By Dawne Belloise
The rainy day crowd of well-wishers hover around tables of food at Rainbow Park, hobnobbing and laughing, sharing memories and future plans that the inclement weather has not dampened. At the center of the celebration are retiring teachers Bobby Pogoloff and Pat O’Neill, who have spent a collective 58 years helping to give Crested Butte kids a solid foundation to go forward into the world outside our paradise.
Back at Crested Butte Community School (CBCS), a grinning first grader with a long blonde ponytail streaming behind her dives in for a hug as Pogoloff walks down the hall to her office, “Happy Birthday Mrs. Bobby!” In her newer role from the classroom to being a math interventionist she says, “I now have the benefit of being in every classroom from kindergarten to fifth grade, and I know every kid by name. It’s pretty amazing.” Bobby had started out her teaching career at CBCS volunteering in the autumn of 1990 while enrolled at Western State College (now Western Colorado University) pursuing her teaching licensure. ”Part of my training was to volunteer in the school. I was tired of the seasonal work life. Mom had been a teacher, and I really enjoyed the environmental education I had done with the U.S. Park Service. I started doing practiture hours with Mandy Gillie for my course work and while I was doing that a teaching job opened up in January 1991,” she recalls. She became a half-time special education teacher for two years, working with Melissa Leftwich, before being hired as a full time third grade teacher. She taught multi-age classes for six years, a combination of second and third grades in a single classroom, until the school outgrew combined classes. Bobby also spent a year teaching first grade in Murray Bridge, Australia, as part of an exchange program in 2005.
“I did that because I had never taught anywhere else and there’s a well established exchange program. Their education system is very good and their teachers are well taken care of. It was an amazing experience and it really helped me as a teacher to see different ways of doing things.” In 2015, Bobby took a new job at CBCS as the math intervention teacher, “Basically, I work with a team of interventionists focusing on students who need an extra boost in math.
A big part of Bobby’s job was implementing the new math curriculum. In reflecting over her 28 year career and the approximately 1,200 students who came through her classroom, Bobby recalls the early times, “I started in the building that is now the town offices and I watched the school grow into the building where the KBUT studio and marshal’s office is now, and then moving here into the new school. There’s been an expansion here every year. We seem to need to expand, the numbers are changing and with that you get a wider range of student needs.”
Retiring teacher Pat O’Neill’s classroom walls are covered in posters of his classes and Jerry Garcia’s face is pasted on the hand towel dispenser. The classroom has changed as well over his 27 year career of teaching at CBCS, which also had its beginning at a desk in the very same spot from which he now does his KBUT radio show. “My desk sat then where I now sit Wednesday nights for my radio show, A Certain Sort of Sound,” says the DJ since 1990. “Rock n roll, my life was saved by rock n roll,” he grins, singing a Lou Reed lyric.
Pat taught sixth and eighth grade English and seventh grade math during his first year at CBCS. He moved to Crested Butte in 1986 from Watertown, New York, decidedly for one winter to be a ski bum alpine racer, returning back east to earn his masters in education secondary English at the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, graduating in 1990. “My first teaching assignment was a six month temporary position at Lincoln Hall, in Sommers, NY, a juvenile detention center for young men ages fifteen through nineteen, who had gotten themselves in considerable legal trouble. I loved teaching at Lincoln Hall because these kids, for the first time in their lives, were getting some consistency in their lives, just simple things like eating three square meals and being loved by their teachers, and away from substance abuse in their neighborhoods,” Pat says and related that what he realized was how much the kids wanted to be in the program. “The biggest thing is how scared they would get when their sentence was up because they knew they were having to go back to their same environment, and that scared them because they knew they were going to get in trouble again. They were so good to their coaches and teachers. They (the students) wanted to be there, they didn’t want to get kicked out. It was a real turning point for me. It was when I decided I really wanted to be a teacher.”
It was Jimmy Faust who called to tell Pat about an opening at CBCS. “Jimmy said he wanted me to move back and start subbing, then I could get a job teaching in CB and he had a room for me. Teaching was a coveted position at the CBCS.” He returned to CB in 1991, working once again at Le Bosquet and substitute teaching for RE1J in both Gunnison and Crested Butte schools.
“I really enjoyed it because I got to know a lot of the teachers and front office people in Gunnison.” When he went into CBCS for an interview for an opening position, he was told there would be issues with the students. “They said that they had a lot of discipline problems like rebelliousness, gum chewing, turning in work late, or studying. I told them I just got done teaching JDs with a rap sheet longer than their arm.”
He started substitute teaching in 1992, and the following year was hired as a three-quarter time teacher. “Carol Kastning, she’s my guru and mentor. She ran that school. It was her and four male teachers. In 1996, we moved into the new building. It was a beautiful kindergarten through twelfth grade facility.” When Pat first started there were only a total of 60 students in grades six through eight, “Now we have 180 students in those same grades. What I found, back when the school was small, is that a small school doesn’t mean that the class sizes are small. A massive part of our success is that Stephanie Niemi demands that we have small class sizes. I had bigger classes in 1994 than I have in 2019.”
Another change Pat has seen through his years is advancing technology. “Kids today, starting in sixth grade, have their own Google account. They’re very tech savvy and technology plays a bigger role in the classroom. Kids have to be more tech aware now when they go to college. Kids have so many more opportunities now. My daughters, Katie and Piper, have gone through this school and they have so many more opportunities than the kids did in 1993 as far as sports, music, dance, theatre and advanced placement classes. You wouldn’t believe the number of AP classes offered at our school. And people who move here are impressed with that. CBCS is now rated fifth in the state. We won three more awards last week for academic excellence. Most of the local kids will get into a college and get a four-year degree, and we’ve had many, many kids return to the valley and do great things. Jackson Petito was an outrageously good student and now here he is practically poised to be the next mayor. I’ve taught kids who have become Olympians, teachers, lawyers, medical doctors and hospice nurses, world champion halfpipe skiers, and there are kids who have become builders, electricians, trades-people, general contractors, and giving back to the town that raised them. Our kids come back and tell us how well CBCS has prepared them for college and how some of their years here were harder than their freshman year in college.”
One of the programs that Pat feels is making a difference in students’ lives and the world is called Seek the Peak, a unique school-wide character education that starts early in kindergarten and teaches safety, respect and responsibility. In a world that notes many of today’s kids are rude, illiterate and continually on their phones, Pat feels, “Our kids are better behaved and more respectful in 2019 than in 1996. The program has really created great citizens in our school.” Pat’s educational philosophy has been, “To bring out the absolute best in every child we teach, teach kids that the big part of life, success and happiness is helping others and doing service work. That’s what I try to teach my kids. Go out and do something nice for someone … and try not to get caught,” he grins, and adds on a serious note, “Be kind and humble. In 27 years, I’ve taught about 1,100 kids. That’s a lot of kids.” And he’s been in the system long enough to teach the next generation, the kids of grown up kids.
One thing both Bobby and Pat feel hasn’t changed in their decades as educators is the attitude of the parents and community. Pat says, “The parents’ attitude is the same as when I started, they’re as supportive as they were back then. We still have an incredibly supportive administration, parents and body of citizens. On a personal and financial level, we really feel backed by the county, regardless of whether or not a person has a kid in school.”
Bobby notes, “People still want the best for their kids, teachers still want to do the best and be the best for the kids, and the community has always been part of this school. That’s what I think has maintained the quality. It keeps us all connected as a unified front in what’s best for kids. I feel like I’ve had the greatest career in the greatest place with the greatest people. I feel like I’m leaving at the top of my game and I’m so grateful for the leadership that I’ve had and the colleagues that I have shared my career with.”
There’s a special connection and joy of being an educator in a small town where you help set the course of a child’s life. It’s challenging, rewarding and as influential as a parent’s role to watch those children grow and become successful, well-adjusted adults. A well-earned retirement is supposedly what everyone works towards but it’s also bittersweet after so many years in such dedication and devotion. “It was like when a small aircraft pilot wakes up in the morning, turns to his wife and says, ‘I think I’m gonna sell my plane.’ At fifty-five, there are other roads that I want to explore but I can tell you, it was probably the hardest decision of my life,” Pat says of his retirement. “I’ve been a CB Titan for 27 years, half of my life. Taking down my final poster off my classroom wall will be a pretty darn emotional moment. I have posters of every class I’ve ever taught, every kid, I have their faces. Besides being the dad of twins (Katie and Piper) and Jordan’s husband, being a teacher at CBCS has been the greatest accomplishment and source of joy in my life. But lately,” Pat grins, “it’s occurred to me what a long strange trip it’s been.” Pat plans on traveling to places like Eastern Europe and Central America, perhaps India, in between working for his company, O’Neill Painting.
As for life outside of classrooms, Bobby feels, “One minute I’m excited and the next I’m horrified. I think of all the things I can do but I can’t imagine how much I’m going to miss it. One of the main things I want to do is be a ski bum,” she smiles. “I’m really looking forward to skiing every day, in the middle of the day, when the sun is shining, every powder day. Another thing I want to do is spend time visiting my sisters, and my brother. I don’t see them nearly enough and I love them.” She’s also confident that she’s leaving her position and her students in good hands, “I feel that the young teachers who are coming into the system are so amazing and I feel really good about leaving the future of the education in this school in their hands.”