After 20 years, 'time to pass the torch'

Betsy Ross principal, known for inspiring teachers, retiring

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By Maria Maxham

"Nobody loves the kids more than Bill Milnamow does." Patty Marino, Betsy Ross secretary for 10 years, didn't hold back when asked to speak about Milnamow who is retiring after 20 years.

Teachers and staff are heartbroken that he's retiring now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, without a chance for the kind of celebration he deserves, said Marino. They were planning a big ceremony with the school community and his family. Cards from the kids. Past teachers and staff coming back to honor the man who led the school for two decades.

"I just can't imagine Betsy Ross without him," said Marino, who has a unique perspective as both a parent of kids who went through Forest Park public schools and as a long-time staff member. She said one of the things that makes him such a good leader was his constant presence in the classrooms, not just in his office.

"He established relationships with all the kids," said Marino. "He made them all feel comfortable."

Peggy Perry, who has been a teacher with District 91 for 19 years, echoed that sentiment.

"Bill is the kind of principal that students want to share their successes with," said Perry. She said that one thing she'll remember about him is how whenever a student lost a tooth at school, the first thing they wanted to do was see Milnamow.

"Whether it was their first or third, they couldn't wait to go see Mr. Milnamow to have their 'gummy' picture taken and then have their picture posted on the bulletin board in the hallway."

And like Marino, she expressed how hard it is to imagine the school without him.

"When I think of Betsy Ross, the first person that comes to my mind is Mr. Milnamow," said Perry, who has taught in other schools in the district. "I am so happy to have been able to spend the last seven years back at Betsy with Bill as my principal. He has been an amazing leader for teachers, a role model for our students, and so respectful to his staff. I am proud to be a teacher in Mr. Milnamow's school building."

Lupe Huner, whose four daughters attended Betsy Ross, said they've known Milnamow since her oldest started kindergarten in the fall of 2011. Her youngest is finishing second grade at Betsy Ross this year and will be moving on to Field Stevenson in the fall.

"We will definitely miss him," said Huner.

Few who have worked with Milnamow would be surprised that for the past seven years in a row, teachers at Betsy Ross have been awarded the Crystal Apple Award, recognition that goes to the top teacher in the district. Marino says it's a testament to how much Milnamow inspires the people around him.

Milnamow said in an interview that he's proud of his teachers, but he can't take credit for them winning the award.

"The teachers push each other and encourage each other," said Milnamow. "I don't have to push them."

He credits his teachers' success with the fact that they work well together. "The teachers are so collaborative," said Milnamow.

In the 20 years he's been at Betsy Ross, he's seen the school – and the district – go through significant changes. He was around for the district transition to grade-level centers, which he said was the biggest change he'd experienced in his time in D91.

"That was a big change for the school and community," said Milnamow. "We worked hard with the PTOs to work it out and make the transition as easy as possible."

The one thing he said he wanted students coming over to Betsy Ross to feel was: "This is your home."

"The PTO did a tremendous job with that," said Milnamow, because they worked hard to make sure every student and family felt welcome.

The transition meant that teachers, too, were moved from building to building to accommodate the new structure.

"They were used to different things in different buildings," said Milnamow. "We didn't want it to be a 'me against you' environment. It needed to be collaborative. A team approach was imperative."

But, he said, his staff started working together from day one and never looked back.

As for his retirement now, he said he's looking forward to "slowing down."

"I won't miss the pressure," he said. "As principal, I took seriously the responsibility to constantly work to make things better." He is looking forward to traveling, when it's safe to do so, and spending time on family genealogy.

But he will miss the students and teachers. And he's sad his retirement won't be exactly what he expected.

"I wish the kids were here," said Milnamow, who's still in the office three days a week. "I wanted to finish the year as planned. But this is necessary, although unfortunate."

Still, though, instead of talking more about what he's missing out on, he turned the attention back to the teachers and staff.

"I'm very proud of how they pulled this all together," he said about distance learning. "The teachers have been reaching out to the kids and their families. Now, in this situation, the crisis has made it obvious how well they work together."

Because of the effort of all the teachers, said Milnamow, "the learning loss won't be huge. The kids will catch up quickly."

Milnamow said he'll miss the school, but he'll miss the town too.

"Forest Park is special," said Milnamow, mentioning how every part of the village pulls together, including the mayor, the chamber, the library, the park district, the community center. "It's a wonderful place to be. I can't imagine a better place to work or be a part of."

He said he's confident Tinisa Huff, who will take over in June, will lead the school well. He's had the opportunity to work with her since December, and he said he's excited about the change and to see what she can accomplish.

"I think moving forward it will be fantastic with Huff," said Milnamow. "It's time to pass the torch."

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Sharon Urbaniec  

Posted: May 20th, 2020 10:01 PM

I had the pleasure of working alongside Bill. He was truly student-centered and always led with his heart for the best for his kids. Best of luck to him in his future! His fancy ties and smile will definitely be missed.

Patty Duff Marino  

Posted: May 19th, 2020 10:08 PM

Wonderful article Maria! Thank you!

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