By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published May 26, 2005
She has been their co-worker, their teacher, their principal and their friend for the past 27 years. And on April 24, members of the Our Lady of the Assumption School community came together to celebrate with a Mass and reception the years of service and sacrifice that their retiring principal, Joan Tiernan, Ph.D., had brought to their school for nearly 30 years.
On the back cover of the program for the Mass held in her honor was Lord Byron’s famous poem, “She Walks in Beauty.”
“The smiles that win, the tints that glow, but tell of days in goodness spent,” the poem reads. “A mind at peace with all below, a heart whose love is innocent.”
Those words seem to summarize the woman who has given her life to the school since 1979 when she first joined the faculty as a math teacher.
Bennie Smith, who began her career at OLA in 1979 and is currently serving as interim principal in the wake of Tiernan’s retirement, said that she hit it off with Tiernan right away.
Smith was serving as a social studies teacher when Tiernan came in as a math teacher.
“There were three of us who taught together … and we have remained very close friends,” she said. “We got along right away, probably because we fell into relatively the same age category and our children were also around the same age.”
The women bonded over their children, their students and their love for the OLA community, which at that time, was led by the Sisters of Mercy.
“What I always loved about Joan is that she has a wonderful sense of humor. She’s always able to laugh at herself,” she said. “She commands respect from people, but there is always that humor there.”
When Tiernan became principal over 12 years ago, Smith said that the transition was an easy one. During the 2003-2004 school year, Tiernan asked Smith to be her assistant principal.
“She has an extremely professional attitude,” Smith said. “But at no point did she ever have to tell anyone ‘I’m the principal of the school.’ She exemplified that by her attitude, her authority and her vision.”
That vision, Smith said, was always focused on what was best for the students.
“She’s always had a belief in this school, that the mission of the school and the role of the school was based on the importance of the children,” she said. “If she had something to say from the point of view of the principal, it was always said in the kindest way possible.”
Under the direction of Tiernan, the school added programs and buildings and increased the quality of its faculty. Mernie Huttman first began working with Tiernan on the school’s board of education in the 1980s. She later served under Tiernan as the school’s business manager and has continued to stay involved in OLA from a financial point of view. Huttman’s youngest son graduated this year from OLA.
“There has been tremendous growth in the school under Joan,” she said. “She was instrumental in convincing the pastor that we could build the new addition to the school … She greatly enhanced the quality of the faculty.”
But though the school’s quality continued to increase, Huttman said, Tiernan was determined to keep the cost of education down.
“Her priority was always to keep the tuition as low as it could be so that as many Catholic families as possible could benefit from Catholic education,” Huttman said. “Joan has an immense love for children. That’s always been her driving force.”
Father Jim McGoldrick, SM, pastor of OLA Church, called Tiernan an “outstanding principal.”
“The school just continued to improve and get stronger both academically and spiritually while she was principal,” he said. “She is personable and has good relationships with the faculty, parents and students. She’s available. She’s always had an open door policy.”
Huttman said that as principal Tiernan was forced at times to make difficult decisions, but she always focused on the students.
“I’ve never seen her make a hard decision without looking at what is best for that particular child,” she said.
As a friend, Tiernan is loyal and supportive, Huttman said.
“I would do anything for her,” Huttman said. “She’s quiet and soft-spoken but has such a great sense of humor. She was always so fun to work with. We’d even laugh when we didn’t have money.”
Smith also cherishes her friendship with Tiernan.
“She is incredibly easy to be with, and she is never ever one to complain,” she said.
As Tiernan begins her retirement and a new chapter at OLA begins, Smith is confident that Tiernan’s influence on the school is long lasting.
“Nothing is forever, even if we want it to be. The Sisters of Mercy weren’t here forever,” she said. “All we leave behind is what we have done to continue the legacy of OLA. And Joan definitely did that.”