COLUMBIA—Large colorful paper flowers decked the walls of the gym at St. John Neumann School on June 1. Scattered around the room were images of ladybugs — lots and lots of ladybugs.
All of this color and fun surrounded a large banner on one wall that stated “We will miss you Mrs. Cole, thank you for helping us blossom.”
The flowers, the ladybugs, and the adults and children who crowded the gym were a celebration and tribute for Barbara Cole, their beloved principal who is retiring after 16 years.
Francine Barry, who teaches the 3-year-old kindergarten class at St. John Neumann, said she has been blessed to work with Cole as both a parent and an employee. Barry’s four children all attended or currently attend the school.
“She loves this school 100 percent,” Barry said. “You could see it in everything she did. She helped to make St. John Neumann what it is today because she has high expectations, and those filtered down to everyone else in the school community. She is compassionate, innovative, and always had new ideas.”
Cole retires after a 32-year career in education, all but two of them in Catholic schools. She knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was a little girl growing up in Illinois, when she set up dolls and teddy bears in a row to play school.
She received her degree in education from Eastern Illinois University and worked in her home state until she and her husband followed her daughter to the southeast in the ’90s. Initially, she served as principal at St. Anthony School in Florence.
In 2001, she paid a visit to St. John Neumann while shadowing Sister Canice Adams, who was principal at the time, and instantly fell in love with it. Shortly after, Bishop Robert J. Baker asked Sister Canice to become superintendent of Catholic schools, and she said she would take the job only if Cole would replace her at St. John Neumann.
“I believe there are no coincidences, and God has His plan, and that event proved it was His plan for me to come here,” Cole said.
Over the years, Cole has worked to improve the school at every level, including the use of technology and raising the rigor of science classes. Most recently, she made the playground at St. John Neumann safer, moving it to property behind the building and fencing it completely so students could play in a more secure environment.
As part of her retirement celebration, Father C. Alexander “Sandy” McDonald, pastor of St. John Neumann Church, revealed a sign that showed the playground had officially been dedicated in her name.
The school won many awards under her leadership, including being named a 2008 National Blue Ribbon School, an Inviting Schools Fidelity Award and being accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In 2008, she also received the Dr. Robert J. Kealey Distinguished Principal Award for the South Atlantic region, and in 2009 she was named a National Distinguished Principal by the U.S. Department of Education.
Awards and recognition are important, she acknowledged, but what really mattered to her day-to-day was the chance to connect with students and their families, plus faculty and staff members.
“I will miss coming here every day, being around the children and working with teachers and parents,” Cole said. “I’m saying goodbye to people here that I have considered family for 16 years.”
Cole said the fact of leaving really started to hit her during the last few days of school, when younger students asked “But when are you coming back?”
She will leave behind hundreds of people she has touched over the years, including former students such as Karah Barry, 13, who said her former principal was “always inspiring to us, both spiritually and personally.”
Erin Barry, 11, recalled that Cole always knew every student in the school and was able to greet them by name each morning.
Later in the summer, Cole and her husband Nick will move to Georgia to live closer to their daughter, who is a librarian. The couple hopes to travel and Cole also wants to volunteer at the library where her daughter works, and at a local food pantry or another ministry.
“I feel like my husband and I have been so blessed all of our lives, and now I will be able to take time and just give back,” Cole said.
Top photo: Barbara Cole (foreground, holding basket) stands with current and former students, teachers, and parents at the beginning of a ceremony to dedicate the playground at St. John Neumann in her name.