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Dedicated educator retiring after 44-year career, during which “I knew ‘em all”

When the school bells ring and they throw open the doors at Northview Public Schools this coming autumn, it’s likely Dan Duba, principal at Crossroads Middle School, will be elsewhere.

For the first time in 44 years.

When he climbed aboard the Northview train in 1974, gas was going for less than four bits a gallon. A brand new Buick station wagon set you back about $3,400. Nixon was resigning. The average American income was just under $14,000.  The speed limit on our highways was reduced to 55 miles per hour. And women were wearing something called “culottes.”

Northview has found another great educator to replace Duba, who recently announced his retirement. But even his successor wouldn’t argue that there will ever be another like Duba, a nuts and bolts administrator whose loyalty and commitment to staff and students is something you don’t conjure from college classes for teacher hopefuls.

Eighth-grader Marvin Colbert gets a handshake and a “Duba mint” from Principal Dan Duba

“Loyal, honest and hard-working,” says Jerry Klekotka, who had served as Northview High’s athletic director but was just named as Duba’s successor. “He enjoys life – everything about it. And he has a way of bringing people together.” Replacing him, says Klekotka, “is going to be an honor, but also a challenge.”

Duba’s penchant for kids’ well being – and teachers’ — is evidenced in the pocketful of quotes he regularly slings. His favorite, and the one he goes to most often, is this: “They are all good kids; some just need a little more attention than others, and that’s why we’re here.”

To the kids themselves, Duba lets them know constantly that “The three R’s are respect, responsibility and ready to build positive relationships.”

He smiles. “The kids hear that all the time.”

As a boy, Duba had fun on Grand Rapids’ West Side

A Happy Childhood

Born and raised on the West Side of Grand Rapids, Duba grew up in entirely unpretentious ways. The youngest of six, his dad worked in a factory while Duba, his siblings and their friends fished the Grand River, played at nearby John Ball Park, and rode their bikes and scrounged for treasures at what everyone used to call the “Butterworth Dump” — a vast landfill south of the Coca-Cola bottling plant where people roamed at will during that era.

He laughs in looking back: “If you wanted a day of fun, you either went to the dump or you went fishing.”

As a kid, Duba was simply known as “Duba,” so much so that more than one person asked him, “Hey Duba, what’s your last name?”

He attended Sacred Heart Catholic Elementary, and remembers, “I loved school, and by sixth grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher.” He played three sports at West Catholic High, but only until he was 16, when he traded in his uniforms for part-time jobs. He’d already been employed the summer after eighth grade, as a busboy at the Pantlind Hotel, now the Amway Grand Plaza. The lesson learned was this: Both his sons were encouraged to play sports through their senior years in high school.

Duba admires a piece of art by seventh-grader Mckenzie DeVries

After graduating from West Catholic and then Aquinas College, Duba signed on with Northview for his first job and never looked back.

Except for a decade spent as principal at Highlands Middle, he’s served as instructor and basketball coach and later principal at Crossroads, formerly Hills and Dales Middle. Throughout more than four decades, he’s taught virtually every subject to students in fifth through eighth grades. He’s also served as teacher, principal, dean of students, athletic director, leadership team member, intramural coordinator, accreditation committee co-chair and contract negotiator.

“I’ve been blessed to live out my dreams in middle school for 44 years,” he says, reflecting an entire professional lifetime dedicated to kids emerging as young adults – an age group some would consider the most challenging to guide on a day-to-day basis.

For Duba, though, it was a calling he embraced, characterizing his tenure as “school, not work, because everyone knows how much I love school.”

A special moment with seventh-grader Delaney DeShane

Class Yes, Meetings No

It’s that refreshing attitude that colleagues agree will be missed – an enduring positivity that insiders say often prompted some teachers to request a transfer to Crossroads because of the way Duba ran things there.

“Dan is very dedicated to his craft, and the thing that probably set him apart is that he believes in being in the school each and every day,” says Mike Anderson, who retired two years ago from the Northview system after a 46-year career as teacher and coach.

Duba confirms this by trotting out what he told Northview’s latest superintendent, Scott Korpak, when they first met: “I don’t really care for meetings. If you want me, I’ll be in my building.”

It’s there that he’s cultivated a culture of caring that goes beyond words, and begins with learning every student’s name – all 500 of them, plus a staff of about 50.

“I know ‘em all,” says Duba, explaining that “It’s easier to say ‘Hey John’ than ‘Hey you.’”

Every morning, he’s there to greet them at the door. Same at lunchtime and dismissal and every class break in between. He makes a point of not disturbing teachers during class time, though, “unless I’m doing observations.”

‘They are all good kids; some just need a little more attention than others, and that’s why we’re here.’ — Principal Dan Duba

The day I visited Duba, he was signing off to a bunch of kids, and then nonchalantly took up a mop and started to help a custodian clean the cafeteria. In the next instant, he’s conversing with a teacher, and you can see relief in the instructor’s eyes when Duba emphasizes the word “flexible.”

Duba helps out with cleaning duties in the lunchroom

Guiding Principles

His office is like entering Tony Robbins’ realm. Quotes of inspiration and encouragement are everywhere. Between what you’ll read on his desk and on the walls and elsewhere, here’s what Duba stands for:

  • Kids come first. Parents are second. Staff third. He’s last, always willing to give them what they need to be successful.
  • Leadership equals service.
  • We’re in the people business, and it’s about building relationships and making the whole person.
  • People don’t care how much I know. They just want to know I care.

And then there’s the school motto, which he figures every kid learns in time: “If there’s a problem, we look for a solution. If there’s a better way, we find it. If a teammate needs help, we give it. And if we need help, we ask for it.”

If a kid messes up, Duba won’t yell. “We favor a positive model of discipline where everything is framed in ‘How should you be?’” he says. “If a student is having a bad day, they might be asked to write a plan of improvement. They have to ask themselves ‘What are you doing? … What are you supposed to be doing? … What are you going to do now?’”

If you exercise respect, responsibility, gratitude and self-control, chances are you’ll score a “Duba mint,” individually wrapped treats that melt in your mouth.

Making announcements at lunch

Athlete and Family Man

When Duba’s not on campus, you might find him playing hockey, which he’s been doing forever. A better-than-average athlete, he also boasts more than a few River Bank Runs under his belt, along with a marathon.

Family means everything to him – not only the one he helps to create within Northview – but his own: wife Denise, sons Nick and Dan Jr., and seven grandchildren.

His favorite toy is a Chevy Silverado pickup, which he uses to pull a 30-foot travel trailer. A favorite place to camp is a state park near Charlevoix.

Looking back on his career, Duba has nothing but gratitude.

“I truly appreciate everyone for allowing me to be a small part of their lives. It’s always been ‘school’ and not ‘work,’” he says. “And I’ve had many great mentors along the way, including Mike Anderson and Craig Schmidt … and countless others.

“I have loved being part of the Northview community, and am so grateful for this lifetime opportunity.”

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary.


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