BRIGHTON — Timothy Leahy pointed out the paper sign on the wall of his office at Siena Catholic Academy: "Excuses are the crutches of the irresponsible."
Leahy, who retired at the end of July from his position as principal at Siena, said he has repeated these words to countless middle-schoolers during his 11 years at Siena, which serves grades 7 and 8.
The phrase draws on the wisdom he gleaned from rising to the top of two professions in record time. Leahy became the first lay person to be superintendent of diocesan Catholic schools in 1978, and he became a senior officer at a local bank soon after.
Returning to Catholic schools after a 21-year career in banking brought Leahy back to his roots, where he has aimed to shape middle-schoolers into responsible adults.
"School at this age is really a practice field for life," said Leahy, who will be succeeded by Siena’s assistant principal, Vincent Tata.
Tata was an administrator and teacher in Rochester, Penfield, Monroe 1 BOCES and Orleans-Niagara BOCES before coming to Siena four years ago.
"He’s great with kids and very good with parents," Leahy said. "He came to us because of the opportunity to move along as an administrator and perhaps become principal faster than he would at a public school."
That quick rise to the top also was the case for Leahy, who was a newlywed undergraduate student at St. John Fisher College when he started teaching middle-school social studies part time at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Brighton in October 1967.
In addition to teaching, Leahy earned his bachelor’s degree from St. John Fisher in 1968 and his master’s degree in educational administration from SUNY Brockport in 1973. That year he became principal of Our Lady of Lourdes School, and in 1976 he became deputy superintendent of diocesan Catholic schools. Two years later, and just over a decade after he started teaching, he became diocesan schools superintendent.
"I worked hard, I put a lot into it, I believed in it, and I had good mentors along the way," said Leahy, who had the distinction of having a $500 scholarship named after him this year; the first recipient of the award to offset ninth-grade Catholic-school tuition was outgoing Siena eighth-grader John Creatura.
In 1979, Leahy went to the private sector and became a senior officer with Rochester Lincoln First Bank, which became Chase Bank. He worked there for 21 years, and when he retired, he returned to education, becoming assistant principal at Siena in 2000. After advancing to principal in 2004, Leahy helped shepherd the school through a rigorous accreditation process that resulted in the school’s accreditation in 2008. Now Leahy said he is looking forward to spending quality time with his family, which includes his wife, two grown sons and four grandchildren.
"After 44 years, I wanted to do more volunteer work," said Leahy, who said he might do some part-time substitute work or some education consultancy work.
But he said he’ll miss those at the school, including its staff and teachers, who he said deserve the credit for the school’s success. He’ll also miss the involvement with students at the school.
"I’ll miss the kids," Leahy said. "The kids have always been a reason for everything. I’ll miss watching them grow."
He pointed out that the school’s students often were the driving force behind many service efforts at the school, including fundraising projects for Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong and other charities. Leahy said middle school is a critical time for students to develop their character as they go through physical and psychological changes.
"It’s just a very difficult year for kids and an extremely important year for them," he said.
The school is undergoing a transformation of its own, as it prepares to admit sixth-graders under a Monroe County Catholic school sixth-grade restructuring planned for 2012. Leahy noted that Siena has room to accommodate the addition of a sixth grade, having once held more than 400 students; the school currently has about 300 students.
He pointed out that many students leave the Catholic-schools system after fifth grade and often don’t find their way back into it.
"It makes sense to me here because at our middle school, we have been at somewhat of a disadvantage because most public schools have been structured that way, except for the city," he said.
But that challenge of accommodating those sixth-grade students now falls to Tata, who said he is looking forward to the logistics.
"That’ll be a huge undertaking, almost like putting a puzzle together," he said.
Tata is a physical-education teacher by training, who received a bachelor’s degree in physical education and sports medicine and a master’s degree in educational administration/supervision from Canisius College in Buffalo.
A father of two and a parishioner of St. Pius Tenth Parish in Chili, Tata has been warmly embraced by families at the school, Leahy said. Tata said he was fortunate to be placed at Siena, where he said he has learned from the best.
"Mr. Leahy has been a great mentor," he said.