SIDNEY — Christian Academy Schools Superintendent Mary Smith will retire when the last bell rings this spring.
She will have completed 20 years at the helm of the private charter school in Sidney.
The school will lose two things when she goes, said Todd Miller, chairman of the school’s board of directors.
“Obviously (we’ll lose) her years of experience in terms of the mechanics of running the school. But the bigger loss is losing the heart she has for the school,” he said, Wednesday, May 2. “I’ve seen how passionate she is about the school’s mission and the role the school can play in the lives of children.”
Smith never set out to be an administrator. Born in Columbus, she grew up in Fairfield, Bloomfield, Michigan, Romeo, Michigan, and Mentor. She graduated from Mentor High School and married Mark Smith, her high school sweetheart. They raised a son, Michael, and two daughters, Megan and Melissa.
“When the kids were in high school, junior high and elementary, we lived in Dorset. They went to a small, public school,” Smith said. When the public school closed, the Smiths and other parents started the Dorset Christian School. Smith became an active volunteer.
It was when she represented the school at a conference of the Association of Christian Schools International that a long-held interest in teaching resurfaced.
“I had always felt a calling to be a teacher. Both my grandmothers were teachers,” Smith said. Back at home, she took classes at the Ashtabula branch of Kent State University. Associate degree in hand, she completed a Bachelor of Science in elementary education at Youngstown State University and set out to look for a job.
“I sent out resumes on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday afternoon, Victory Christian School in Kinsman called. They had my resume and wanted me to interview,” Smith said. All these years later, she still has no idea how her mailing was delivered the same day in a city 21 miles away.
The job was teaching first, second and third grade subjects to 12 students.
“I had no idea what I was getting into, but I loved those kids,” Smith said. After her first year there, her class load lightened a little. For the next four years, she taught just second and third grades and became a mentor to the kindergarten teacher. But a move was in store.
Smith wanted to live closer to her mother and sisters. Mark’s job had him traveling a lot, and he did not have to live in a specific place. So Smith sent out resumes and set up interviews with four schools.
“My way to know which one to choose was that someone in the interview must know about the Brownsville Revival,” she said.
Smith had taken a group of students to Pensacola, Florida, in the spring for the revival which attracted as many as 4 million visitors over a five-year period.
“We got our socks knocked off,” Smith said of the experience. She wanted to work with someone who felt the same way.
Her last interview was with Christian Academy Schools in Sidney.
“We didn’t know where Sidney was,” she said. The interview took place in the offices of the Ohio Department of Education in Columbus. She met with then Superintendent Bud Ford and his assistant, Bob Montgomery. Ford had been to the Brownsville services.
After the interview, “we drove from Columbus to see Sidney,” Smith said. “We never got out of the car.”
When the offer came, it was to be a third-grade teacher. On her first day at work in 1997, Ford met her at the door and said, “Would you take the second grade, too?”
Ford resigned before school started, and Montgomery became the acting superintendent.
According to Montgomery, God named his replacement at 2 a.m. one dark night.
“In early October, Bob Montgomery came to me and said, ‘I know who the next superintendent is,’” Smith recalled. “‘It’s Mary Smith.’”
“I saw a person who believed in Christian education as a parent, an aide, a teacher and was now qualified to be an administrator,” Montgomery said.
Hesitant at first, Smith agreed to take the job if Montgomery would serve as mentor.
“We worked together for that first year. After that, I was traveling with my wife and (Mary and I) worked together by phone. And the phone calls became less and less, and that was good,” he said. “When she took the school, she worked with the board and parents to keep Christian education in Sidney, and then she kept expanding herself to the point of building a new building.”
When Smith arrived in Sidney, Christian Academy classes were in two buildings: one on Kossuth Avenue and the former township school on south county Road 25A. The school had owned the land on Russell Road for years and there had been more than one groundbreaking, but no leader had been able to establish a new school.
Smith didn’t have a clue as to how to take on such a huge project, but she knew what the first step had to be. She had to pray.
“Lord, I don’t know how to do this,” she said. She took the entire student body to the Russell Road site to pray with her.
“God, if this is where you want the building…”
God answered the prayers.
“There were a whole lot of people who led the charge,” Smith said. She recalled, for instance, that the gymnasium floor had been purchased at auction when a school in Bradford was being demolished. Retiree volunteers pulled up the floor board by board.
Students stuck cardboard gingerbread cutouts onto magazines for a mailing by Direct Graphics to earn $10,000 to get the gym floor installed. Volunteers from Calvary Baptist Church painted the cinderblock walls of the gym.
Agape provided lighting fixtures and teachers’ desks. Lockers came from Bridgeview School and from Wilson Hospital and were installed by those same retirees.
“Parents, teachers, friends did it all,” Smith said.
In what is almost unheard of in the nonprofit world of donations, 100 percent of the pledges of support came in.
The high school and gym were constructed in 2002 and the elementary school wing, in 2003.
But Smith doesn’t think of the Christian Academy building as her legacy. That, she said, will be “the lives that have been changed. And I didn’t do that. But I got to hire the people who got to do that. It’s all the people I’ve gotten to work with along the way that have made it worthwhile. I’ve often looked around and felt like Cinderella!”
It’s not just at school that Smith has made a difference. She earned a Master of Professional Studies in organizational leadership from Nyack College in 2007. She has served on the committee that coordinates the prayer breakfast and National Day of Prayer local observances since 2009. She has sat on the Shelby County Ministerial Association for 10 years and was its treasurer for three years. A member of Sidney Rotary Club for 15 years, she has chaired its scholarship committee for two thirds of that time.
“Of all the things I’ve worked on (in the community), the Impact World Tours in 2007 was most fulfilling,” she said. It was a Christian organization that presented a week of events in Sidney.
In retirement, Smith looks forward to spending more time with her grandchildren.
“And I want to pamper my husband,” she said. “I want to learn more about watercolor painting. I love to read. I love to sew. The Lord is telling me it’s time (to retire), and I don’t know what the next step will be. I’m waiting to hear from God.”
She leaves behind shoes too big to be filled by one person. The school will begin a new administrative model this summer.
“We started to look at other Christian schools and Christian colleges,” Miller said. “They have a second tier of administration. That has allowed us to look at staff we have and their special gifts and talents and let them live into those gifts and talents.”
The new superintendant will have support from three middle managers who will be responsible for marketing, finance and curriculum.
“Mary’s leaving will be a huge loss, but we’re looking forward to what’s in store,” Miller said.
Smith, too, is excited about the new structure at the school.
“I think it gives Christian Academy the opportunity to better meet the challenges ahead,” she said.
And for all that she has given the academy, what is the most important thing it has given her?
“In the beginning, God was important in my life, but now he’s more important, and how important it is helping people to see that in their own lives,” she said.