January 11, 2012 - By Joe St. Henry
Interim Principal Tom Tobe (click for larger version)
It did not take long forTom Tobe to feel at home as Lake Orion's interim high school principal.
Most of the staffworked with him during the first half of the 2009-10 school year, when he held the same position while the district looked for a permanent principal.
Tobe stepped into the same position last week, after Principal Sophia Lafayette resigned in December after two years to take another position with the school district.
What struck Tobe back then and still does today is how a high school as large as Lake Orion with nearly 2,700 students still has a small-school feel.
"I've never seen a large student body like this – grades 9 through 12 – where students support each other so much," Tobe said. "No matter where they come from, they're Dragons first and every student seems to take great pride in this school.
"This sense of community is hard to garner in a big school like this."
Tobe knows what he is talking about. He began his teaching career in 1970 at Bentley High School in the Livonia Public School District. A series of layoff notices, however, prompted him to switch to the Troy School District, where he was assistant principal at Troy High School.
In the early 1990s, the Farmington Hills resident returned to the Livonia schools, spending a total of five years as assistant principal at Livonia Stevenson and Livonia Franklin high schools, before moving to Emerson Middle School as principal. In 2007, he retired from education after 37 years.
Tobe could not relax very long though for, as his wife says, if her husband is busy he is happy. A friend, Mike Fenchel, lured him into becoming co-interim principal at Holly Middle School during the second half of the 2009 school year.
Later that summer, with the open principal position at Lake Orion High School, the district's human resource director (who came from Holly) approached the two men about sharing the job here until a permanent replacement could be found. They accepted the opportunity and came aboard in August 2009.
Tobe immediately established a positive rapport with the staff and students alike. This approach came from years of learning how to do the job from some of the best administrators around, he said, and just as importantly what not to do.
"I take a consistent, straight forward, honest approach to working with people, including staff, kids and their parents," he said. We're here for the kids.
"The bottom line is I want every kid to have a positive learning experience."
Tobe also credits his success to date by not taking himself too seriously - something one needs when working in the dynamic environment of a high school, he said.
"I try to bring a little humor to the job and laugh at myself somtimes," he said. "I tell our teachers they must be able to laugh at themselves, too."
To get points across to his staff, Tobe said he also loves to tell stories - "snippets" of his life and career that a lot of teachers can relate to in their own.
One of the most difficult challenges he has faced as a school administrator over the years is working with kids who have made poor choices - "really severe disciplinery mistakes" - and seeing how these decisions negatively impact their families.
"Unfortunately, (the kids) learn there are consequences to their actions and many times they really disappoint their parents."
He also hates to see kids with the obviousability to succeed not put forth the effort needed to do so - and he does not hesitate to let them know it.
"There's a special place in my heart for special education programs," Tobe said. "Those kids may not have the God-given abilities to succeed like others, but nobody works harder. They are true role models for everyone.
"You do not lose in life if you give it your best effort."
Tobe says his own work ethic was instilled by his father, who raised five kids, worked at Ford and was active in officiating both high school and college athletic events.
"When I was in college, if I wasn't studying, I was working on the line or umpiring," he said. "My wife knows I'm addicted to work."
Tobe and his wife of 42 years raised two daughters, themselves. When his family was younger, he officiated football, basketball and baseball games, then coached his girls in sports. Later, he became director of the youth sports leagues. Today, the Farmington Hills resident is still heavily involved in his church, subdivision and other activities.
This includes following high school football - the Harrison Hawks in particular. Tobe actually took stats for John Herrington's football teams for many years, plus managed production of the team's football annual. He remembers traveling to Lake Orion to watch Harrisonplay the Dragons years ago, when the Hawks first joined the OAA.
Needless to say, he and Lake Orion Head Coach Chris Bell talk football a lot.
"When I left Lake Orion after my first stint as interim principal, Chris asked me who I would be rooting for next time the two teams played," Tobe said. "I told him I'd be wearing green. Chris was pleased, until he remembered Harrison also wears green."
(For the record, Tobe's daughter and family live in Clarkston. He said he is very familiar with the intense rivalry between the two schools.)
The interim principal is quick to point out his fondness for Lake Orion has grown immesnsely over the past few years.
"You can't get a true feel for a community until you live or work there," Tobe said. "I've learned this is a very close-knit community. It's unique.
"I came back to this position because I love the staff at Lake Orion, it's a top notch school and the kids are great."
To that end, Tobe's experience has taught him how important it is to treat students the right way, for that is what they will always remember after they graduate.
"Kids don't remember you for the reading, writing and arithmatic you teach them," he said. " I want to make sure every kid knows I care about them and never forgets that."