Updated: Apr 30, 2019
From an underachieving high school senior to a prestigious award recipient, Dick Young’s story shows how education can change a life.
When Dick Young heard that the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) had chosen him to receive the 2018 President’s Award, he almost didn’t go to the ceremony. He asked if they could just send it to him in the mail. And even when NYSSBA President Bill Miller and Young’s wife, Peggy Young, prevailed upon him to make the trip to the association’s annual convention in New York City in October to accept the award, he still didn’t want to tell anyone but his immediate family. In his mind, he had just been doing his job the best he could for the kids. “I don’t care about getting the attention,” he said. “I like putting kids in the front.”
But his dedication and hard work as a special education teacher, a school principal, and a district superintendent had not gone unnoticed by the people around him. Miller, now also a member of the Herkimer BOCES school board, had served as president of the Mount Markham school board for six years while Young was superintendent there.
“There is nobody else in my mind I would select for this award,” said Miller. Given annually to, “an individual who has made significant contributions to state public education,” the recipient is chosen by the current President of the Board. Among past recipients have been New York governors, US senators, and founders of charitable organizations.
“He was the perfect choice,” Miller said. “I can think of other people who meet the criteria, but Dick excelled past it.”
Growing up near Cedarville, NY, Young and his twin brother Dan were the youngest of 15 children. They had all attended West Winfield Central School in the 1950s and ‘60s and none of the siblings had gone to college. “We never talked about it at home. It just wasn’t an expectation,” Young said. “When they got out of high school my sisters got married. My brothers went to work or went into the service. That was it.”
In high school, Young was an outstanding football player, but not too concerned with academics. “I didn’t do anything to go to college. I did the least you could do to graduate from high school.” But in his senior year, two teachers put Young’s life on a completely different path. Don Chirlin and Frank Super saw his potential and said, “You are going to go to college. You’re going to continue to play football,” Young recalls.
But before he could win a college acceptance, he needed to tune up his academic record. Chirlin recommended The Manlius School. Now Manlius Pebble Hill School, in the ‘60s it was a private military school with a two-year program for high school athletes who had graduated but needed better academic preparation for college. The tuition was $3000 a year.
“It could have cost $30 a year and I still wouldn’t have been able to pay for it,” Young said. “And I wasn’t about to ask my parents because I knew they didn’t have anything.” The school offered a $1000 football scholarship if he could come up with the rest. So he worked at a furniture store for a year. Impressed with his determination, The Manlius School increased their offer to $1500 - exactly what he needed. He took math, science, and English there for a year, then applied to West Virginia University, a Division I school, and was awarded a four-year football scholarship.
But this prosperity would soon end. A knee injury took his scholarship away, but not his love of athletics and education. He persevered through his undergraduate studies, working odd jobs. In 1970 he graduated with a B.S. in physical education, ready to begin his career in teaching, always with this thought in mind: “Am I doing for students what Don Chirlin and Frank Super did for me?”
His first job as a gym teacher was at a small school with no gym. Though Annandale Elementary, in Northern Virginia near Washington, DC, did have an ample playground for gym classes, Young soon learned that the two classes of special education students never had a chance to use it. Young offered to work with these kids during his free period and lunch. The two special ed teachers saw Young’s warmth and natural affinity for their students and told him he should get his next degree in special education.
“I was surprised,” he said. “I had just got my first job, had a new wife, an apartment, a car. How could I afford it?” But the teacher knew of a Kennedy Fellowship for special education at George Washington University. Only five people were accepted each year and it paid for tuition, books, and a small stipend. Young was accepted. His wife Peggy got a job and they lived on a pound of hamburger a week that year. But when he was finished he had a Master’s Degree in Special Education.
Returning to live in West Winfield, Young secured a teaching job at The House of the Good Shepherd in Utica. At the time, they had no physical education program, but Young thought the emotionally disturbed children would benefit from exercise. The school’s administrators liked the idea, created a new program, and made Young the phys. ed. teacher. Two years later, the principal left and Young was asked to serve while they searched for a replacement. In a few months, they stopped looking and asked Young to stay on as principal, which he did until July 1983, serving The House for a total of 10 and a half years.
During those years, Young spearheaded special projects like a gymnastics show that gave students a chance to show off their skills for a small audience and a prom complete with flowers donated by funeral homes and dress clothes donated by the teachers’ friends and neighbors.
But Young considers the field trip to Albany as his most challenging project at the House. They chartered buses and took the students to the New York State Museum and the Executive Office Building. “It was scary unleashing 100 emotionally disturbed youth on Albany,” Young said. “But we did it.”
“We just tried to make their lives a little bit more normal than what they would have been somewhere else,” Young said.
When the position of principal of Mount Markham and Leonardsville Elementary Schools opened, Young decided to return to his home school district, serving from 1983-1992. There he implemented the Good Morning Program which is still going on today and coached little league and soccer. He even coached the Mount Markham varsity baseball team to their only sectional final.
Josh Saxton, current principal of Westmoreland High School, remembers Young as his Little League coach in West Winfield. “He always knew you had something more to give,” he said. “It wasn’t just to push you, but to make you better.”
One of Young’s most memorable projects at Mount Markham Elementary was the time he challenged the school community to read what Peggy called “an astronomical list of books” which included lengthy classics like Tom Sawyer. Young promised that if anyone read the entire list he would dress up like a clown and sit on the school roof. Many students and their parents met the challenge and Young spent a day on the roofs of both Mount Markham and Leonardsville Elementary Schools in full clown regalia. “We were astounded at that,” Peggy Young said. “The parents really took it to heart. And the kids really wanted to see Mr. Young in a clown suit.”
Then one day in 1992, Mount Markham’s superintendent position became vacant and Young was asked to fill it in the interim which soon became permanent. While superintendent, he instituted the Mount Markham Hall of Fame, which places plaques on the high school wall to honor graduates of Mount Markham, and the schools before consolidation, who have achieved notable accomplishments in their lives. Young himself was inducted in 2003. The Hall of Fame award is presented each year at graduation to show the students that coming from a rural school district isn’t an impediment to doing big things in life.
He also led the creation of the Mount Markham Foundation, a nonprofit corporation to raise funds to supply items like books for elementary students to keep, scholarships for graduating seniors, and trips to Adirondack skills courses.
Though this phase of his career was marked by these accomplishments, it also brought one of Young’s most difficult challenges, the closing of Leonardsville Elementary School. Left out of the original merger in 1969-70, the school had a close-knit community. But as more buildings on the Mount Markham campus were ready and resources were stretched, they needed to finish the consolidation.
“It was a tough decision,” Bill Miller said. He remembers the day when he accompanied Young to tell the staff at Leonardsville the news. “It’s not going to be pretty, Dick,” he told him. “People are not going to be happy.” The meeting was indeed tense, but Miller said, “Dick being Dick, listened and took what everyone said into consideration.”
Young was following his own advice that he had often shared with students, principals, and others he led as superintendent, “As mad as you get, you’ve got step back and take a look at the total picture and listen to what’s going on around you,” he said. “Then figure out what the best solution is. Sometimes you’ve got to keep your mouth shut and just listen. You might learn something along the way.”
In 2001, a former superintendent of Mount Markham asked Young if he would like to replace him in the Alexander Central School District in Batavia, NY. After 18 years at Mount Markham, Young was ready for a change. He served seven years there until his retirement in 2008 when he and Peggy moved back home to the Utica area. But even in retirement, Young still helps out when local school districts ask him, having filled interim positions at Herkimer and Mount Markham, and working part-time for Herkimer County BOCES, coordinating homeschool education for three districts.
After seeing Young’s lifetime contributions and observing how he interacted with people, Miller said he came to see him as a role model.
“I wish every superintendent in New York State would look at Dick and say that’s what a superintendent needs to be - patient, a good listener, and a communicator who always makes sure the school board and everyone involved is kept abreast of everything. He didn’t voice an opinion until he had heard all the facts and always did his homework. He’s easy going but firm and strong in decisions once they’re made. And when he knew a decision was right, he wouldn’t back down though he was never antagonistic and I never heard him raise his voice.”
(This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of ACCENT Monthly magazine, published by the Utica Observer-Dispatch.)