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Lifelong learner

After setting her clock to the school calendar since she was 5 years old, Willamette Primary School principal Katy Mayer will retire in June
by: Jim Hart, Wearing her incessant welcoming smile, Willamette Primary School Principal Katy Mayer stands at the head of the stairs overlooking the school library. After 36 years in education, Mayer will retire at the end of the school year.

Katy Mayer has been going to school for her entire life, since she was 5. The last 36 years have been as a staff member of schools in two states and three countries.

But next fall, she won't be walking into her principal's office at Willamette Primary School. In her retirement, she may be basking in Florida's winter sun, helping to serve the needs of poverty-stricken Africa, volunteering to help kids who have had a death in their family (at the Dougy Center in Portland) or she might cook for her husband - an activity she says 'would be new and different for him.'

Mayer recalls seeing and hearing about some administrators who retired and became what she calls 'a basket case' for a few years.

'I'd like to skip that basket case,' she said. 'I have thought about that for years. I think my life (after school) will just have to evolve.'

Getting a handle on how retirement will change her life is difficult for this woman who cares deeply about people, especially kids.

'It's real hard to picture my life after school,' she said. 'I leave with great feelings about my career and the people I have worked with. It's a real privilege to be able to influence children's lives and staff members' lives.'

In her reserved way, Mayer answers the question of what has kept bringing her back to school each day by simply saying, 'It's great work.'

Then she adds that the work is so fulfilling that she couldn't stay at home.

'The dynamics of a school are vibrant, fun and exciting,' she said. 'No two children are ever alike and no two days are ever alike. Working here is an amazing opportunity to bring together people and set a vision for a school and watch all work together toward a common goal. I have loved it.'

Mayer says she feels like she has had a 'charmed career.'

'I have had the opportunity to work in wonderful school districts,' she said. 'This district is a dream come true - a real match for my values.'

A varied career

Mayer's career began in twos. Beginning in her hometown of Iowa City, Iowa, she taught special education for two years. Her next move was nearly halfway around the world to the west - to Japan, where she taught two more years. She then moved halfway around the world to the east - for a two-year stint in the Portuguese Azores - teaching children of military personnel.

Returning to the states, Mayer landed in Eugene for nine years, where she had a variety of assignments including special education teacher, teacher on special assignment to support special education teachers and supervising student teachers from the University of Oregon. She also served for three years as a middle school assistant principal.

Moving to Lake Oswego, Mayer served as principal of Uplands Elementary School for seven years. And then, 14 years ago, she became principal of Willamette Primary School in West Linn.

Memories abound

Over those many years, Mayer looks back and remembers most vividly the first class that she taught in Iowa City 36 years ago. And she remembers each (special needs) student by name and needs.

'Now I feel like I know more about them than I did then,' she said, 'because I have learned more about children with special needs and ways to teach.'

But she also has great memories of people who have taught her throughout her career.

'I feel very fortunate that I have worked with amazing people,' she said. 'I have been well mentored along the way.'

Especially, she says, she appreciates the way the people of West Linn and the members of the Willamette Primary School community pull together to help one another.

'And I very much appreciate the emphasis on character development in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District,' she said, 'and the emphasis on the value of people - the way the district looks at its people both professionally and personally.'

But Mayer appears to still be a bit apprehensive about the new life she is approaching.

'The idea of change is great,' she said, 'but the reality of not coming to Willamette every day, I know, will be difficult.'