watches.

“Hi, Mr. Harter.”

If it’s your first time walking the halls at Needham Elementary School, it takes some getting used to: a young student eagerly greeting the principal. Did you greet your principal? Pretty sure I didn’t, and certainly not with similar enthusiasm.

“Hi, Josh,” Mr. Harter replies. “Did you catch the bus?”

“Yes,” Josh (not his real name) says as he continues down the hall away from us.

“Did you get to school on time?”

“Yes.”

“Did you eat breakfast?”

“Yes.”

Pete Harter, who is retiring as Needham’s principal after 23 years on the job, says he doesn’t know the name of each of the school’s 404 children. But you wonder if that’s not really true: He tends to underestimate himself.

“He makes all of those kids feel like they’re the most special kids to Pete Harter that day,” says Andrea Avantaggio, whose two children have attended Needham for a span of nine years. “He has time for every single one of them.”

Today, Harter is wearing a blue Mickey Mouse tie. He wears a tie every day. Has a couple hundred of them. Earlier this year, on the 100th day of school, he strung up 100 of his ties over his office window.

There are recurring themes, you’ll find, in the life and career of Pete Harter. There’s the tie theme. There’s also the doughnut theme – he can’t resist a good doughnut or birthday cupcake. He’s renowned for April Fool’s pranks. He annually allows students to “slime” his face with Silly String or sundae toppings or mud after they’ve completed the read-a-thon fundraiser.

Some know him as a fisherman or athlete or softball umpire. Or for baking pies or entire breakfasts for staff.

Everyone who knows him undoubtedly has his or her personal Pete Harter story. I remember him for the wicked tennis serves he blasted at me a couple decades ago, the kind that your first instinct is not to hit back, but to avoid. And for the cribbage games he keeps stealing from me (two during our first interview for this story).

However you know him, you’re proud to tell people he’s your friend.

Desperately trying to make connections when he arrived to teach at Fort Lewis College 18 years ago, Gene Taylor approached Harter about a project that involved FLC student-teachers helping kids learn to build birdhouses.

Harter sized him up, took a chance, and for the last 18 years they’ve joined on projects to build or rebuild everything from old bikes to a giant kiva made with paper sacks.

“He’s always looking for a way to do it rather than why you can’t do it,” says Taylor, a professor of teacher education. “He’s also a genius at getting out of the way and saying, ‘What do you need?’”

When Taylor walks into Needham, he sees excellence everywhere. And it’s all about making the kids better people and better citizens. Warning: Here comes what might seem like excessive gushing, but Taylor’s not alone in his praise.

“If I could, I would nominate Pete Harter for the Nobel Prize for peace, for all the things he does for teachers, for kids,” Taylor says. “He’s definitely one of the finer people on the planet.”

So how were we so doggone blessed to have this man delivered to Durango?

The road begins in Arizona, where Harter graduated from Chandler High School in 1966. He went to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on a football scholarship but ended up as an all-Ivy League lacrosse player.

With his geology degree, he spent three years working the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, scouting for minerals as an exploration geologist. It was an era of social consciousness, and the life wasn’t cutting it for him. So he went to Arizona State University and got a teaching certificate.

His first job was in Red Mesa, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation. “I was horrible,” he says. But he hung in and lasted four years there. Good thing, because that’s where he met his wife-to-be, Candace. Thirty-five years of marriage and three grown children later, they are still together. (Daughters Ellie and Hannah live in Washington, D.C.; son Jake works in Ignacio. All are Needham grads.)

Pete and Candace spent five years in Kotlik, Alaska, an Eskimo town of 600 on the Yukon River delta, where Harter served his first stint as a principal. The K-12 school made its own electricity and treated its own water.

Harter applied for the principal’s job at Miller Middle School in 1987. Instead he was hired as assistant principal, and after two years the Needham job opened up.

As he’s touring the classrooms, explaining about the programs and building improvements and teachers he’s so proud of, two youngsters pop out of a classroom at full tilt.

“Slow down, guys,” Mr. Harter tells them.

He’s known for giving away candy – Tootsie Pops, Jolly Ranchers – but it’s not the only time on the tour that he will play disciplinarian.

After 23 years, he’s an institution at Needham. A quickly growing arboretum on the northwest side of the school, spearheaded by parent Peter Schertz, Avantaggio’s husband, is named after him.

A reception Wednesday will honor Harter, but he’s not done yet, his résumé not complete. In 2012-13, he and Deb Jacobs are job-sharing a fourth-grade class.

“The idea of coming full circle seemed like a nice closure of a career,” he says.

There’s another theme: full circle. The fourth-grade teaching team at Needham includes Tiffany Miera, who grew up with Harter as her principal, her basketball coach and her mentor.

“He was just always so supportive,” Miera says. “He’s a great role model. ... He sets a community standard.”

Whether Harter continues teaching for more than a year is uncertain. He might find he’s having too much fun fly-fishing and hunting, or hiking in desert canyons, or being a “shade-tree” mechanic, or traveling.

He says he won’t miss being principal, that, at age 64, it’s time to step out of the way. Twenty-three is a prime number, he points out, and he’s not going to make it to the next one. (You do the math.)

Yes, he’s a popular principal, and yes, people adore him. But what you really need to understand about Pete Harter is why he’s popular, and it’s because every day he keeps in mind a universal truth about education:

It’s about the kids.

That’s in the forefront of his thoughts in every room he visits, with every child who thrusts a piece of artwork up for his inspection, in every teacher whose classroom he strolls into as a regular visitor. The education process – to see a child learn to read, learn to multiply, understand why bullying is wrong, just to see them excited to be at the school ...

“It’s magic,” Harter says.

Tana Sparks has worked as Harter’s administrative assistant for 22 years at Needham. She’s seen time and again how he puts children first, and how compassion is his rule.

“Needham is a reflection of what is important to Pete,” she says, “and what is important is making the world a better place.”

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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