Sunday, January 18, 2004

Herring calls his school home

Nativity School Principal glad to be back

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Nativity School Principal Bob Herring plays four-square with students during recess on a recent afternoon.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
PLEASANT RIDGE - Nativity School Principal Bob Herring jokes that he hasn't gotten very far in his 54 years.

Herring has been principal for nearly 20 years at the same K-8 school he attended as a boy.

He and his wife, Marilyn, live about a mile from the school and just two doors down from the home where he was raised. His resume can be summed up by the five drawings on his office wall of the four schools - all in Greater Cincinnati - where he's worked and the school van he drove to put himself through college.

While Herring's career has been tightly focused, his influence recently has radiated well beyond the 388-student school he leads - most recently because Herring was fired and then reinstated three weeks later.

The Rev. R. Marc Sherlock, Nativity of Our Lord's parish priest, fired Herring Nov. 24 from his longtime post as head of one of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's more successful grade schools.

The only reason given: philosophical differences.

What followed were demonstrations by hundreds of parents and former students, a media maelstrom and declining church collections totaling about $8,000 over three weeks. Archdiocese leaders encouraged Sherlock and Herring to sit down to mediation.

Herring was reinstated and returned to school Dec. 17, just in time to light the last candles on the school's Advent wreath.

Some Catholic observers and leaders say this was a rare case of the laity not only challenging the hierarchy but winning. Herring's supporters say it's a case of a community coming to the rescue of one of its heroes.

"There's a lot of things you can accomplish in life, but if you can reach a point where (people) stand up for you, that's an achievement," said Gerry Ahrens, a longtime teacher at Nativity.

"Thousands of people get fired every day. (The reaction) is a tribute to a life well-lived."

Much of Bob Herring's life has been lived at Nativity.

Age: 54.

Title: Principal of Nativity School in Pleasant Ridge.

Residence: Kennedy Heights.Family: Married to Marilyn, a teacher at Ursuline Academy in Blue Ash. Their adult son and daughter are teachers in California.

Previous jobs:

Drove a van for Summit Country Day.

Student-taught at Newport High.

Taught social studies, religion and other subjects for several years each at St. Francis de Sales School in Newport and St. Vivian School in Finneytown.

Was principal of St. Thomas More in Withamsville 1979-84.

Grades: K-8

Enrollment: 388

Tuition: $1,995 (in parish), $3,095 (out of parish).

Built: 1921-24.

Diversity: About 87 percent of students are Catholic, 12.6 percent are low-income, 12.4 percent are African American, 6.7 percent are multi-racial; Asian/Pacific and Hispanic students make up 1.1 percent. 79.8 percent are white.

He was born to wealthy parents, the fourth of five children, who were all baptized in the parish and attended the grade school.

His father, Arthur, was an insurance salesman and underwriter. His mother, Louise, was one of the founders of credit unions in Cincinnati in the 1950s. She also set up and coached Nativity's first girls sports teams.

Catholicism ran strong in the Herring household. In 1959, Herring's sister, Carren, entered the sisterhood, eventually becoming a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent.

After Herring graduated from what is now Purcell Marian High, he briefly became a Marianist brother novitiate. But he left after nine months and eventually married his high school sweetheart.

He graduated from Xavier University and went into teaching in 1973.

Herring taught at St. Francis de Sales in Newport and St. Vivian School in Finneytown before becoming the first lay principal at St. Thomas More School in Withamsville in 1979.

By 1984, the commute from his Bond Hill home to Clermont County had taken its toll. Herring, father of a 4-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, had ideas about starting an international exchange program similar to the one his sister was pioneering at Nativity School, where she was principal.

When Sister Carren left Nativity for missionary work in Jamaica, Herring was one of the finalists to replace her.

It wasn't a slam dunk. Ahrens was on the selection committee and voted for another candidate.

Herring won the job anyway, and went on to expand Nativity's emphasis on international education and the arts. Today the award-winning program links the school with others around the world.

Ahrens admits it took some convincing.

"Teachers tend to be very insular," Ahrens said. "This is my class. All of a sudden kids are coming in with German buddies... We've had our disagreements. I consider it a mark of leadership that (Herring) gets me to do the things I didn't want to do."

Herring's co-workers say Herring practically lives at the school. Arriving before 7 a.m., he is often the last to leave at night.

Herring can be a strict but approachable disciplinarian, says former student Christopher Macke, who graduated from Nativity in 1994.

"Should a student slip up, he would first talk things out to help the student realize what they did and why it was wrong," Macke said.

Every day, Herring greets each of the school's students by name, usually with a "Mr." or "Ms." On rainy mornings, he's at the school's door, welcoming students with an umbrella over their heads.

When dealing with adults, Herring skillfully walks a fine line between sometimes-conflicting factions of teachers, parents and community members, says Pat Armstrong, an assistant superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

Even Rev. Sherlock, the man who fired Herring, said, "He is a very charismatic individual. Bob cares about his students. Every morning he greets them on the playground."

So why fire him? Both Sherlock and Herring refuse to discuss the issue. Instead, they say they will work together to get the parish past their schism.

Sherlock says the two will find ways to cope with budget cuts next year, and together they will impress on Catholic parents the need to attend Sunday Mass and contribute to the collection, half of which goes to the school.

Herring's commitment to his parish and school are reciprocated.

Parent and parish leader Joe Muenchen said he'll follow Herring's lead, especially since Herring could have been in high demand at other schools if he chose to leave Nativity.

"We are going to recommit back to him," Muenchen said, "because he's done that for us."


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