By LINDA BEHRENS
When Mike Kish first entered the doors of Immaculate Conception School (ICS) in Columbia, he was a young student starting first grade. The year was 1955.
In 1971, he entered the doors of ICS as an eighth-grade teacher. Four years later, he became the school’s principal.
On July 1, 2021, after 50 years serving the Catholic Diocese of Belleville and the students, families and staff, Mike Kish will retire as principal of Immaculate Conception School.
“I wanted to create a school I would want to attend. Actually, a school where Joseph and Mary would want to send Jesus,” Kish says, reflecting on his long career at ICS.
“But the school is not about me,” Kish adds. “It was all of us working here and the Lord who created our school, and it will continue thriving after I retire.”
Staff at The Messenger checked in with some of Kish’s colleagues, asking them to share their thoughts on Kish’s career in the diocese and at ICS.
Msgr. Carl Scherrer first met Kish in 1963 when he was in his junior year at St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville and Kish was a freshman. “Of course, little could either of us have imagined then where we would be now,” Msgr. Carl says.
“After 58 years at ICS, and 46 years of outstanding leadership as principal,” Msgr. Carl adds, “what ICS has become, which I think is a Catholic school second to none, is due in no small part to Mike’s enthusiastic and inspiring leadership. He has been a spark plug of enthusiasm in our parish school.”
Msgr. Carl says it has been a privilege to work with Kish for nearly 18 years.
“I have witnessed firsthand his energy and commitment to Catholic education. He has not only had a tremendous impact on our parish school, but upon Catholic schools throughout our diocese,” he says.
Msgr. Carl says that Mike makes a very concerted effort at the beginning of each school year to learn the name of every student (394 this year) and shows his support for them by attending their games, academic contests, speech meets, band concerts and school plays.
“Mike’s vibrant Catholic faith is always evident in his leadership and example, as he begins each day with prayer with the students and encourages the teachers to do the same,” Msgr. Carl adds.
“Mike has left his mark on our parish school, and we are all the better for it.”
Clare Hatch, principal at Blessed Sacrament, Belleville, agrees. She has worked the longest with Kish. “People have been reminding me that I will now be the one serving the longest as a principal in diocesan schools. I am right behind him at 42 years.”
She says that Kish has been a great mentor to her and all the principals in the diocesan school community.
“You know he cares about all of the schools, not just his own. He was always willing to help the other schools by sharing good ideas with the principals,” Hatch says. “He would get an idea, research it, then email the information to the other principals.”
She adds, “This was especially evident this past year during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Kish also sets a great example with his spirituality and his keen interest in social justice issues, Hatch says, particularly referring to the school’s annual trips to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and places historically connected to Martin Luther King, Jr., in Washington, D.C.
“He wants us all the excel,” Hatch says. “He has been a wonderful example to all of the principals. We are going to greatly miss that.”
Beverly Epplin, executive secretary at Immaculate Conception School, says this change is going to be hard for her personally, but she knows it is time for Kish to enjoy life and spend more time with his family, especially his wife, Jeanne.
“She deserves to spend time with her husband since ICS has probably taken so much of their time in their marriage,” Epplin says.
“Mr. Kish always says I am the ‘heart’ of the school, but he is the ‘glue’ that holds us all together as one big family and encourages all to believe that,” Epplin adds.
Epplin says Kish is a man who lives the gospel every day of his life.
“There is not a day that goes by that he doesn’t reference the goodness of God in our lives. His life exemplifies our school’s motto of ‘Mission, Community, Service.’”
She says that he not only pours his time, talent and treasure as principal into the school but also into the parish as well, by serving as a weekly liturgist and Eucharistic minister.
“In my 25 years here, he inspired me to be a better Christian by the way he cares about the students and faculty of ICS,” Epplin says. “He is able to see the good in everyone and helps the students to see the good in themselves.”
Epplin adds Kish has made a difference in many of his former students’ lives and continues to be a big influence on the school’s future graduates.
Representing the diocese, Jonathan Birdsong, superintendent of schools/director of education, says, “Mike has been a positive part of our Catholic School system for nearly 50 years and will be sorely missed by both the Immaculate Conception family and those of us who were fortunate enough to call him a colleague.
“We wish him well in his future endeavors and pray for him as he transitions to this new chapter in his life,” Birdsong adds.
Jennifer Neff, a first-grade teacher at ICS, wrote a letter to Kish when his retirement was announced.
In this letter, she also mentions the school’s motto: “Mission, Community, Service.” Regarding service, she writes: “The act of putting others before yourself is one that requires much practice. Like I teach my first graders, Jesus lived his life as an example for us, so we can physically see what service looks like.”
Referring to Kish, “You are a walking example of service, constantly thinking about, planning and putting into motion how to help others. The opportunities provided at ICS for others to perform acts of service are continuous.”
She continues, “A teacher inspires learning, cultivates a desire to grow, and challenges each student to perform to their maximum potential. You have consistently demonstrated that you were a teacher first; inspiring, cultivating, challenging.
“A supportive boss that truly listens to concerns and provides solutions is a rare find,” Neff adds. “We have been blessed.”
Neff may have said it best as she ends her letter to Kish: “Thank you for being such a positive influence on my life. I am forever grateful that God crossed our paths. I wish you all the best as you ‘untire’ and slow down to enjoy this next chapter. You’ve earned it!”
In his letter to the families, Kish shares this wish about his retirement: “I have a lifetime of trophies and awards and no room for more,” he writes. “The legacy of all who have had a contact with Immaculate Conception School are my best gifts.
But I would be most humbled by donations to our Catholic Education and Activity Center in gratitude for all the joy that has come to my door.”