From competitor to collaborator

?With kids, we have plenty of emphasis on competition. We don?t need our leaders being great competitors. We need our leaders being collaborators, people who understand the underprivileged, the ?losers.???Gordon Mohn at the conclusion of his 15-year stint as USD 410 superintendent. Click image to enlarge.

The headline for a retrospective story on Gordon Mohn?s 15-year tenure as Unified School District 410 superintendent could read: ?Local boy does good.?

Then again, Mohn probably would be the first to suggest a clarifying subhead: ?No one is more surprised than those who knew him as a youth.?

?People who would know me from high school would say I was kind of a bully,? the Hillsboro High School grad admitted Friday, his last day on the job after announcing his retirement earlier this spring.

In the days of youth, being the stereotypical rip-their-heads-off football jock was the role Mohn had cast for himself.

?I got in to fights, I liked to intimidate people,? he said. ?I was always bigger than kids in my class. I don?t know what happened. That?s all changed.?

Radically so, for those who know Mohn today as a thoughtful, soft-spoken, consensus-building advocate for kids?especially kids who are underdogs in the system because of economic or family background.

?With kids, we have plenty of emphasis on competition,? Mohn said. ?We don?t need our leaders being great competitors. We need our leaders being collaborators, people who understand the underprivileged, the ?losers.??

Changes in college

Mohn brought his aggressive persona with him when he enrolled at Tabor College in fall 1968. He envisioned the possibility of preparing for a career in optometry, but in truth, ?I was there to play football and not do anything else.?

Mohn said two things changed the direction of his life.

On the academic side, he discovered he was ill-prepared to do the math required for optometry. He escaped his initial advanced-math class with a D-minus.

As Plan B, he enrolled in an English history class taught by Henry Fast.

?He taught me an appreciation for history and taught me an appreciation for scholarly work,? Mohn said.

He learned that lesson well. Mohn?s grade-point average of 1.76 after his first semester rose to 3.5 by the time he graduated in 1972.

But his personality evolved more slowly. It began as his passion for football waned?to the point where he decided not to play his senior season.

?I was one of those guys who gets to his senior year and it?s supposed to be the highlight of your career?but it was the low light of my career because I had other interests,? Mohn said.

?I think getting out of that role of being a jock really made a difference. Not that kids who are athletes are bad people, but I had a mentality that we were going to really beat you.?

First foray into education

With a history and physical education degree under his belt, and a hankering to coach, Mohn accepted his first job at Jetmore, where he taught history and coached football, basketball and track.

His commitment to education flourished.

?I had good people to work with as teachers?friends and acquaintances at Jetmore who knew how to teach and make school a pleasant experience for kids,? he said. ?It just kind of evolved.?

When Mohn accepted a position as special services director in the Belleville school system in 1981, his perspective continued to broaden.

?In Belleville we never had very good athletes,? he said. ?I learned there are people of great value who don?t win very much.?

On the career side, school administration looked increasingly inviting.

?I saw teachers, as they got older, that lost the connection with kids,? he said. ?They stayed in the classroom and they were frustrated. I said I don?t want to be 55 and be a frustrated teacher in the classroom.

?And money had a little to do with it,? he added. ?If you wanted to make a better salary in education, administration helped.?

Coming home

Mohn said he never considered coming back to Hillsboro when he began his career. When he noticed in 1989 the principal position at Hillsboro High was available, he half-jokingly suggested to wife Vicky that he should apply.

?Vicky said maybe we ought to think about it,? he said.

?People always warned me about a local guy coming back, and my discipline record at Tabor wasn?t great. (The dean of students) knew me very well. I worried a little bit that it might be a problem, but it never has been. People have been real open and accommodating.

?I?m sure there?s some disadvantages, but I always felt it was to my advantage to know Hillsboro and to know the people there,? he added.

?And Hillsboro was a lot different by the time I came back than it was when I left?in a good way. It was a lot more open.

?We always felt welcomed.?

Mohn said his ties to the Durham community and the positive rapport his father, Ollie, established with local farmers as a farm-equipment salesman served as assets for him.

?Farmers trusted my dad,? he said. ?He had the knack to sell you a tractor and you?d think he did you a favor.

?I always thought that helped me.?


When Mohn lists the most satisfying accomplishments during his 15 years as superintendent, coworkers are No. 1.

?We?ve been able to get good people here,? he said. ?Some superintendents have lists of people they?d just as soon not have working for them, but they?re stuck with them because of tenure. There?s nobody I feel that way about.?

The ongoing development of quality facilities is another satisfying achievement. Mohn?s experiences in that area began as principal in 1990 when he helped design the fine arts center and music rooms under Supt. Robert C. Brown. Mohn also helped design the Wiebe Media Center in Brown?s last year at the helm.

As superintendent, Mohn oversaw the renovation of the high school building in 1992-93, the construction of a new middle school in 1994 and additional elementary school classrooms in 1995, and the remodeling of the technology center in 1997-98.

?Then, we thought we were done for awhile?and now we?re working on it once more,? he said in reference to the recently approved bond proposal.

Mohn said quality facilities reflect local pride and community support for education.

?It?s a good learning environment for kids,? he said.

Mohn said he also feels good about the strong tradition of academic excellence among students and the partnerships the district has developed with Tabor over the years, particularly in the area of teacher training.

Mohn said he has been fortunate to work with strong school boards.

?Superintendents all complain about school boards,? he said. ?I really don?t have any complaints about our school board. I don?t have a board member since 1992 when I started (as superintendent) that you even begin to think wasn?t a good board member.?

Some regrets

On the flip side, Mohn identified two regrets as he leaves the district to begin a new job as director of special education programs in the McPherson school system.

The first regret is the timing of his departure, specifically as it relates to the lawsuit filed last month by a patron to prevent the district from building a football and track facility in partnership with Tabor College.

?I feel I?m leaving the district when there are more unanswered questions than I would have liked to have left them with,? he said.

?There?s a lot of hard decisions that they?re going to have to make, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit. So I regret that.?

Mohn said his other regret is the spirit of collaboration between Hillsboro and Marion appears to have deteriorated in recent years?not only on school issues, but on community issues as well.

?It?s the worst it?s been since I?ve been here,? he said.

Reasons for the deterioration are multiple, complicated and even hard to identify at times, Mohn said.

?Hillsboro people need to be introspective,? he said. ?We can?t change Marion people; maybe we can change ourselves. There?s got to be things we are doing that continue this rivalry, and sometimes it?s inadvertent.?

Changes in college

His bully days long gone, Mohn?s passion for collaboration has become a hallmark of his administration, whether it?s between neighboring communities or between institutions within the same community.

?I can?t see reasons why we wouldn?t want to work together for the common good,? he said. ?Maybe it comes back to the competition thing that turned me off. I got tired of competing. I saw the impact both of kids losing and kids winning, and the negative side of that.

?Regarding city-school issues, the money the city spends comes from the same places the money the school spends. Why would we want to duplicate it??

Community support

Though it may not always be articulated, Mohn said collaboration is at the heart of Hillsboro?s approach to educating and nurturing its youth.

?Being a public employee, you get a little leery of talking about the importance of church,? he said. ?But to me, a strength of this community is that a lot of our kids can depend both on the church and school as a support system.

?I know a lot of places where the only support system came from the school,? he added. ?The school had to do everything. The school ought to be a partner in that, but you get a lot of kids here who get support from the church, too.

?That helps makes strong communities.?

And it has helped make the job of being superintendent here relatively easy, he added.

?I?ve always said Hillsboro schools aren?t strong because of the schools,? he said. ?The schools simply reflect what this community wants, what this community produces. They are a visible product of this community.

?I don?t think you have strong schools in weak communities. It?s real hard to do, at least.?

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