Former principal Dr. Joseph Novak coordinates and teaches master’s programs at KU
After an administrators position in the district for 21 years and a try at retirement for four months, Novak joins the KU staff to continue his love of school
March 2, 2016
Although it takes a combined effort to run a school, much of what makes Mill Valley the school that it is, whether it be staff, students or tradition, can be credited to former principal Dr. Joseph Novak, who retired from the district in 2010.
Yet teaching and administration was not always Novak’s original intent.
“I was actually a pre-med major, I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, because, playing high school and college football, they put me back together many times. Turns out, I didn’t do so well in pre-med and counseled out, probably wisely,” Novak said. “So, they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I’ll teach,’ because there were many teachers in my life who, in spite of my craziness and silliness and onriness, believed in me and I remembered back to those people who impacted my life, so I went into education and never looked back.”
After moving to Kansas in the late ‘70s, Novak joined a friend in Topeka to coach football. An opening in the district found its way to him and caught his interest and he interviewed for an administrative position at De Soto High School.
“I applied and was one of three finalists who didn’t get it,” Novak said. “But, the person who did get it, he had not told complete truths in his application, so they eliminated him and selected me because I was the second choice. So I became the assistant principal, way back, for one year and then became principal because the man was retiring.”
Novak helped move DHS out of the building that currently serves as Lexington Trails Middle School and into its own school. After 10 years at DHS, Novak was called and asked if he could lead opening Mill Valley, meaning he could create another school, this time from the ground- up, and help mold the atmosphere it was to become and still is today.
“You are always honored when people trust your abilities. It was a blessed opportunity to take on,” Novak said. “I would spend half of my day at De Soto, and the other half I’d drive up to Mill Valley and there was still no furniture there, so I had this old desk and one chair and all I had was my cellphone to make the arrangements. I ordered everything — everything that had to do with Mill Valley — band uniforms, band instruments, furniture, everything that goes into the school.”
When he talks about the challenges, Novak notes they were always positive, because it was something to learn from due to significant changes in opening Mill Valley compared to DHS.
“Mill Valley, it being a brand new school that was evolving in a brand new neighborhood that was bringing in first-time students to a school,” Novak said. “There was no tradition in Mill Valley, there was no culture or climate, and so the challenge was to build something [students] are proud of today.”
Novak’s enthusiasm about his students and staff left a lasting impression on the teachers he hired during his 11 years as administrator, like broadcast journalism teacher Dorothy Swafford, who originally was hired into the communication arts department.
“If something came down from the Board, if he didn’t think it was awesome for his staff, he went tooth and nail for us,” Swafford said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my teachers are going to do this,’ it was, ‘No, my teachers don’t want to do this and these are the reasons why and I support them.’ Everyone just built around that, because there was this connection that he was there for us and we wanted to be there for him.”
The most important aspect of administrative positions to Novak is working with younger people, to which he described as “rewarding” if only using one word.
“I watched people enter as physically and emotionally less mature individuals to graduating and becoming wonderful and very successful people in the community,” Novak said.
For Novak, being an administrator with a lot of responsibility did not harden him or have him think he was too important of an adult to work with the students, but pushed him to get to know all of his students and be involved. Novak notes the downside of the school going over 800 students.
“We started with a population of about 700, so to watch it go from that to 1300, that was crazy and a little disappointing,” Novak said. “I prided myself in being in the halls and knowing students by their name. When we got past 800, I would see a student and ask if they went to school here and they’d go, ‘Dr. Joe, I go to school here,’ then I’d go back and see [their name] in the Skyward system and feel so embarrassed. But that was one of the downfalls of being so big.”
Dr. Joe to his students and staff, Novak personally worked with students, whether it was by having a small part in the musical or working hand-in-hand with StuCo to allow school celebrations to take place.
“My most favorite time was always having a cameo role in the productions in the school musicals. I was a thespian in high school and college, so [former choir director Bob] Velazquez, who is the choral director at Monticello Trails Middle School, was the choral director and director of the fall musicals. They would always cast me in a role,” Novak said. “For instance, I was Senator Foghorn in ‘Little Abner,’ I was teen angel in ‘Grease,’ those were really fun times. I got to work with the students; it was fun working with the kids because you get to see them in their realm, rather than them seeing me in mine.”
In continuation of favorite memories, Novak highlighted a seldom talked about story: the time the homecoming parade was held inside the school, using shopping carts from Price Chopper.
“One year, it rained so hard we had to cancel the parade and the students came up with the idea of going to Price Chopper and borrowing 25 carts,” Novak said. “So, instead of floats, we [pushed] around carts and paraded the halls of Mill Valley with the band. It was wonderful — students were on the rafters and the stairs, lining both sides of the hallways — everyone had a good time.”
For 11 years, Novak had the students and staff as his No. 1 priority, according to Swafford.
“Everytime I saw him, he said, ‘How’s it going Swaff, everything good?’ He was always the first one to ask how things were going, and there was always a smile on his face,” Swafford said. “He told me his door was always open. It was nice he went that extra mile.”
Novak stepped down from his position as principal in 2010 to retire. Yet, retirement was just not for Novak, as he was back on his feet four months later working for the University of St. Mary, only to then be called by the University of Kansas to teach part time.
A part-time job turned into three positions, as Novak now coordinates both the online and on-campus master’s programs for school administration, Novak also coordinates the Professional Development School program, as well as teaching undergraduate and graduate courses online and in class.
With a bachelor’s degree from Providence College, a master’s at Michigan State University and a doctorate from Kansas State University, Novak notes it’s the experience, not just the degrees, that has helped him define his career experience.
“Every step along the way helps open up a door. I don’t know if I would be half as successful as I would hope to be at KU if it were not the experiences I have had along the way,” Novak said.
For Novak, work is a passion, and it does not seem like there is an end to it any time soon.
“[My family] has health and well-being, so we will make decisions on the future as they come. I’m just having a ball, and KU has offered me a three-year extension and I guess I’ll be there until I’m 68,” Novak said. “And, if I’m still willing and the creek don’t rise, I might just go a little longer. I don’t think I will go past 70, but you never know.”
Looking back, the most important thing Novak did according to Swafford was make work “feel like home.”
And while Novak does not miss the politics of balancing the Board of Education with the community, Novak said that if he were given the chance, he would retake his position at Mill Valley.
“I just really enjoyed being around young people — that to me is the greatest joy, is watching [them] develop. I will not take credit for that, it was a collaborative effort of the [journalism adviser] Kathy Habigers and the [former communication arts teacher] Justin Bogarts, the [social studies teacher] Jeff Wielands and all of the others,” Novak said. “That school could run itself, it would run itself really well because of the students and staff.”