Jim Dean, who served as a principal at three schools in Snohomish County over the past 20 years, has retired from education to take a job as executive director of the county’s Interfaith Association. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

38-year career in education left behind to lead faith group

EVERETT — He was recruited with a plate of cookies.

Chocolate chip, if memory serves.

Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, executive director for the Sno-Isle Libraries system, was a neighbor to Jim Dean, then in his second year as principal at Glacier Peak High School.

Woolf-Ivory wanted to gauge Dean’s interest in serving on the board overseeing the Everett-based Interfaith Association of Northwest Washington, which runs a shelter for up to 11 families with help from a variety of faiths. She was leaving the board and immediately thought of Dean.

“Jim is such a really thoughtful and generous person who always thinks the best of people,” she said. “I knew he had a place in his heart for people who, due to whatever circumstance, were finding themselves homeless.”

Dean liked the cookies and ended up spending eight years on the board. He believed in its mission of helping others.

A week ago, Dean took over as Interfaith’s executive director, replacing Mary Ellen Wood, who retired. In taking the job, he left behind a 38-year career in education that included two decades as principal at three middle and high schools in Snohomish County.

“So much of what we hear every day … is about how we are different,” Dean said. “In fact, if you come down to it Muslims and Hindus and Catholics and Protestants and Jewish people almost all have in their faith a belief to do something to help others. Our jobs are not done with just ourselves. That’s what attracts me to this.”

An altar boy as a child, like a string bean in white vestments, Dean has long been involved in the Catholic church.

He served on the parish council at Everett’s Immaculate Conception for about seven years and on the Catholic Youth Organization board in Seattle for a decade. He attended a small parochial campus through his senior year of high school and then Seattle University where he majored in chemistry.

The job market was tight, so he took a job as a special education classroom assistant in Seattle, first at an elementary school and later at Nathan Hale High School.

At 25, he became a chemistry teacher at Bellevue’s Eastside Catholic High School. Four years later, he was appointed assistant principal and later the school’s principal.

He resigned after six years.

“I wanted a good Catholic school,” he said. “They wanted a prep school and the two didn’t match.”

Days after informing his staff, Dean received a call from Gary Axtell, then an assistant superintendent in the Everett School District. Axtell wanted to know if Dean was interested in an opening at Heatherwood Middle School in Mill Creek.

He spent four years at Heatherwood, six more at Cascade High School in Everett, and opened Glacier Peak High School in 2008. Along the way, he was asked to apply for openings at Everett and Henry M. Jackson high schools.

He describes the work of running large middle and high schools as a mix of pressure, pride and plenty of long hours. Conversations about test scores and graduation rates came with the territory, as did expectations from parents and surrounding communities.

There was a year, as planning principal when Glacier Peak was being built, with muddy shoes and frequent trips to the dry cleaners, the ordering of $3 million in equipment and supplies, and the uncomfortable conversation with a contractor who asked in August if it would be a problem if the school didn’t open on time.

There also was the simple joy of watching teens become young adults.

He fondly remembers a time when roughly 250 Glacier Peak students packed several buses to root for their boys basketball team at the state tournament in Tacoma. The students arrived an hour early. Renton High School was in the second quarter of its game and it was losing. The Grizzlies faithful felt bad that Renton had no student fans that day because of a scheduling conflict at their school. The Renton cheerleaders had no one, except a few parents, in the stands.

That day, the Grizzlies fans became Renton fans. The students filled the vacant bleachers and cheered for their adopted team, which came back to win. The team and cheerleaders thanked the Glacier Peak student body afterward and returned the favor when the Grizzlies took the court.

Dean smiles at the memory.

Other memories hit closer to home. In graduation ceremonies, he was able to shake the hands — and hug — his four children, including his two sons who attended Glacier Peak. Dean and his wife, Mary, were their foster parents before adopting the boys.

Their youngest child, Peter, was 6 days old when he was brought to their home. He was supposed to stay for 10 days; he has been with them for 20 years.

Dean finished up at Glacier Peak on Thursday, June 28. He took that Friday off as a vacation. The following Monday he began his new career with the Interfaith Association.

He became interested in the opening when he was asked to edit the job description before it was posted.

On a whim, he sent it to his wife and asked her if she knew of anyone who might be interested.

How about you? she asked.

“I looked at it and I said, ‘She’s right. This is a great opportunity,’ ” Dean said. “I looked at what it would be like to retire and not do anything anymore, and I couldn’t even imagine that. I still can’t imagine that.”

Dean was one of five candidates interviewed among 25 applicants.

He’s looking forward to meeting pastors and others from the faith community with social concerns.

When he looked at his calendar the other day, he said his main concern was the blank spots, “the opportunities that are there that could be missed.”

Lance Peters served as an assistant principal with Dean since Glacier Peak opened. He sensed that Dean ended up in leadership positions not out of ego but because there was a void to be filled and he was willing to do so.

“I always found that honorable on his part,” he said.

Peters sees parallels between Dean’s work as a high school principal and his new job with the Interfaith Association: Both are about creating a sense of community and rallying communities toward like-minded goals.

Peters believes it was Dean who coined the school’s mission statement: “Preparing students to lead extraordinary lives.”

That seems apt in his new calling, Peters said.

“It’s just different places in someone’s life,” he said. “It’s not just to help someone get by, or survive a difficult period of their life, but to prepare them to move forward.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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