“Nothing like a farm. Nothing like being around animals, fixing things. There’s nothing quite like being out in the field with corn and winter wheat. – Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in “The Natural”.
The sun has risen, and so has 7-year-old Curtis Dietrich. The misty dawn pushed the sleepy-eyed boy out of a warm bed and into the cool morning air where daily chores on the family’s 1,800-acre Lehigh County dairy farm awaited him.
“We had responsibilities,” said Dietrich, now 62, who recently announced he would retire in June after 12 years as North Penn School District superintendent. “I woke up at 5 a.m. to do my part. I prepared the cows for milking, then milked and fed them, then showered and went to school.
“And less than 15 minutes after I got home from school, I was back there working on the farm with my brothers and sister until 7:30 or 8 p.m. Cows should be milked twice a day. Then I would go inside to eat our meal, do my homework, and go to bed. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Forget what the late John Denver sang about farm life being a little laid back. Work was everywhere. In the barn, where Dietrich and his siblings sat on stools and milked cows in metal buckets, and in the gaping fields, where Russell and Elaine Dietrich’s son rode beside his father’s tractor to help earth. In the fall, he would join his father on a combine harvesting the dry, brown corn stalks that provided food for the cows.
The seeds were planted, not just for crops, but to instill in Dietrich a roll-up work ethic that he credits with helping him succeed in a 40-year career in education that spanned from a science teacher in the classroom, to many years in administration, including four as assistant superintendent at North Penn before becoming superintendent, to 16 as a school board member at his alma mater, Northwestern Lehigh , headquartered in New Tripoli, where the family farm is located.
“The hard work on the farm was expected and rewarding,” Dietrich said, leaning back in a chair at the North Penn Educational Services Center. “The lessons I learned about work back then were lessons that have been applied to my work in education over the years. We worked together to get things done, to overcome challenges, as we we do now in the field of education.These lessons of the time are invaluable.
From technology to COVID response, a look back at achievements and challenges
Dietrich stands at the 18th tee of a long and distinguished teaching career. He looks back on much of the good work he helped lead at North Penn, including the drive to provide individual technology to all students; full-time kindergarten; and a commitment to inclusion and diversity in the curriculum.
On the operational side of Dietrich’s duties, he is largely responsible for the district’s involvement in self-insured health care, saving millions of dollars over the years, overseeing building renovations in eight school buildings, and developing safety plans and safety protocols for all schools. Under his leadership, North Penn High School became the first in the nation to implement augmented reality, a program that enhances learning skills such as problem solving, collaboration and creation to better prepare students for the future.
“This community is extremely fortunate to have had Dr. Dietrich as our leader for as long as we have,” said North Penn School Board President Tina Stoll. “He will be deeply missed.”
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Dietrich also noted the challenges North Penn has faced during his tenure, including the financial impact of state budget cuts, staffing shortages and, most recently, COVID-19 and school closures.
“The COVID pandemic has been a challenge,” he said. “So I immersed myself in knowing about the virus and the challenges. I have a background in chemistry and biology, and I taught that when I was a teacher. I wanted to know everything about the virus to know how to ensure the safety of our school and to provide the highest quality education. During the 2020 graduation during the pandemic, I had a lot of concerns about what graduation might look like. We spent so many hours planning this program at the football stadium. It was a major challenge.
“I worked closely with our Board of Directors and followed CDC protocols and strategies and relied on guidance from the Montgomery County Office of Public Health.”
Requiring all students to wear masks at school was not a popular move for some parents, who voiced their opinions at school board meetings at levels ranging from calm to calamitous.
“There were definitely people opposed to masking at school,” Dietrich said. “But you have to put it all into perspective. There are approximately 101,000 residents in the North Penn School District, but only 40 to 50 people showed up at the council meeting to oppose the mask mandate.
“But we showed empathy and concern for the situation of others. We asked for their patience as we navigated the pandemic. We were sure to constantly show that there was a possibility of hope. I was a champion for, let’s have a plan to show individuals that there is hope, and work through that, and that we have to be patient.
At the onset of the pandemic, and due to the stress and tension of public opposition to the implementation of safety protocols like mandatory school mask-wearing and virtual learning, school principals school in the country quit or retired en masse. Dietrich never considered leaving. Leadership, it is said, is lit when there is no roadmap to a solution.
“I didn’t want to leave the district at the height of the pandemic,” he said. “A captain does not abandon ship in rough waters.”
What is the future of Curtis Dietrich?
The seas have calmed down and the time has come for Dietrich to disembark from the ship North Penn. He will be spending more quality time with his children and five grandchildren. He is a football season ticket holder at his alma mater, Penn State, and said he also plans to attend Nittany Lions road games, and even attend football games in the college powerhouses of Alabama and LSU. A mission trip with his church is planned.
Lots of plans to hit the road.
And back to the farm.
“I have an interest in reconnecting with my roots on the family farm,” Dietrich said. “I have always loved agriculture. I also admired the advances in technology and productivity. For example, there is something called dairy genetics. It’s doing genomic mapping of bulls to be able to do artificial insemination. It creates healthier animals and weeds out problem bulls. There is also something called cow superovulation which maximizes the number of fertilized and transferable embryos that are placed in recipient cows to increase their reproductive rates.
Not all farm memories are remembered fondly. Dietrich’s father was killed there in 1999 at the age of 67 when a bale of hay weighing around 500 pounds broke off from a loader the patriarch was using and landed on him.
“Dad was already retired (two years earlier),” Dietrich said. “But he always came and said, ‘I want to help. What can I do?’ Agriculture was in his blood.
While the soil of agriculture has long since been cleaned under his fingernails, Dietrich admits it continues to run through his veins.
As for leaving North Penn, Dietrich gives a sad look.
“The hardest part will be leaving people here,” he said. “What I won’t miss is the stress. But people. This place is about great people. But my time has come. It’s time to go.”
Because, as the fictional greatest hitter ever noted, there’s no such thing as a farm.
Columnist Phil Gianficaro can be reached at 215-345-3078, [email protected] and @philgianficaro on Twitter.