Born to educate: Summit High asst. principal Gretchen Nies retiring
What is retirement but another kind of graduation, Gretchen Nies jokes of herself and the seven other members of the Summit School District who are retiring this year.
Nies has tallied up an impressive 27 years with the school district, starting as a substitute teacher and now bowing out as the high school assistant principal.
“I’ve worn a few different hats over the years,” she said.
Passion for education
Even from a young age, Nies had a passion for education. Her mother taught elementary school and, while her dad never graduated high school, he instilled its importance in his daughter.
“Education was something that was always a strong part of my family on both ends of that spectrum,” Nies said. “I was always one of those kids that loved school, everything about it. I loved being involved with it, I loved learning, I loved everything about it. So education just seemed a natural for me.”
As a student, Nies was heavily involved in school activities, particularly athletics. She played volleyball, basketball, softball and ran track during high school, all in addition to groups and clubs like music and drama. A native of Wisconsin, she attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she eventually joined the field hockey team, competing one year in the national championships.
“Athletics have been a large part of my life and I always knew I wanted to coach,” Nies said.
After graduation in May of 1984, Nies found herself without any clear forward plans. So, she accepted an invitation from some college friends living in Summit County and working in Keystone.
What started as a vacation quickly turned into a permanent stay as Nies took in the beauty of the surrounding area and learned of a need for substitute teachers. In the fall of that year, she had garnered herself a substitute position for P.E. and physical science.
That job became a full-time teaching position, as well as coaching for the high school volleyball, basketball and track teams. Throughout the years, Nies also coached the middle school volleyball team and taught some health and P.E. classes at the middle school as well.
While she greatly enjoyed teaching and coaching, in 1990 Nies jumped at an opportunity to work with the Girl Scouts of America as outdoor program director, property manager and resident camp director back in Wisconsin.
Nies went back for nearly three years, but even then she couldn’t quite get out of teacher mode.
“I definitely realized that my calling was education because even as a Girl Scout executive I was finding myself organizing a lot of events in schools,” Nies said with a laugh. “Even when I worked for the Girl Scouts, I was coaching basketball for a high school.”
The final decision to move back to Summit County happened while Nies was cross-country skiing one day. She describes the moment.
“Cars are zipping by on the interstate, and the power lines booming and buzzing, and I was cross-country skiing and I’m like, there’s something wrong with this picture.”
The decision turned out to be the right one.
“I missed the school environment, I missed education, and so that drew me back into getting back into education,” she said. “Education is really my calling and I was fortunate enough to be able to come back to Summit County.”
For the kids
In 1994, Nies became the athletic director, a job which she recalls with many fond memories. That was also the year that her 4 x 200 relay team became state champions, an event commemorated in a photo hung up in her office.
Nies has also gathered various awards over the years, including Athletic Director of the Year in 2003 from the Colorado Athletic Directors Association, Outstanding Administrator from the Summit Education Foundation, was signed into the Metropolitan League of Fame and received the Athena Award.
Yet the memories that she cherishes most involve the students that she’s taught and coached. She’s particularly touched when students from previous years come back and re-connect. She recalls one in particular with whom she had struggled but then met again some years later.
“We clashed all the time and I made her toe the line and made her do a lot of things that she didn’t want to do,” Nies said, tears starting to spring to her eyes, “and about eight years or so after she graduated from high school she came back and looked me up and she said, ‘You know, I just want to say thank you because I didn’t appreciate it at the time but you made a difference in my life.’”
There are many stories and memories just like this that Nies can look back on throughout her time at the school. Even working on the administrative side, as assistant principal, as she has been for the past five years, she most values the connections and interactions with the students.
“We’re a family,” she said of the students and staff at the high school. As she continues to speak about her job, her emotions threaten to get the better of her.
“It’s all the kids,” she said. “You can’t go into education for anything else. Educators are here for the kids.”
On the horizon
Nies plans to enjoy the benefits of retirement by taking in a relaxing summer. After that, it’s hard to say, but she’s excited about the possibilities. While she’ll definitely stick around Summit County, beyond that she’s open to opportunity.
“I’m not going to jump into anything. I know that there’s something else out there waiting for me. I can’t just retire. There’s something else out there.”
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