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Remembering a True Leader

“The principal is your pal.” That’s what an elementary school teacher told my class during a lesson on how to remember the difference in the spelling of “principle” and “principal.”

I remember thinking at the time how foolish that sounded. Our principal at North Chevy Chase Elementary School, while somewhat of a trail blazer in that she was a woman running a school in the 1960’s, was completely old school. If you had any one-on-one interaction with her, it was likely because you were being disciplined. She was not any student’s pal.

The dynamic wasn’t much different at Kensington Junior High School, but things changed dramatically when I got to Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in 1973. The principal was Mr. Jerome Marco. He not only made it his business to be a approachable, he would go out of his way to approach you. Mr. Marco may not have been your best pal, but you could talk to him like a friend. And he talked to you like an adult, not the 15, 16 year old kid you were. He was there to lead the cheers for the students successes and pick up the pieces when things didn’t go right. We were all upset when he left during my junior year to take over at Whitman, where he stayed for many years and built an even bigger reputation for his great leadership.

When my kids got to high school, I hoped there would be someone like Mr. Marco in the principal’s office. There was. Dr. Michael Doran arrived at Wootton High School for the start of my daughter’s sophomore year. He’d spent the previous six years at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School, which ironically, fed into Whitman where Mr. Marco was still in charge.

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(Photo: Andy Pollin)

Dr. Doran had a unique style which was shaped by the force of his personality. He could deal with discipline issues with the best of them, while getting chummy enough with the kids to steal french fries off their lunch trays. He knew the shy kid who sat in the back of the class as well as he knew the senior class president. He was at every game, every play, every concert and everywhere he felt he needed to be all the time. Which is why the void he leaves is massive.

As it reads in last week’s Washington Post, “Michael J Doran, 64, who led the Rockville high school for 12 years, was found unresponsive in the living room of his apartment and was declared dead shortly afterward.”

More than 3,000 people attended a celebration of his incredible life at Wootton’s athletic stadium on Friday night. About 25 students and teachers spoke about their leader and several performed musical tributes in the two-hour ceremony. They sang “Danny Boy” and performed “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” on brass instruments in recognition of Dr. Doran’s birth in Ireland and upbringing in England. It was kind of funny to see a man with that All American spirit leading a school who’s colors are red, white and blue and speaking with a British accent. But for a dozen years, he fit like a glove at Wootton.

The speakers talked about his competitive side. He even trash-talked during faculty-student kickball games. He cheered louder than anyone else at the varsity games – particularly soccer, which he had played growing up. Wootton’s longtime soccer coach, Doug Schuessler, told the story of Dr. Doran coming out of the stands after they’d won the state championship in 2012. “He came hustling across the field to me and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I thought there were a few mistakes you made in coaching.’ And then he broke out in that laughter and gave me a big hug and said, ‘Just kidding.'”

Dr. Doran could disarm just about anybody with that sense of humor. Some might say it’s easy to laugh when have a school full of highly motivated kids who know they’re going to college. The issues a principal deals with at a school in a wealthy suburb are much different than those in inner city schools. But there has been a string of tragedies at Wootton in recent years where Dr. Doran was a rock for a community that needed to be steadied. In June, two 2015 graduates died in a drunk-driving crash. And in the last four years, he dealt with a pair of suicides and another fatal car crash.

There was Dr. Doran’s philosophy of learning shared by several of the speakers. He would often say, “No significant learning can happen without a significant relationship.” Keep in mind, Wootton is one of the largest schools in the state with more than 2,200 students. Asking his staff to develop personal relationships with so many is a tall task. Somehow he managed to do it with each kid AND their parents. He was a remarkable man.

It’s been six years since my son Jeremy graduated from Wootton, so I’ve been removed from observing Dr. Doran’s magic. But I look my two kids who he looked after like they were his own and realize the great benefit they had of being under his watch. The background and confidence Samantha needed to go to law school and become an attorney was forged to some degree at Wootton. And it’s no coincidence that Jeremy has gone into education himself, working as a teacher in Boston. He couldn’t have a better role model than his high school principal.

I was lucky enough to attend two Dr. Doran-led graduations. He ended each with an Irish blessing that also closed the celebration of his life on Friday:

“May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and a smooth road all the way to your door.”

Thanks for the ride Dr. Doran.

 

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