Southwest Spotlight: Meet the dean: Dickinson native ready to hit ground running at Trinity
When he walked the halls of Trinity High School as a student more than a decade ago, Rev. Kregg Hochhalter never thought he’d one day lead the school’s administration.
After a dialogue with Diocese of Bismarck Bishop David Kagan began several months ago — and after arguably the strangest week in Dickinson Catholic Schools history — Hochhalter, who came to Trinity as the school’s chaplain in 2012, finds himself leading the students of his alma mater following a public announcement by Kagan on Friday.
“Trinity needs stability right now,” Hochhalter said during a sit-down interview Saturday. “We’ve had an unsettling surplus of administrators the past decade. Some people don’t want to hear that, but they should.”
Much is in limbo for Trinity students, teachers and parents. The school building is off limits for at least the rest of this school year after an early Monday morning fire allegedly started by Trinity’s former principal Thomas Sander, who is now incarcerated at the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center after being charged with felony arson and endangerment by fire.
In appointing Hochhalter, Kagan and diocese leadership are betting on the 29-year-old priest to be the rock the Trinity community needs moving forward.
Hochhalter doesn’t have extensive time as an administrator on his resume, but he does have attributes that might turn out to be even more valuable in the long run — a passion for Catholic education and the pride in his school only a former Titan could have.
“I don’t have 10 or 20 years of principal experience,” Hochhalter said. “I don’t have a Ph.D after my name, but I know Trinity High School and I know what it means to be a Titan. I have the passion, the desire and the will that our school needs. Titan strong cannot be taught.”
Standing a wiry 5 foot, 10 inches, physical strength isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when describing Hochhalter.
But looks can sometimes be deceiving.
An accomplished high school track athlete, Hochhalter was part of Class B state track and field championship teams in 2002 and 2003, the year he graduated.
To this day, Hochhalter said, running is still a big part of his life.
“What I remember about Kregg back then is that he was an excellent track athlete and a very good student,” said longtime Trinity teacher and co-head track coach Craig Kovash. “He was one of those kids who really loved track and field — loved the sport. We kept in touch over the years when he went away to the seminary and we would get together every Christmas when he would come home. I’m excited that he’s in his new position at Trinity because I know what kind of person he is and I know what we’re getting.”
Following high school — when he served as senior class president — Hochhalter said he attended Dickinson State University on a track scholarship.
“I was running at DSU and I was head over heels in love with the school and my friends and the clubs I was in,” Hochhalter said. “I was actually pre-med while I was there and I was having fun, but I was restless. I needed a change and the change was to enter seminary formation at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul (Minn.). It was just a logical next step for me.
“I had a serious interest in the Catholic faith and I ran track at St. Thomas, which is a male-female campus. I attended the seminary there, which was on campus, but I went to school and ran track, too. My life was different, but it was a really good bridge.”
Entering the priesthood
After receiving his bachelor’s in philosophy from St. Thomas and going through the school’s St. John Vianney College Seminary, Hochhalter completed another four years of major seminary in St. Louis before being ordained as a priest in May 2012. The only question at that point was where he would be assigned.
“Bishop Kagan ended up appointing me as the chaplain of Trinity High School,” Hochhalter said. “It’s always the prerogative of the bishop. I was surprised to go back home and serve as a priest. That’s something you don’t have control of. As a young priest, you go wherever they need you. I had mixed feelings at first, but it was a great gift having family close by and to, of course, come back to work at the school that formed me.”
At first, Hochhalter said he wasn’t sure how he would like the chaplain role, but soon found that he enjoyed working with young people on a daily basis.
“Your day as a chaplain is filled with teaching and ministering to youth, whereas, in a parish, your days as a priest would be filled with administration and working with all ages,” Hochhalter said. “I never had a great desire to teach, but I found great fulfillment in the classroom. It really gave me great joy. When the bell rang at the end of the day, I was at my best and I was very comfortable in my position as chaplain. I never thought about being in my current position until Bishop (Kagan) began talking to me about it in January.
“Through prayer and thought, and conversations with trusted friends, I just decided that, if God wants me to serve Trinity as the dean of students, then that’s what I will do. The popular vote at Trinity would be that stability is needed and I’ll bring that.”
Titans of stability
Along with recently hired Dickinson Catholic Schools President Steve Glasser — who actually taught Hochhalter at one time — Hochhalter said the Trinity community has a pair of leaders who are committed to the school and the city of Dickinson for years to come.
“I’m excited to have Father Hochhalter on as our dean of students at Trinity High School,” Glasser said. “He’s the right person for that job and I’m looking forward to having a leadership team in place for at least the next several years to come. Father Hochhalter has great leadership skills and people skills and he’s going to be great for our kids and our Trinity community in this role.”
If he hadn’t had a calling to the priesthood, Hochhalter said he would probably be coaching and training college track athletes. Instead, the Dickinson native is ready to hit the ground running as the leader of a school and community that needs all the strength it can get right now.
“The Catholic Church crafted education, historically,” Hochhalter said. “I have that support. But I also know, locally, what it means to be a Trinity Titan. THS has aided the Dickinson community for 50 years and, without her, the whole town would know something is missing. With my leadership, we’re going to do what’s best for the next generation of Trinity Titans, which is the next generation of this town.”