Russ Hart initially did not want to be the principal of Gibault Catholic High School.
He was content serving as principal at St. Joseph Catholic School in Freeburg.
But the school in Waterloo needed to interview more candidates, so he went in for the interview after some prodding from his boss.
After the first interview, Hart went on a tour of the facility with four students. That changed his mind.
“After speaking with those four boys and what they thought about Gibault and what type of school it was, I absolutely wanted to be involved,” the 60-year-old recalled.
Hart, who has a master’s in school administration, nervously went through the hiring process and eventually got the job.
“I was thrilled,” he said. “I haven’t been disappointed to work here ever. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”
That is about to come to an end, as Hart will be retiring in the next few months.
He has worked at Gibault for 15 years.
Prior to coming to the school, he worked at Catholic schools in Freeburg, Utah and Belleville. He also worked as a nurse.
Hart’s first job at a Catholic school is what converted him to Catholicism. He was previously a Methodist.
When Hart first started at Gibault, his focus was on several areas he believed needed attention. That included the building, grounds, staff and curriculum.
After about two years, with those items taken care of, Hart shifted his attention to enrollment and fundraising.
Another focus of his was electronic curriculum, which he described as the greatest achievement of his tenure.
That is because the school made the decision to not use any textbooks, saving $200,000 a year by switching to free, updated resources.
That choice required teachers to completely change their teaching.
“Imagine telling any teaching staff in the country that the textbook they were relying on was going to go away, and they had no choice but to learn how to teach in a different way and get their own resources,” Hart said. “It was a big deal. I was so proud of our teachers during that time because they did the work.”
Soon after, Gibault became the first school in the country to implement e-learning days.
On those days, students would complete all their school work from home, eliminating the need for snow days.
The innovation gained Gibault national attention, as Hart was interviewed on TV in Boston, spoke with professors in California and sent representatives to teach other schools about the program.
Hart also pointed to athletic achievements at the school as a highlight of his tenure, noting the school has had five state championships, two state runner-up finishes and multiple state appearances.
“That is so fun,” Hart said. “Those are the best weekends you could ever have. I wish everyone could experience that in their jobs.”
Hart has been part of some of that athletic success himself, coaching girls basketball, track, cross country and cheerleading.
His passion is for the cross country team, which he has coached for several years.
“Cross country is my favorite thing I do here,” he said.
A main reason Hart enjoyed that was because of the students who participated in the sport. He said it is those students, and the rest of the student body, he will miss most.
“I already miss them,” Hart said. “I miss them after the last day of school every year I’ve been here because that’s what drives me. That’s what gets me going. They make you feel young.”
Although he will miss the students, along with the staff and parents, Hart said he knew now was the time to retire.
One of the primary reasons for that is the challenging schedule of the position.
“To really be good at this job, you have to work seven days a week and you have to work around the clock,” Hart explained.
He also cited wanting to spend time with family, including his grandchild, a wife who has some medical issues and son who is starting a new business.
Hart realized he needed to spend more time with them after his father died shortly before Gibault’s graduation earlier this year.
That life event caused Hart to reflect on what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
“I knew what I didn’t want to do: I didn’t want to work every day,” Hart said. “I wanted to be part of my family. Selfishly, I live on a lake, and I don’t ever fish. I have a motorcycle, and I don’t ever ride. I love to run, and I rarely get a chance to race.”
With all that, Hart will be busy when he retires. But he still plans to work some, including, ideally, as Gibault’s cross country coach.
He is not sure when his last day will be because he told the school he will work until it hires a replacement or the end of September, whichever comes first.
Hart estimated he will be fully retired before the end of summer.