It was about four years ago that John Hett, all of 8 years old, got the news about his father, Carl. His dad, who had driven Bus 82 for Winfield Elementary School in Carroll County, had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. He was 36.
Not long after, Hett was sent to see Raymond Mathias, the principal of Winfield.
"I thought I was in trouble," recalled John, now a 12-year-old approaching man size. "When we got outside, there was a group of teachers standing with Mr. Mathias.
"I didn't know what was going on," he continued, and a smile spread across his freckled face. "Turns out Mr. Mathias had planted a tree in my father's memory. With a plaque and everything. It was really nice."
It was such another school day last week when John Hett got the news about his principal. Mathias, the man who had comforted him at his father's death, had been killed in a car accident not a half-mile from the school.
Nobody in the middle-class crossroads of Winfield can remember when a death has had such an impact on the village. In many ways, Winfield Elementary School had been defined by its principal and, in just as many ways, the school came to define the town.
A principal has a larger role in education than ever before. In Maryland's statewide testing, it's the school that gets a grade -- and the principal who is held accountable. The central bureaucracy that used to buy books and make budgets now cedes many of those decisions to individual schools.
But if principals are now CEOs, they also are still the human face of a school for parents, children and teachers. That's a lot to get right. Winfield parents and teachers say Mathias was a principal who got it right, and they talked last week about how he did it.
Perhaps as much as anything, Mathias' involvement with the Hett family -- John is the eldest of three children -- illustrates why much of Carroll County has been so touched by the death of Mathias: He was intimately involved not just in the schooling of his students but in their lives.
"He raised about $1,000 for us and gave us a lot of support," said Pearl Hett, the bus driver's widow. "He helped us get food vouchers, and he went to the funeral. I thought the world of him."
Mathias was principal of Winfield for 17 years. He was 52 when he was killed last Monday on a narrow country road, his car hit by a truck that apparently ran a red light.
"He was like a dad. He wasn't just a principal. He was your friend. With him, what you saw is what you got," said art teacher Cristina Gruss, who started her career at Winfield six years ago. "If he had moved to another school, I would have followed him."
She would not have been alone.
A job at Winfield is considered a plum appointment in Carroll County. It has been a place where many teachers, even the district's youngest, have hoped to work until they retired.
Mathias was the reason.
He walked the halls, visited classrooms, filled in for teachers, ate lunch with the students and played with them at recess.
He was happy where he was, apparently intended to stay there, and that continuity made Winfield different from many other schools.
"There is a unity here," said Angela Nunnelly, a guidance counselor who has worked at Winfield for 22 years. "I don't know exactly how to describe it, but I know that Ray is the reason it is the way it is."
He constantly entertained students and teachers, dressing as Abraham Lincoln, as a hula dancer, whatever the occasion called for, and he was absolutely unable to keep away from the school's public address system.
On opening day of the baseball season, Mathias crooned into the intercom system with a rendition of "Take me out to the ballgame." He forgot the words but kept on singing. At Thanksgiving, he hid under a desk in the school office, gobbling like a turkey to tease the children passing by.
"We work hard and play hard here," said Lesley Long, a mother of two Winfield students. "He set the tone for the whole school."
Long met Mathias on Halloween four years ago, when the children were encouraged to dress up. She arrived at Winfield and saw a man dressed in a tutu, tights, a wig and makeup. It was Mathias.
"It scared me to death," she said, laughing.
Other schools have eliminated dress-up days, parties and other social events. Mathias protected, promoted and participated in them.
Chuck Clark, a motor development instructor, says Mathias got it right because he never got lost in abstract theories of education and management philosophy. Clark once asked Mathias' opinion a management theory.
"He said, 'Always put the children first. Some people will disagree and say you should do this or that. But if you put the children first, you'll be OK.' "
Mathias put the children first, and the town put the principal on a pedestal. At the Westminster Bank & Trust branch in Winfield, an automatic money machine has replaced a familiar teller. There is corner grocer; most people go to the Giant supermarket. Paperboys no longer exist. Times have changed.
In places such as Winfield, not many other events besides the school day draw people together. And the principal is one of the most familiar figures.
"Schools help to define a community. We know where we live because we're near the 'Green Acres' school," said Thomas Sobol, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College. "In those situations, the principal is not only an instructional leader but sort of a community leader as well."
Mathias oversaw Winfield's growth from a small country school to a 600-student institution that serves as a regional special education center. He supervised a major renovation, went through one redistricting and was preparing to welcome more students to the Winfield community next year, when boundary lines would be adjusted.
By all accounts, Mathias successfully managed all the responsibilities of the modern principal, who is no longer the authoritarian figure of years past but a broker of sorts, who brings people together.
This inclusive style of educational leadership, though, does not relieve principals of the more traditional duties associated with running a school: completing teacher evaluations, calming angry parents and comforting crying children.
"Principals have to be a jack of all trades," said Charles Hausman, an education professor at the University of Maine who has written extensively on the role of the principal.
"They're expected to do it all, and they do."
Committed to pupils
Mathias was involved in all facets of the school, but he did not become involved to wield authority.
"He really wanted to involve the parents in the school," said Lori Crocken, president of Winfield PTA. "The community and the school became one under him, and he represented Winfield in every way."
When Patti Wall told her third-grader about the fatal accident, the incredulous child said: "But he was just in my classroom this morning."
Said Wall: "He was always in the classrooms, checking on the children and letting them know he was there for them. He knew them all by name."
Winfield historically scores well on the state's standardized tests. Last year, it was No. 1 in Carroll County.
"Ray must have really liked being with these children," Wall said, "because he stayed with them and watched their progress through middle school and high school."
When a former student who loved art died of an asthma attack this year, Mathias organized an artist-of-the-month board in his memory.
"That boy's sister was still a Winfield student, and it meant so much to her," Wall said.
At the school last week, while many students were asking questions, some were beginning to find answers. Whether they were milling in the schoolyard, wandering the hallways or gazing, hushed, in their classrooms, all thoughts seemed to be with Mathias.
"He's with baby Jesus now," said George Coon, 6, stressing his words with waves of his hands. "I'm sad that he died. I didn't want him to, but baby Jesus will take care of him -- he'll like Mr. Mathias' ties."
Mathias had a brown one with cars, George said, and red and purple ones with cartoon characters -- Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner.
All around came the memories.
"He always smelled good," said Nina Boston, 7, recalling his Old Spice cologne.
Said 10-year-old Michael Oberst: "Once, when I missed the bus, he came to my house and picked me up. My mom had called the school, and Mr. Mathias, he came to get me. He was the only one who could, so he did."
The gray-haired principal and sandy-haired boy talked about Michael's schoolwork on the short ride to Winfield Elementary.
"I don't remember everything we were saying," said Michael, his brow furrowed in concentration. "He asked about my how my parents were doing and told a few jokes. I remember we laughed. But what I remember most was that it was the red car we were riding in."
The red car was Mathias' Pontiac Grand Am, the one he was driving when he was killed.
Several of the students said they had left mementos at a makeshift memorial that has grown by the road where Mathias was killed.
"I left a card and a lizard that I made out of beads," said Carolyn Sunderlin, pulling at her black T-shirt as she spoke. "It made me feel better. I want other people to know I cared about him."
Mathias is survived by his mother, Margaret Mathias; his wife, Terry; a son, Chad; and a daughter, Heather, who is to be married in October.
They did not want to be interviewed, but gathered to answer written questions. Asked what his plans for the future had been, they responded: "He was where he wanted to be -- principal of Winfield Elementary School."
Polly Cave, who retired as the school secretary after working with Raymond Mathias for 16 years, remembered the day the walls came down as Winfield underwent extensive renovations a few years ago. Contractors razed much of the existing building.
"We all stood outside and cried just for the memories of what had happened there," Cave said. "Ray cried, too, because it was his school."
He started a tradition with the fifth grade that has endured. After a brief ceremony marking the end of the pupils' elementary school days, he tossed a party for them in the gym.
"It was a real party, too," Cave said. "They had music and a dance. The kids loved it. It will be really hard for the fifth grade this year."
It was during the farewell ceremonies that Mathias would read a poem about the relationship between adults and children, about learning to let go. It reads in part:
I see children as kites... The kite becomes more distant
and you know it won't be long
before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that binds you together
and will soar ... as it's meant to soar free and alone.
Pub Date: 5/18/98