Secondary Principal Larry Lechler starts his day at New England Public School before most people are even awake.
He's at his desk by 5 a.m., serving as the dispatcher for the bus drivers. He answers calls from parents, concerns about road conditions or mechanical issues with buses.
Then, as the students and staff start filling the hallways, he's there to greet them by name.
"It's important for the kids to see me in the hallways in between classes and the noon hour," he said. "I call the kids for lunch-they greet me and I greet them-that's the fun part."
Lechler's career as a New England educator and principal spans 52 years. He plans to retire this spring-graduation is May 20 and his contract expires July 1.
"One of my former students is a priest down here. We were talking last night-how many grandparents were my students? Quite a few. At graduation five or six years ago, 75 percent of my students had kids in the class-that was cool."
He started in 1966 as a vocational agriculture and physical science teacher and taught from 1966 until eight years ago-that's 40 years. Then three years after he signed his teaching contract, he also became principal.
How did he teach and work as principal at the same time?
"Of course, I spent a lot of time here," he said. "I was married and my wife raised four kids-three in diapers, and I thought I was busy."
A farm boy
Lecher grew up northeast of Beach and attended a nearby country school -Lapla School.
"That's where I fell in love with education," he said. "I didn't like weekends because I was away from school. So much of my learning was by osmosis. I remember in first grade listening to the teacher teaching seventh-grade geography. I soaked it up."
He went on to enroll at Beach High School and graduated in 1960.
"I loved every minute of it," he said. "I still remember my old ag teacher, Richard Schroeder-he was like a second father. I thought I'm going to be an ag teacher."
He enrolled at North Dakota State University and graduated with a double major in ag education and general ag with a minor in composite science. He student-taught at Medina, then had the choice of teaching vocational agriculture at Turtle Lake or New England. He chose New England because it was closer to the farm.
"The biggest surprise was working every night on lesson plans," he said. "I taught four ag classes and physical science. I had a major study hall and one period off."
As a vocational agriculture teacher, he said, "You had to know everything from chickens to flowers, to vegetables to hard red spring wheat, soybeans and veterinary science. You developed your own course of study. I knew chickens; my dad had sheep, so I knew sheep, and I worked in the hog barns that put me through college."
Lechler will always remember the sign in the teacher's lounge. It was a Confucius saying, 'Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.'
"That's why I love this place, that's why I've been here for so long," he said.
FFA kept him busy, too.
"That's what got me into vo ag. I loved the FFA portion because we competed with the other towns," he said. "New England has such great kids-we won over 100 state championships and one national championship. I'm proud of every one of them-each has their own story to tell."
Teaching was simpler then.
"Oh, my, I started on a typewriter," Lecher said. "Now it's PowerSchool. High-tech material zoomed over my head-that's another reason to move on."
Lechler has seen the evolution of the vocational agriculture curriculum from farm production to technology and and marketing. The students recently finished a shop rotation with welding and computerized routers supplied by the Roughrider Area Career and Technical Center.
"Ben Krebs (vo ag teacher) runs a tremendous shop-the kids love the hands-on technology," he said, adding, "When I started in '66, there 10 girls and the rest were guys, now its about 50-50."
Enrollment also has fluctuated over the years.
"When St. Mary's closed, it was a big bump for us, then the oil boom hit and that increased enrollment. Our biggest class was 50 graduating seniors and the smallest in 2009 was only 10 graduates."
New England also is proud of its international exchange program.
"Two years ago, we had seven exchange students, this year we have two," he said.
Lechler believes New England may need to build additional classrooms. Today, the high school has an enrollment of 113 students in grades 7-12 and another 170 in preschool through grade 6. The kindergarten class has 26 students and first grade has 29.
He also had words of praise for the staff.
"Our staff is excellent-in fact, I'd say one-third are former students. We are a close-knit bunch here," he said, adding, "We have strong community support-they are very proactive in education."
Lechler and his wife, Eileen are the parents of four children. Lori and Amy have elementary degrees and Lori continues to teach at New England. Jill teaches physical education at Mott/Regent. Their son, Stuart, died in a car accident while in high school.
Every one of Lechler's grandchildren have attended the New England school-two graduated and three are currently enrolled in high school.
When it comes to the next chapter, Lechler is unsure of what's on the horizon.
"I wish I knew," he said. "I'll be OK in the spring, summer and fall because I love gardening and I love the lawn work. Winter time could be a problem for me. I hope to stay busy and watch the grandkids in sports."
As for community clubs, he added, "When I first came here, I was working all day and didn't have time. I was not a community-based person, but that can change," he said.
He'll be missed in school.
"This school was built around this guy," said Ben Krebs. "Look up and down the hallways, you can't count all the FFA banners. When I go to FFA events, people still ask about him. I went all the way to Oklahoma, and some of the older teachers asked if he's still around."
Superintendent and elementary principal Kelly Koppinger-another of Lechler's former students-added, "We share responsibilities-what his strengths are and what my strengths are-it works out pretty well. He's a staple around here and he knows something about everything. He's very knowledgeable."