By Dana Trumbull
2017/18 has been a year of change at Apache Junction Unified School District. 2018/19 promises to continue the trend. But as the saying goes, “The only constant is change.” With 466 collective years of service to our community between them, that’s a story that can be told in many ways by the 17 long-term employees who are retiring from the district this year.
“It’s hard to imagine how much has changed in the past 32 years since I started working at AJUSD,” said Denise Gabrielsen, the administrative assistant who teamed up with Principal Larry LaPrise to open Peralta Trail Elementary and continued with him when he took over at Cactus Canyon Junior High and then Apache Junction High School. “I got to witness a class that began in kindergarten at PTES and followed them all the way to graduation this year. And I was able to see former Four Peaks students enroll children of their own at the high school.”
“I have been through 5 superintendents and 9 principals,” related Nancy Johnson, who retired with 35 years behind her. Johnson started as an aide at Four Peaks, but was quickly picked up at AJHS as the attendance clerk, then segued into the position of principal’s secretary at AJHS, where she remained for 19 years.
The next 15 years were spent as the AJHS bookstore manager, with additional duties as registration secretary recently added in one of the many job combinations necessitated by budget cuts. “I would have never chosen a better job than working in the district. It was like my family. I think I made an impact on many students; I could not wait to come back after breaks to hear what all the kids did over break.”
That sense of family permeates the comments from many of the retirees. Shelly Verley, is a 31 year veteran who attended AJUSD from the age of 12 to graduation in 1982. After college, she was hired as a teacher for AJUSD and taught for 25 years before becoming the school counselor at Desert Vista Elementary.
“[I have] many fond memories… as in thousands!” she reminisced. “I think they all boil down to the sense of family in this district. I love running into former students and having them tell me their favorite part of being in my class: the parties they earned or painting suncatchers on the last day of school as a memento…
“I also love that my own boys went to Desert Vista while I was there and have friendships lasting into adulthood that were formed on that campus.”
With 42 years under her belt, Patty Smith (SAIS technology coordinator, not the Desert Vista principal – although they often received each others’ emails) has also moved through a number of positions. “I began my career at AJUSD in August, 1976, as a teacher at Apache Junction Junior High teaching Home Economics,” she related. “My favorite class was Bachelor Survival with 15 junior high boys. They loved sewing aprons and eating all the food they prepared!
“In the fall of 1979, I became a school counselor and spent the next 26 years working at AJHS, AJ Junior High and Four Peaks Elementary. In the summer of 2005, I took over the job of reporting data to the Department of Education for funding purposes.
“My 42 years working for AJUSD have been very rewarding,” she continued. “One of my greatest pleasures has been watching students attend AJUSD over the years, graduate, pursue many meaningful careers and now, their children are students in our district.”
AJHS NJROTC teacher and mentor for 15 years, Major William Parker is also among those retiring. “Saying goodbye… was one of the most emotional experiences that I have had in my life,” he said. “Hanging up my uniform after 44 years is tough. Leaving our cadets and the Prospector community is almost unbearable. You cannot imagine the joy and pride I have experienced in seeing my students succeed and go on to rewarding careers.”
So where will these hard working folks go now? What will they do? Not all of them will leave education. Connie Earl, an AJUSD employee for 22 years, plans to stay involved, “My first retirement plans are on hold as the #redfored movement has been and may hopefully continue to be a game changer for education. I’m excited, nervous and very tired. After a much needed rest, I will be back and ready to take on the world!”
Senior Chief David Patti (AJHS ROTC, 12 years) will be moving to greener pastures… literally. “I have accepted the NJROTC Naval Science Instructor position at Hot Springs High School [Arkansas]. I will miss AJHS, where I have been the last twelve years. They are truly a family community. But I am looking forward to buying a house on a lake and being able to walk to my boat.”
Johnson hasn’t yet decided what she will do, but, “I do know it will have to involve kids. No matter what, I will always be a Prospector.”
Verley smiled, “I have a new grandbaby that needs a full-time babysitter right now. In a few years, when he goes off to preschool, who knows? You may see me back in the halls of AJUSD yet again!”
Major Parker gave the best parting advice: “No matter where you go, never forget where you came from! That is and forever will be your greatest strength.”
A reception was held at the AJUSD District Office to recognize the retirees, district-wide.
“It was a bittersweet experience to say goodbye to the dedicated staff members who are retiring,” said Superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson. “We value the loyalty, integrity and passion they have for educating our kids. They will be missed.”
Photo above: In a bitter-sweet celebration, AJUSD bid farewell to several teachers and staff. In attendance were (L-R): Sr. Chief David Patti, Major William Parker, Pam Turner, Patty Smith, Shelly Verley, Jamie Kenley, Dr. Steve Hughes and Connie Earl.