NEW PORT RICHEY — Debbie Wichmanowski's professional journey began when she was in fourth grade. She knew then that she wanted to teach intellectually challenged students.
She spent 41 years following her dream, 35 of them in Pasco County schools. On June 18, she retired.
"I'm excited, but I have mixed emotions about leaving," said Wichmanowski, most recently the Longleaf Elementary School assistant principal. But she beamed when she mentioned her three grandchildren.
At 10, Wichmanowski enjoyed the friendship of a cousin who, in those days, was termed "mentally handicapped." She built knowledge that she used through the years.
She found the terms "retarded" and "retardation" offensive, and was glad when the U.S. Supreme Court replaced those descriptors in 2014 with "intellectual disability."
During her high school years in Hazel Crest, Illinois, Wichmanowski worked in an institution for mentally disabled individuals. She loved the job.
Her dedication to Pasco County started in 1978 when, as a Saint Leo College (now University) student she interned at Richey Elementary School. There, she met her husband, and they taught in Illinois for six years.
In 1984, the Wichmanowskis and their children — Nick and Jamie — returned to Pasco County. Her husband went to Hudson Middle and she went to Richey, teaching what were then labeled as classes for the Trainable Mentally Handicapped and Profoundly Mentally Handicapped for ages 8 to 21.
The program moved to Schwettman Adult Education Center for six years, and in 1995, moved to Marchman Technical Education Center.
"I had the same kids for eight years. They were like family," Wichmanowski said. "Those were my best years of teaching."
In 1995, she was named Pasco County Teacher of the Year.
"Debbie has the ability to see situations from different angles and reaches solutions that benefit all. She seeks and builds strong relationships within the community," said Jennifer McCormack, Longleaf principal. "She has an endearing personality."
Wichmanowski was a founder of Pasco's Council for Exceptional Children and served at local, state and national levels for the Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities.
She and her husband welcomed a third child, Ali, and she earned her master's degree in administration. She served a short time as Moon Lake assistant principal before returning to Marchman,to teach another five years. She became Chasco Elementary's assistant principal in 2001, moved to Longleaf Elementary in 2005, spent two years as Sunray Elementary and then returned to Long Leaf for her final years.
"Every school had something special and I've worked with the best staffs," Wichmanowski said. "I've had great opportunities in Pasco County."
Gail Diederich is a retired Pasco County teacher of 32 years. She writes feature stories with an education focus for Pasco and Hernando counties. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.