Mike Kish announced last week he is retiring after roughly 50 years of working at Immaculate Conception School in Columbia.
“I have absolutely no real reason to leave,” Kish, who serves as the school’s principal, wrote in a letter to parents. “Life is good. This is the best school in the diocese… I have the best parish, the best pastor and associate pastor in the diocese, best school board, best parish council, best parents and friends, best Fathers Club, best fellow music ministers, best tinkers group, best benefactors, best faculty and staff, best secretaries and best parent support.
“But there comes a time when you wonder if you can find joy doing new things, or maybe even forgetting about scores of daily deadlines, and especially giving back to your beloved wife a little of the time with me that my ‘marriage’ to ICS has taken.”
Kish’s time at ICS started in 1955 when he went to school there while growing up on a farm.
“I grew up with a work ethic. I was dad’s shadow, and I learned a lot from him,” Kish said. “Mom and dad were very churched people. I caught the love of church probably around 5 or 6.”
After finishing high school, Kish enrolled in seminary for five years before transferring to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to earn a degree in history with minors in English and education.
When Kish graduated, ICS needed teachers because it had recently fired six people. Kish got his first job there in 1971.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Kish said of his career plans. “I’m one of those guys that’s never interviewed for a job in my life. Work always came to me, and I’m lucky for that. I love to work.”
Four years later, in April 1975, the school announced Kish would take over as principal starting in August.
He has served in that role ever since.
“Little by little, we created a really terrific school,” Kish, who has helped four of his sisters, three of his daughters, a son-in-law and seven granchildren, said. “Now, it’s probably one of the best in southern Illinois. Academically, there are few that can hold a candle to us as an elementary school.”
Kish credited that development with the opportunites students are given because teachers are given the freedom to take risks at the school since it is small and catholic.
“Schools are supposed to be safe places to make mistakes. You keep trying until you make something work,” he noted.
That freedom has allowed ICS to teach American history over three years instead of one and geography over two years instead of one, for example.
Kish said the results speak for themselves, with ICS students consistently shining in extracurricular activities and academic competitions across the subjects taught at the school.
To do that takes exceptional employees, and Kish said he has had them.
“We’ve had a lot of terrific faculty members over the years. I’ve worked with a lot of tremendous people,” he said.
Kish also gave kudos to other adults who have helped make ICS’s success possible.
“I’ve had fabulous parent support and fabulous pastors. We always seem to be blessed with really good pastors,” he said.
“We’ve had very generous benefactors,” Kish added. “I can’t say enough about them. We just have a ton of them who are so, so good to us, and I’m very, very grateful.”
Kish said all the contributions from those disparate individuals have resulted in some of his proudest moments, like learning that a graduate is helping to research the novel coronavirus or that one testified before Congress.
“There’s been a lot of proud moments with our graduates,” Kish said.
Kish’s retirement is not until July 1, so he said he will help the school in its search for a successor.
“I will never live long enough to repay our parish for the life it has given to me,” Kish wrote to parents. “I will still be around to help, and a search committee will flesh out our new path toward becoming a better school.”
Once he retires, Kish said he did not have definitive plans, though he mentioned visiting Major League Baseball stadiums, traveling and continuing to play music at Immaculate Conception Church, a passion he pursued while playing as a member of The Sunsets for 22 years.
“I’ll find plenty to do,” Kish said.