Principal Gary Mazzola calculates that in his 12 years as principal he has seen approximately 6,500 students enter and graduate from this Manchester school. On Friday, May 18, Mazzola will see the last of his students graduate. He is set to retire at the end of the school year—a decision he calls bitter-sweet.
“I’ve seen an entire generation of Parkway South kids come through this school,” says Mazzola, 55, as he sits in his office. “It’s pretty bitter-sweet when you think about it. (Retiring) is a very rewarding feeling and yet to walk away from this is still very tough.”
A lifetime serving Parkway
Mazzola has spent many decades with the , both as a student and employee. Mazzola, who grew up in Ballwin, was in the first kindergarten class at Parkway's in 1963. He graduated in 1976 from .
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Mazzola started his career at Parkway South as a student-teacher while he was getting his degree in education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Mazzola said there were two things he wanted to do in life: own a business and teach. He opted for the latter.
“After I graduated (from UMSL) I had opportunities to either work as a teacher or work in the business world. Obviously, teaching won out,” Mazzola tells Patch. “I always thought the money part was not as important to me as doing what I thought would be something that I would really enjoy doing.”
After graduating from University of Missouri St. Louis, Mazzola worked in many levels of education at the , from teaching as a substitute teacher at Parkway South Junior High (now known as ) to being a business teacher, soccer coach and assistant principal at Parkway North High School.
Jim Gerker, assistant principal at Parkway South, met Mazzola in the 1980s when both were soccer coaches. Gerker was then soccer coach at when Mazzola was soccer coach at Parkway North. Gerker said Mazzola was always passionate and competitive.
“He has always had a passion for wanting students to succeed in their lives,” Gerker said.
Gerker and Mazzola would meet again as classmates at UMSL, where they were both seeking Master degrees in educational administration. Gerker went on to become Principal at Chaminade, and Mazzola continued in the Parkway School District. Three years ago, Gerker became assistant principal at Parkway South, where Mazzola had been working as principal since 1999.
“I felt very fortunate when I had the opportunity to move to public education because I knew what a great administrator he was,” Gerker said.
Then, in January of this year, Mazzola told his co-workers of his decision to retire. Gerker said he had mixed feelings about the news.
“I was happy for him because he gets to start a new chapter of his life, but sad because he won’t be here,” Gerker said.
Balancing his priorities
Mazzola said his decision to retire happened sometime after Christmas, as he was driving his younger son, Matt, to search for an apartment in Dallas.
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“I remember driving and looking over at him going, ‘God when did you grow up?’ Mazzola said. “The number of opportunities I would have to see him would be limited (had I not retire).”
Mazzola's two sons, Matt and Michael are both graduates of Parkway South. Michael, 26, is a pharmacist in Columbia, MO, Matthew, 23, is a software engineer for Microsoft.
Mazzola said he realized how important it was to have time to spend with them now that they were away. Mazzola’s parents live in Phoenix, he said, and he would like to spend more time with them too.
Mazzola said the priority scale tipped to the side of spending more time with his loved ones. Although some of his loved ones did not think he would really retire.
“My wife didn’t believe me,” Mazzola said. “She said, ‘Oh yeah, we will see if you sign the papers.’ I love this place too much. She thought I wouldn’t walk away from this place.”
Joe Rhodes, history teacher at Parkway South, met Mazzola when he was a student teacher there in 2006. Rhodes landed the teaching job at Parkway South a year later, in 2007. Rhodes recalls being intimidated the first time he met Principal Mazzola.
“He seemed very approachable, yet, I was sort of taken aback from all the things that he knew,” Rhodes said. “He seemed to have so much wisdom in the field of education—that’s what intimidated me.”
Rhodes said he has learned invaluable lessons from Mazzola. He said he will never forget a phrase Mazzola once told him.
“The greatest thing he’s ever said to me is that this (education) is a business at which you never arrive,” Rhodes said. “You are never going to achieve all the success as a teacher because there is always room to grow. Those words have pushed me more than anything in my career—to never accept what I’ve achieved and always know there is more to do.”
Saying good bye
Mazzola said he still can’t quite accept the fact in a few weeks he will leave his office and he will no longer be called “Principal Mazzola.”
He tells Patch that in the future he hopes he can help the Parkway community in some way, but for now, he hopes to relax.
“At the beginning, I just want to learn to relax. I am not really good at that to be truthful with you,” Mazzola said. “There is a lot of personal reward that you get from working with kids. It’s so hard to walk away. But first I want to learn to relax and then figure out what I could do that would be a fulfillment of the time.”
In his office’s wall, hangs a poster of a large, silver Kawasaki motorcycle. One of Mazzola’s hobbies is to ride his motorcycle. He said he plans to do a lot of that this summer.
As public education in Missouri faces economic shortfalls, Mazzola said the district will have a challenge to balance the needs of the students.
Mazzola said there is a demand from both struggling learners, high-achieving students, and those in the middle.
“In order to reach all kids, there is an economic struggle to provide resources to feed the needs of that spectrum of learners,” Mazzola said. “That’s to me the fundamental challenge for public education and for schools like Parkway South.”
Next year, the new principal in charge of Parkway South will be Patrice Aitch, who has served as assistant principal at South High for the past 12 years.
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Mazzola said he is going to miss everyone, students, teachers, parents and staff and wants to thank them for their support.
“I wish I was better able to describe what’s in my heart and my head about my affection toward the kids here and my graduates,” Mazzola said. “How proud I am of their work and their support. I mean that when I talk about the teachers, the entire staff, the support staff the counselors, the administrators, the entire staff at South High has just worked super hard to make this a very special place.”