By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 8, 2007
Upon her retirement after years in the classroom and as St. Thomas More’s principal, Gail Msezane is enjoying more time to play bridge and to knit while also jumping into her newest role of grandmother to her 1-year-old grandson, Jacob.
“The first sweater I knitted him was three times too big,” she said with a laugh. “By the time I finish this one, it will be too small. The third will be just right.”
While she no longer wears the title of principal having retired in spring 2007, she remains no stranger to St. Thomas More School and parish, which she joined along with her husband after leaving her home of Canada, with teaching certificate in hand, to come to Georgia for her husband’s work.
“My children went to school (at St. Thomas More); that was our parish. They were having so much fun I asked if I could teach there.”
Msezane became a close friend to many during her years at St. Thomas More and was a “teachers’ principal,” according to admissions director and office staff worker Eileen Maron, who has been at the school for more than 11 years. “I think because she spent so many years in the classroom … she knew how to look after the staff.”
Prior to becoming principal in 1998, Msezane taught kindergarteners and second-graders for 13 years and was voted teacher of the year by her peers. One of those close to Msezane has been the school’s guidance counselor Nancy Fleming. They have been friends for 20 years. She recalled sometimes peeking into Msezane’s classroom when she taught.
“She’d be sitting on one of those little chairs with the kids. She blended in so well.”
Fleming called Msezane a “great mentor, friend and teacher.”
“Gail loved to have fun,” she added, saying also that she had a way with children.
“She’d always bring out the best in people and refused to see the bad, especially in children.”
Msezane often had the gift to turn things around when discipline issues arose. Fleming recalled one instance when a child came forward for an offense. Msezane simply asked the student, “How do you treat your friends?” Moments later the child, having “learned something, left the room with a smile.”
However, Msezane wasn’t easy, she added.
“She had high expectations and, by George, you did everything you could to meet them.”
Traveling to conferences or for fun with Msezane was a treat as she always included plans to visit local museums and areas of interest. Her personal approach to people and life is something Fleming has learned from her friend, who enjoys walking through gardens. “She enjoyed every blossom—kind of like people. There’d be flowers and a bunch of weeds. She’d never see the weeds, just the flower.”
Terry Collis, current principal at St. Thomas More, called Msezane her “guardian angel.”
“She was my boss for about 10 years. She was such a joy to work for.”
Collis remains particularly grateful to Msezane for her guidance when Collis served as assistant principal during the retired principal’s last year.
“I grew so much,” she said. “Being under her wing was a gift.”
She also appreciates that her mentor is still only a phone call away. “I do call her for consulting because she knows this school so well. … She is missed.”
Msezane’s importance to the school continues to be celebrated and recognized now through an annual contribution of $1,500 by the PTO to allow the school to purchase books in her name.
“She loved to read to the children,” Collis said. “She had that kind of a voice.”
And everyone seemed to recognize her gift, such as one child who, upon hearing Msezane over the intercom commented, “that’s the voice of an angel,” Collis recalled.
To show their appreciation for Msezane, who consistently poured herself into her vocation and guided the school out of a slump at one point, the school community surprised the outgoing principal last spring with the city of Decatur’s official declaration of “Gail Msezane Day.”
“It was quite grand,” Msezane said. “I was truly surprised.”
Each class presented Msezane with a basket of goodies depicting certain aspects of their principal—a basket of coffee items, gardening tools, yarn to knit. “I was going to be very busy,” she remembered thinking.
Reflecting back over the years of her career at the school, she is most grateful for the legacy and traditions she and the school community inherited from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who founded the school but years later left to return to their motherhouse. “Their influence was so important. They supported the lay people.”
She recalled the words of the order’s foundress, St. Julie Billiart: “How good is the good God!”
Msezane relishes the diversity and vitality of St. Thomas More evident now, particularly given that in times past school closings loomed.
“What I take with me is a positive—how important Catholic education is to parents and how grateful I am to parents for their support.”
At weekend Mass, children with their parents still wave. “I see them there and I know that their parents are continuing that (tradition). … I am so grateful that the wonderful legacy is there for their children, helping them grow up.”
To add to her happiness is news that her grandson, whose parents are finishing their medical residencies in Chicago, will move to the area—but not just to any neighborhood.
Msezane confided, “We talk about my grandson going to St. Thomas More.”