Friday, May 31, 2019
Jim Davis - Florida Catholic
- See related story: Gibbons moves to president-principal model
FORT LAUDERDALE | Paul Ott has an office as principal at Cardinal Gibbons High School. And he has a classroom as a teacher.
But he has a third base of operations: strolling the school’s hallways and cafeteria. He also attends plays, concerts and sporting events. He chats about classes, grades, sports, movies, college plans. And he knows many of the students’ names.
“It’s important that they know you know who they are,” said Ott, who will retire June 30 after 48 years at Gibbons. “I show that I value what they do with their lives. You can’t tell them what’s important to you if you don’t care what’s important to them.”
Ott steps down from overseeing an 18-acre campus with 1,160 students, 70 faculty members and a $13.5 million budget. Milestones have included a revamped media library, with nearly all its books in electronic text. Gibbons was one of the first area schools to give its students iPads, Ott said.
In June, Gibbons plans to break ground for a new 20,000-square-foot home for its STEAM track (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics). The biggest single gift ever given to the school was announced March 23: a $750,000 donation from the Phil and Susan Smith Foundation which will go toward the naming of the new building. The gift is part of $3 million raised thus far in a capital campaign dubbed “Our Faith, Our Family, Our Future.”
Ott, who turned 71 on May 24, added quickly, “It’s not just about me — we have a team of really talented people.” Others, however, were just as quick to credit his warmth toward the students and his drive to provide for them.
They include philanthropist Wini Amaturo, who has donated toward student aid at Gibbons for years.
“He was always encouraging students,” Amaturo said. “He was laid back, a listener. He knew their names and was always asking about their studies. And they respected him.”
Mary Mullen of Fort Lauderdale graduated from Gibbons; so did her six siblings and her three children. She mentioned Ott’s quick smile and friendly manner. She noted his readiness to help with any problem. And she voiced appreciation for his way of challenging students.
“He always gave a sense of moving on toward something greater, that your decisions here would affect your adulthood,” she said.
LOVE OF READING
Ott also received high praise from Msgr. Vincent T. Kelly, former supervising principal of the school and pastor of neighboring St. John the Baptist Church. He applauded Ott, whom he has known for five decades, for his commitment to meeting personal needs.
“If there’s a death in a family, he is one of the first to sympathize and see how the school could help,” Msgr. Kelly said. “Whenever a student or family is in need, he’s there.”
Ott entered St. Coleman School, Pompano Beach, in 1958, then graduated to Gibbons six years later. At the time, the latter was a small school, established by Piarist priests exiled from Castro’s Cuba. The school was served also by Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate from Joliet, Illinois.
Ott dove into a variety of activities at Gibbons, from speech and debate to football and swimming. He confessed, though, that athletics were never his strong point. Ironically, he says, his three sons — all Gibbons graduates — excelled in basketball.
He found a different interest through the first supervising principal, Father Thomas Dennehy, who was also his English teacher. One day, the priest walked into class with an armload of paperback novels and handed one to each student.
“That began my love of reading,” Ott said. He would later bring that love back to Gibbons.
After graduation in 1966 he entered Notre Dame, following in the steps of an older brother. Ott spoke almost reverently about his four years there. The emphasis on psychology, theology and philosophy. The way it encouraged upper-class students to mentor younger ones. And the importance of religious values.
“Every time you went to the cathedral, you heard about God, country and Notre Dame,” Ott said. “And for Sunday night Mass, if you didn’t come on time, you couldn’t get in.”
He graduated from Notre Dame in June 1970 with a degree in English and began teaching at Gibbons that September. He also bolstered his academic credentials at Florida Atlantic University with a master’s degree in English, then a certification in educational leadership from St. Thomas University.
When Gibbons’ principal, Father Joseph Kershner, retired in December 2002, Ott filled in as interim. He was named principal the following July.
At Gibbons, heset out to impart the values he learned as a student — both at Notre Dame and in high school. He first taught classes in speech and religion, followed by English. In each field, even teaching literature, Ott said he stressed the emotional, “human” element.
“I just finished teaching ‘Hamlet’ to my students,” he said. “We talked about the meaning of life, suicide, family relationships, revenge. We put a Catholic spin on human values.”
Dealing with feelings is especially important to teach young men, he said. “They think anger is the only legitimate emotion. It comes from hurt, but it’s easier for them to say they’re pissed. I try to teach them to deal with the hurt, not turn it into anger. Spirituality is not unmanly.”
Not that Gibbons has ignored current issues during Ott’s tenure at the top. This academic year, the school held town hall meetings on “active shooter” crises and on the dangers of vaping (electronic cigarettes). In 2016, the school showed a film on opioid abuse among teens. For years, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department has used the campus as a training ground for drug-hunting dogs and other situations.
“I’ve always faced reality head-on, dealing with moral problems facing teenagers,” Ott said.
Msgr. Kelly said Ott’s approach is crucial these days. “Catholic faith, Catholic school, is needed more than ever today. Society is demanding that we go back to our value system — an emphasis on love, compassion, motivation, and consciousness of the gifts we have received from the Lord.”
After retirement, Ott plans to stay in Fort Lauderdale, but to travel as well. He and his wife, Therese, want to see the fall leaves of North Carolina and the vineyards of California. They also want to visit the Midwest, home of their three sons and three grandchildren. But he also wants a continuing role at Gibbons, including the alumni association and the Office of Advancement.
His friends will clearly miss him at the school’s helm. But they said they’re glad for the solid foundation he left behind.
“It’s hard to see that he’s leaving,” said Mullen, the longtime acquaintance. “But he’s leaving us with a strong and beautiful place. Not just as a physical plant, but as a family.”