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Life an open book for Cloquet principal

Cloquet High School Principal Warren Peterson gives one last commencement speech before his retirement at the CHS graduation in May. Peterson retired Friday, June 29, after 20 years as principal there. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 2
Warren Peterson and family demonstrate togetherness and the right attitude as they don orange jumpsuits to face the challenges of getting out of the Escape Room in Duluth. They did escape and are "on the loose," Peterson said. Pictured, from left: Brianna, Levi, Zach, Myrna Thompson (Suzy's mother), Josh, Suzy and Warren. Contributed photo2 / 2

In some ways, Friday, June 29, was a day like any other for Cloquet High School Principal Warren Peterson. He worked in his office and chatted with staff, conferred with Assistant Principal Steve Battaglia and more.

Except it was the last day. When Peterson left — after clearing out his office, both physically and digitally — he stepped into retirement and a new chapter.

The veteran educator will turn 59 years old in August. He said it was a good time to retire, even though he still loved going to work and the people and kids that he worked with.

"I just feel like I'm ready," Peterson said in an interview Monday. "(My wife) Suzy and I are healthy. We have four adult children — Brianna, Zach, Josh and Levi — and a nice place near Chub Lake. I like to run and workout. I have 100 books to read — today. It will be nice to have more time together and do our thing.

"It's an open book and that's exciting," he said.

Surviving a heart attack two years ago certainly played into Peterson's decision to retire, even though he made a full recovery.

That day wasn't exactly the usual, largely because Peterson had come to school early to play basketball with his son, Zach, rather than go running.

"For five years, I had been running every morning — along the power lines, in the woods, out on the roads — so I was alone, all the time," Peterson said, explaining that Suzy had suggested he go play ball with Zach the day before. "So we went in and I played for like 10 minutes and was waiting in the hallway for another game. I wasn't even tired."

Then he started feeling tingling and numbness in his arm, and his chest started to feel tight.

Peterson said he did not think it was a heart attack initially, even though his brother had died — most likely of of a heart attack — at age 41 and both his father and uncle had bypass surgery. After all, Peterson had done EKG tests and passed with flying colors each time.

"At some point, I thought this can't be what (a heart attack) feels like," Peterson said. "I'm in good shape. And I didn't want to go in there and flop around on the floor or something like that."

As the symptoms worsened, Peterson said he was almost too proud, too much in denial, to ask for help, even though there were people just inside the gym. He doesn't want others to make that mistake.

Peterson was lucky. Zach looked up and saw him, and realized something wasn't right. He ran to get aspirin for his father, and quickly drove him to Community Memorial Hospital.

It was a heart attack, one of the worst kind: a blockage of the left anterior descending artery, otherwise known as a "widowmaker." Peterson said he was told that most people with that kind of heart attack don't make it unless they are already at the hospital.

"If I hadn't listened to my wife, I wouldn't be here," he said. "You can think that it's coincidence. ... I think maybe God's not finished with me yet. I'm not sure what the plan is, but I was given a second chance."

Although he appreciated life before his heart attack, he appreciates it even more now, Peterson said.

"I think about all the memories over the last two years, from the heart attack to now, that I've been able to have with my wife and kids and family that I wouldn't have had," he said. "The graduations; visits with Brianna (in the Twin Cities); Marine Corps stuff (Josh and Levi are in the Marines); hanging out with Zach (a St. Louis County deputy); all the time Suzy and I have had to do different things.

"Two years — that's a lot of living," he said. "I really appreciate those experiences."

Peterson said the folks at CMH and St. Mary's Essentia Hospital in Duluth were wonderful, as were the emergency responders who transported him from one hospital to the other.

So were the folks at the high school.

"I had the heart attack on April 13, 2016," said Peterson, with high praise for his assistant principal. "I was there the day before and not there the day after and (Battaglia) didn't miss a beat. The people, office staff, were phenomenal and really helped a lot. But Steve learned quickly, picked it up and did two jobs. He had the skills. And he never made it feel like it was tough on him."

Battaglia will take over for good this time, moving into the principal position this week as long-time teacher and coach Tim Prosen moves into his role as assistant principal.

Peterson said the staff at the high school are amazing.

"I know you hear that a lot, but I saw it every day," he said. "The things that happened in the classroom, in the hallways between kids and teachers, custodians, clerical, paras ... It is a great place for kids to be, and kids to learn, get a head start on life. And I think Steve is going to do a great job. ... It's a great team moving forward."

For his part, Battaglia said he's learned a lot working with Peterson over the past three years. He shared three of those lessons:

• The importance of hiring talented people, supporting their needs, and then getting out of their way.

• Doing what works. Every building is different and theory is great, but do what actually works for the students and the teachers.

• Have fun.

"He really hammered on the work/life balance," Battaglia said. "There will never be enough time to do everything you want to accomplish. Of course, he usually told me this as I was still in the office at 6 p.m."

Finding his vocation

Peterson leaves after 20 years as principal at CHS, and a total of 32 years as an educator.

His elementary school teachers may have been surprised had they been able to see into the future because Peterson was not always the most well-behaved student.

"I was in trouble all the time," Peterson said, explaining that his mother got tired of his twin sister always getting home first. "I'd have to stay after school and sit in the cloakroom for half an hour or write on the board a hundred times."

Peterson told a story at this year's graduation ceremony about taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills when he was in second or third grade, and filling in the tiny "bubbles" according to whatever hockey team that popped into his head.

"'B' would be 'Boston.' 'C' would be the 'Canadiens.' 'D' would be 'Detroit,'" he said with a smile. "I would just fill in the bubbles, kind of playing little games, and finish and turn in my booklet. Thank goodness special ed didn't kick in for about another 10 years or they probably would have put me there. But I was just bored."

Peterson got to junior high and high school and started following the rules a bit more. Happily, he still loved reading and learning. He loved sports, too. All of those things led to his decision to become a teacher and a coach when he went to the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"I thought, 'Wow, I can make a career out of doing what I love to do and coaching things I love to coach,'" Peterson said. "I liked being around high school kids; there was so much energy. What a great way to go through life: Make a living and just love what you're doing."

Peterson's elementary school experiences also played a role in his career as a teacher and a principal.

"Through that I understand that kids aren't bad kids because they get in trouble, they might just have other stuff going on inside them or at home or whatever," he said. "That's where they need to see relevance of their education, to see why it's important."

Peterson talked about how the old "3 Rs" — reading, writing and arithmetic — need to be replaced by the new "3 Rs:" rigor, relevance and relationships.

"Whether someone is going to be a plumber or a doctor or a child care worker, they have to know their stuff," he said. "We have to provide rigor and a high standard for every kid, whatever it is they're going into. Really, it's built on upon relationships that kids have with adults and each other."

Although discipline is still part of the role of a principal, Peterson characterizes "100 percent" of his job as being about relationships. He tries very hard to maintain relationships, and said it's important to discipline as privately and quickly as you can, be firm, fair and consistent, and then move on.

"There are kids that come in that have done dumb stuff. It doesn't make them dumb," he said. "They've done bad things, it doesn't make them bad. We've all done those things. I think that whenever they come in we just address the behavior."

"I want a kid to maintain dignity and walk out and prove his or her life, not feel like there are clouds over them for the rest of their life," Peterson said. "I think our teachers do the same thing. As much as possible, move ahead with an intact relationship."

Moving forward

Retirement will give Peterson time to explore other relationships, and read all those books that have been calling his name.

He is especially looking forward to spending time with family, including his kids; two sisters, Joan and Wendy, in Mahtowa; and Suzy, of course.

The two West Duluth natives met while she was in high school and he was at UMD. Peterson was the assistant coach for the girls basketball team at Denfeld that year. After she went to St. Cloud State University, they got together and ended up dating for 10 years. When they finally married in 1991, they started having kids: Brianna in 1992, Zach in 1994, Josh in 1996 and Levi in 1999.

Suzy, who has a degree in social work and psychology, stopped working to be a full-time mother and homeschooled all four kids through fifth grade. Although he loves the public schools in Cloquet, Peterson said he wouldn't trade that time.

"In addition to all the academics, I think it helped bond them to each other," he said, recalling how the kids would usually be on the couch by 6 a.m., curled around Suzy, with her reading to them. "I think she's just the most amazing woman, who has raised our kids and taught them all of the academics that have given them such a huge head start. And instilled the values we wanted to instill in our kids all the way through fifth grade. She has just been the best partner I could ever hope for. She's amazing."

Suzy met Peterson at the office Friday at 2 p.m. and walked out with him.

"We retired together," Peterson said. "And now I'm excited to find out what's next."

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