BROOKSVILLE — As Dennis McGeehan walked the halls of Weeki Wachee High School for one of the last times as principal, he came upon a lone student sitting outside a classroom and hunched over a notebook.
"I'm not in trouble," 17-year-old sophomore Francois Tremblay blurted out Thursday morning. "I'm writing a letter."
Figuring it was love note, McGeehan asked about the recipient.
Not a girl, Tremblay said. A good friend.
"Which one?" McGeehan asked.
Tremblay replied: "He's standing right in front of me."
In their own ways, staffers and students are taking the time to say thanks to McGeehan this week, his last before retiring. Today's final bell at the home of the Hornets will mark the end of a 38-year career in education, all in Hernando County.
McGeehan, who coincidentally turns 60 today, has seen seven superintendents come and go. Former students are now teachers and administrators in the district. Some are doctors, lawyers and military officers.
"One thing any educator who's been around as long as I have can appreciate is looking at what students have accomplished over the years and taking some vested interest in what they're doing today," he said.
McGeehan leaves two years after opening Weeki Wachee, a $55 million campus. The school's smooth opening and progress since then are a testament to his skills as a veteran administrator, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.
"That school's prepared for the future because of the job that he's done," Blavatt said.
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McGeehan was born in Long Island, N.Y., but his father worked for the Deltona Corp., the developer that helped Spring Hill sprout from the sandy soil of southwestern Hernando County. A 1970 graduate of Hernando High, McGeehan has had a career that tracks with the county's explosive growth and a paradigm shift in state and federal education policies.
In 1974, when he started as a math teacher at the former Brooksville Junior High, the county had one high school, one junior high school and three elementary schools. Ken Austin was superintendent of a district suffering from a tight budget and an expanding population, a combination that forced most schools to run double sessions.
McGeehan was a faculty member when Springstead High opened in 1976. He remembers bearing the brutal cold water of a dunk tank at the fairgrounds to raise money to build the athletic program, including the fields, from the ground up.
He was a teacher at Spring Hill Elementary when that school opened, and principal at West Hernando Middle when the school moved to its current campus on Ken Austin Parkway next to Central High.
He never forgot the advice of Ed McIntyre, principal at Spring Hill Elementary when McGeehan worked there: The key to success is to surround yourself with good people.
"One of his quotes was, 'You can make a person a good teacher, but you can't make a teacher a good person,' " McGeehan said. "I've been fortunate throughout my career to be surrounded by good people."
McGeehan served as dean of students and assistant principal at West Hernando in the mid 1990s before moving up to principal, his first time in the top position at a school. He stayed there for a decade, then took the principal's post at Central, his last job before then-interim superintendent Sonya Jackson tapped him for the Weeki Wachee job.
He developed a reputation for a collaborative leadership style and a talent for handling even the biggest crises with an air of calm professionalism. He has a penchant for calling students to his office not for stern talks but to give praise, said Angela Kennedy, an English teacher at Weeki Wachee whom McGeehan hired at Central in 2001.
"The toughest ones seem to respond to him," said Kennedy, the district's teacher of the year in 2011. "I think it surprises some of the kids that not only does he know who they are but that he's proud of them."
McGeehan leaves as Florida educators continue to grapple with major policy changes, the roots of which began in 1999 with the advent of Gov. Jeb Bush's A-Plus accountability system. Schools have been given letter grades based on student performance ever since.
McGeehan saw firsthand the stress the system can put on a school community. Central slipped to a D while he was there, in large part, he said, because Nature Coast Technical High pulled away many high-performing students when the magnet school opened. Central had begun to bounce back by the time he left, he said.
Weeki Wachee earned a B last year, its first grade since opening.
"Everybody in the district is trying to keep those grades up, and it's a major challenge," he said. "We're doing this at a time when we're seeing discretionary funds cut. Higher and higher expectations, with less and less resources."
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Though his retirement is not official until the end of the school year, McGeehan is using accumulated vacation time to bow out early. He said that also allows his successor, assistant principal Troy LaBarbara, to step in and make some key decisions about next year's budget and staffing.
On Thursday morning, McGeehan took obvious pride as he visited classrooms, looking over students' shoulders as they painted in an art class, tinkered in the engineering lab or sang perfect harmonies in the choral room.
"No matter where you are on campus," he said, "it's neat to watch."
Today, he said, will be like any other school day. He will greet students as they arrive, mingle with them in the cafeteria during breakfast and lunch, and monitor the bus loop after the last bell rings.
In retirement, he plans to cruise on his fishing boat and maybe finally finish restoring the 1949 Ford in the garage of his Spring Hill home. He will spend time with his two grown children and four grandkids, all of whom live in Spring Hill, and maybe volunteer at their schools. Rainee, his wife of 36 years, is a guidance counselor at West Hernando and will join him in retirement next year.
By the time McGeehan leaves today, Francois Tremblay will have already given him the letter. Noticing Tremblay's disappointment about McGeehan's departure, Kennedy, the English teacher, suggested that he write a note.
Tremblay said he had made bad decisions and was a step away from expulsion when McGeehan guided him along a different path.
"He helped me become a better person."
Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]