Retiring New Paltz High School principal Barbara Clinton looks back

Retiring New Paltz High School principal Barbara Clinton. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

While she may not appear to be an activist or a maverick at first glance, or even at second glance, Barbara Clinton has always been ahead of her time. When she first came to the New Paltz Central School District in May of 1971, she was the only female in the school’s Social Studies Department — in fact, she was the first female chair of the Social Studies Department.

“I’m not a historian,” she says from her office, surrounded by her beloved Jets gear, New Paltz High School class photos dating back generations and her constant smile that seems to slip out of the corners of her mouth as if she just can’t help but see a touch of humor in any situation. “I am a social studies teacher. They’re very different professions. I’m not interested in a specific date, but I’m fascinated by the context of various times in history. What was going on with the people? What was the social climate like, the dominant psychology? How did government and politics play a role, and how did it all come together during the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Rights movement? That’s what I’m interested in, and those questions always stay current.”

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Although she has served the school district for the past 48 years in a variety of capacities, from teacher to coach to department head to assistant principal, and principal of Duzine Elementary, Lenape Elementary and finally the High School, where she will finally hang her hard hat, Clinton’s single most rewarding thing has never changed and never wavered. “It’s the kids: making sure that they’re prepared for their next step in life, that they have everything that they need to go beyond these doors.” Although these are the maroon-lockered corridors that she has walked through for decades, Clinton is quick to note, “This is not the end-all, be-all. There is a whole life outside of this school waiting for them.”

As an AP History student of Clinton’s, and a NPHS graduate who walked the halls as she moved up to vice principal, I can say, hands down, that she was a formidable teacher as well as a grounding force for the student body and ultimately the community. “When I taught, I never shut my door, you remember?” she says to me, and I do. “All the teachers would walk by and stop in and I’d ask them who they were voting for or what their opinion was on a current event. In would walk Ginny McCardle or Frank Ciliberto, Pat Masson. Kemble Matter would talk so long that we’d have to put up a timer for him. But that was my unofficial public opinion poll. It got the kids and the teachers interacting and thinking about things from various perspectives.” Clinton prides herself on reading no fewer than three newspapers a day.

Having grown up near the State Capitol in Albany, Clinton was no stranger to politics. Even back in the 1980s, she always referred to herself as a “Rockefeller Republican,” and remembers the time she boarded the bus from SUNY New Paltz, where she was an undergraduate, to the nation’s capital so that she could be a part of the 1968 March on Washington. “My dad came to visit me at school, where there were all of these student protests. He always smoked a pipe, and as we drove down Main Street, he puffed on his pipe and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Dad, don’t worry; all of New Paltz isn’t like this.’”

And maybe that’s part of how Clinton was able to suture the district up time and time again when it was awash in controversy: She has that rare ability not only to listen, but also to respect everyone’s point of view, and at the same time pull the trigger when decisions had to be made. “The first thing I worked on was getting rid of the 40-minute periods. That was crazy. We had nine periods in one day, and all it did was create chaos. With the block scheduling, there is more time to actually learn and less time to get in trouble in the hallways.”

Another change Clinton fully supported was getting rid of the “smart class,” or the “advanced class.” There were the Regents class, the non-Regents class and then the Super X class that Dick James used to teach. “I had the non-Regents class, and I can remember this one class that had Bobby Delay, Charles Majestic, Doris Dietz,” she recalls. “And they were some of the greatest entrepreneurs to come out of New Paltz High School!”

Looking back, Clinton realizes that not only was she the new kid on the block. but also surrounded by an alpha-male culture that included coaches Billy Freer and John Ford, Dick James and Al Fiore, to name a few. “There were varsity athletes that had passes all the time,” she says. “They would have passes allowing them to leave class and ‘fill the soda machines’ or work out or any number of things. That’s how it was back then.” Having grown up with four brothers, Clinton was not ruffled by this. In fact, it was Freer who gave her a piece of advice early on that she still uses to this day during her September faculty meetings.

“There was a student of mine, Diane Marks, who was a good athlete, and she asked if I would coach the basketball team. I know how to play basketball and played a bit in college, but I had never considered coaching,” recalls Clinton. Not wanting to step on any toes, she ran the request by Coach Freer and Ford, who were both supportive of her taking the post. “That was back when the girls’ basketball scores were like 4-2 or 10-2 and we were the ‘2!” she says. “I walked into the gym the first day of practice, and some of them were rolling the ball on the ground. They didn’t know how to dribble!” She remembers one game, towards the end of the season, where she went to put a girl in who had been sitting on the bench. “There were only a few minutes left and we had fouled someone on the other team, so I told her to get in. She told me she couldn’t. I said, ‘What do you mean you can’t go in?’ She said, ‘I don’t know how to make a foul shot.’ She didn’t realize that when we fouled someone, they took the shot and not us.” Exasperated, she ran these scenarios by Freer and asked him what to do. And he said, ‘You start with ‘This is a basketball,’ and go from there. Never assume anything.’ And I don’t!”

It’s a good thing, because life was throwing some wild curves at Clinton, who married a local Gardiner boy, Dick Clinton, which helped her acclimate quickly into the community. “I had planned to go to SUNY Cortland, when my best friend at the time talked me into applying to New Paltz. So I did.” As the days and weeks and months passed, she wondered why SUNY New Paltz had not gotten back to her, so she called the Admissions Department. “My guidance counselor had never sent my transcripts!” Long story short, Clinton, who now had nowhere to go, had to reapply to New Paltz and was accepted – except not until March of the following year, as the college was on quarter systems in the 1960s. “My orientation consisted of six other students,” she says with a laugh. “So that’s why I’m always on the kids about making sure that they have everything they need from guidance!”

In the meantime, Clinton worked with the Department of Transportation on traffic analysis and municipal road planning. “I loved it,” she says. “Had the New Paltz thing not worked out, I might still be there!” But the New Paltz thing did work out, and the graduate went on to rise up the ranks at the NPCSD. “Back then I only needed one course to become department chair, which I took, and that also allowed me to become the assistant principal.”

It was a charged time, and the district had gone through principal after principal, including one who commuted from Maine where his wife worked. A series of controversies had the Board of Education propose to eliminate the assistant principal’s job, only for the high school. At the time, Clinton was the assistant principal, John Ford was the director of athletics and discipline. “All of a sudden I was out of a job, and I hadn’t been a part of any of the controversy and it was a shock. Then the principal of Duzine announces she’s leaving and so I apply for the job, and I get it, even though I was much less qualified than the existing vice principal, Deb Banner.” After taking the job as the Duzine principal, she was schooled by Banner on elementary education: “I read a book a night and we went to conferences, and it was like getting another Master’s degree. There was so much to learn about elementary education!”

She was at the helm of Duzine when Lenape was being built, and the community was in an uproar about the potential negative impacts of pesticides on children as the school was being built on excavated land that was once used for apple farming. They were also concerned about cost overages and delays. They were begging Clinton to step in and get the building opened. And of course, she did. Working around the clock with the contractors and planners, faculty and community, the school opened – not without problems, but it opened. “I had a kid in every class that I appointed as my ‘Lenape Leaders,’” she says with a laugh. “We would meet every week, and they were my eyes and ears and would tell me what needed to get done to get the building working properly – and we did!”

It was when her daughter Jackie entered the high school that Clinton was lured back. “I drove her to school one day because she was late, and she asked me to walk her in. I was like, ‘Walk you in? Who wants their mother walking them into high school?’ But she said, ‘Mom, it’s a lot different now. I don’t feel safe here.’

“It was a mess. Kids were smoking everywhere, there were fights in the hallways, teachers didn’t feel supported, the Board of Education meetings would go on until 2:30 or 3 a.m. It was nuts. So I went back.” Clinton worked to build a team with the faculty and administration, as well as reaching out to parents and students and “having a presence. That’s so critical – just being here every day and walking the hallways and talking to teachers and students and showing them that you care. I also wanted to make sure that we were involved in the larger New Paltz community.” Participation in Government (PIG) became a tradition under Clinton, where high school students got credits for attending local government meetings and engaging with their community through volunteerism. “But you also have to have consequences. I don’t enjoy suspending anyone, but if they do something that merits suspension, then that’s the repercussion.”

All in all, Clinton is more apt to talk about funny coaching stories, certain students with whom she has become friends over the years, people who have mentored her, the new principal – anything except herself. Asked what her legacy will be, she laughs, “The Jets? Maybe this will be their year!” Clinton has always been a supporter of underdogs, whether in her choice of football teams or her non-Regents classes or a girls’ basketball team that only had a few players who could dribble.

In fact, if you’ve ever spent any time around NPHS or at any of its athletic events, concerts, art shows, mathlete meets, Garden Club receptions or Glee Club performances, you will have seen Clinton standing sentinel as the guardian of the district, being sure that each student felt supported in what it was that they were passionate about. Asked what she would miss the most, she says, “The kids. That’s what it’s always been about for me.”

As she got a bit teary-eyed – a rare thing for Clinton – I asked her if she was going to miss the school. Out of the corner of her mouth came that smile: “I only live a mile down the road!” And that’s the Barbara Clinton whom we all know and love: her sense of lightness commingled with gravitas, and the feeling that all is well when she’s in charge. Now it’s time to pass the baton, but what a run it has been. Thank you, Barbara!

There is one comment

  1. Isola Sheehan

    Congrats Mrs Clinton. I will fondly remember the time I was granted a Top Secret Clearance even though you told the Security Clearance Investigator I was a degenerate that wouldn’t make it in the Army. Lol, good times.

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