Retiring Zerkel

Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Retiring principal Alan Zerkel works at his desk during his last few weeks at North Putnam High School. Zerkel has worked in education for 40 years and has served as principal at NPHS since 1993. His final high school commencement speech will take place at the NPHS graduation ceremony on Friday, May 31.

ROACHDALE -- At 8 a.m. on Friday at North Putnam High School, retiring principal Alan Zerkel remained busy as ever going into his last few weeks as principal.

Students trickled into the office asking to speak with him, parents waited patiently for a turn with the man and Zerkel was fielding phone calls in his office all the while.

Zerkel maintains a selfless humility after four decades working in education.

"I'm just a guy that comes to work every day," Zerkel said with shyness akin to talking to young boy about girls, "I'm just very fortunate to be able to work with the quality of people we have on our staff."

If he'd been standing, one would expect Zerkel to be staring down at his shoes, kicking little rocks with a swinging leg, obviously preferring not to be the center of attention for "just doing his job."

And while he has seemingly "just done his job," he's also made an impact beyond the duties required of the position.

His warm and friendly demeanor is an unwitting charm and it's clear why students and faculty alike will miss Mr. Zerkel.

He is interested, friendly and playful with students as he passes them in the hallway, pretending to scare a high school boy walking through a set of double doors, asking a female student about her speedy recovery from an injury and teasing a student in the main office, asking the young man, "have you washed all my dishes yet?" as he passes the front desk.

It's clear the students get a kick out of his interest and his energy, each of them putting on large, effortless smiles from the interaction.

Zerkel has spent 40 years in education, having taught speech, English and directing plays in his early career.

He started on this path studying English, speech and U.S. history at Manchester College. He received a master's degree from Purdue and a Specialist in Education certification from Indiana University.

Along the way, Zerkel left the education field and spent several years working as a human resource manager before deciding to return to education.

While there was nothing wrong with the job, it hit Zerkel one day while in the Netherlands for work that he missed teaching and he missed the kids.

When he returned from his trip he began looking at positions, applied at North Putnam High School and was named the new principal in 1993.

And he's been there ever since.

Having spent 20 years cultivating an important role in the lives of the young people (not to mention the faculty) of North Putnam, Zerkel admits that it will be very difficult to say goodbye, despite having absolute confidence in his successor, Assistant Principal Jason Chew.

Zerkel points out that the success of a school does not lie on the shoulders of just one person, but on the multitude of teachers, volunteers, community, parents, students and everybody involved with the school.

"A lot of times they really don't get credit for what they do and they do a great job, they absolutely do a great job," he insisted.

With graduation in the coming week, Zerkel said he's got one more week of school, then another week or so to finish things up and that his last day will be sometime in June.

"And then I really want to get things turned over to Mr. Chew as quickly as possible so that he can get started," Zerkel said confidently, "Mr. Chew is going to do a fine job."

Having expressed the importance of the school working together as a team to achieve success, Zerkel also spoke fondly of the memories of his time at North Putnam.

"A lot of the memories, like working with the staff, has just been phenomenal, you learn so much," Zerkel reminisced, "watching students succeed in the classroom, that student who starts out with relatively low grades and then all of a sudden decides to kick it in in the 10th-grade year, it's just amazing."

Zerkel also remembered a young man who was barely able to walk from a head trauma and who, despite spending most of his time in a wheelchair, promised Zerkel that he would walk across the stage to receive his diploma.

"The year he graduated, he walked across the stage. It was just phenomenal," Zerkel remembered.

In addition to these memories, Zerkel continually spoke about the experience of watching young adults discover skills, talents, abilities and potential that they either never knew they had or that were cultivated with great success in their time under his purview.

"Just watching kids do some things that they don't think they can do, then they realize that they can, it's just neat!" Zerkel said happily.

When talking about what comes next, about what he will do when that day comes to turn out the lights and walk out the door one last time, Zerkel does great justice to his sincere humility, only half-joking when he says "Well, I have a lawn that needs to be mowed about four times to get it down to where it ought to be," through a chuckle.

"I know it's time to retire," Zerkel said soberly.

He explained that once he retires he will give incoming principal Chew some space, staying away from the school for a while to allow Chew to get started on his own two feet, although he swears he isn't going to just disappear.

"I'll be back, I'm not going to forget North Putnam at all, I'll be in the community," Zerkel promised, "I'm certainly going to follow extra curricular teams and academic progress."

"I've really felt honored and blessed to be a part of North Putnam and it is going to be hard so I may sneak into some ball games. I'll be way back in the back, 9:30 at night with sunglasses on," Zerkel said musing on his potential disguise.

If the playfulness and sincerity of Zerkel from one Friday morning can be used to forecast the potential impact he has made over the last 20 years in Putnam County, it's easy to imagine how difficult it will be for the school, as well as Zerkel himself, to say goodbye in those final hours, to turn off the lights on that day in June.

"I know I'll miss people," Zerkel said, as if there was any doubt about that fact.

For now though, Zerkel has plenty to keep him busy at his desk in the coming weeks.

He has a final graduation to prepare for, a final "Zerkel commencement speech" to rehearse, a final series of going away gifts from the graduating class and of course, a disguise to begin working on.

So next year if you're at a North Putnam ball game and you see a figure moving in the shadows, wearing big black sunglasses with a baseball cap pulled down low and covered in grass clippings, go say "hello," you may just find a familiar, smiling face.

View 4 comments
Note: The nature of the Internet makes it impractical for our staff to review every comment. Please note that those who post comments on this website may do so using a screen name, which may or may not reflect a website user's actual name. Readers should be careful not to assign comments to real people who may have names similar to screen names. Refrain from obscenity in your comments, and to keep discussions civil, don't say anything in a way your grandmother would be ashamed to read.
  • As a former Greencastle High School Principal, I had the honor to work with Mr.Z many times and can say in all sincerity he is one "classy" individual. He was a role model for me and the NP community has been fortunate to have had him for many years. Mr. Z.....thank you for all you did for me and come visit us in Florida. Retirement is great with 6 Saturdays and one Sunday each week!! Jim Church

    -- Posted by 4155573 on Wed, May 28, 2014, at 10:38 AM
  • I had the privilege of being a student at North Putnam, growing up in the area my entire life. I believe Mr. Z was one of the most influential, caring, positive people I have ever known. And he had a great sense of humor, so that always helps! It's sad to see him finally say goodbye although he will not be gone from the school forever. He has big shoes to fill. Thanks for being that someone who made my time at North Putnam a memorable one! Enjoy your retirement Mr.Z!!

    -- Posted by ChevyQueen25 on Wed, May 28, 2014, at 1:11 PM
  • Mr Zerkel you are you going to be greatfully missed by many I appreated everything you had done from when we lost Micheal his Senior yr going through graduation with out him but yet he was there was very had you and his class & staff was there with us to help us get through it I really appreated that so much you are such a great person that touched many lifes in many ways & you touch ours I thank you again for that .So Happy retirement Congrats on a job well done no go & relax take care of yourself and the family grandkids enjoy your favorite NPHS Cook Barb Robbins :)

    -- Posted by blrobbins on Wed, May 28, 2014, at 5:46 PM
  • You will definitely be missed Mr. Z! You have been an amazing administrator and very good with the students and public. Every single time I saw you, you were always smiling and very kind. You are the real deal! I wish you a very happy retirement!

    -- Posted by Sunshine507 on Thu, May 29, 2014, at 7:24 AM
Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: