Gary Huwer got a job at Millstadt Consolidated School in 1968 because he was willing to teach sixth grade and drive a school bus.
Nearly 45 years later, he's still driving a bus, but only when regular drivers call in sick.
The rest of the time, Huwer is supervising the cafeteria and playground, handling student discipline and otherwise working as principal of the school, which has 580 students in third through eighth grades.
"He's firm, but he's fun," said parent Patty Taylor, 51, of Millstadt, whose daughter, Lydia, is in eighth grade. "The kids love it when he drives a bus. He cranks up the radio, and they sing."
Huwer's philosophy is that principals should be positive whenever possible to offset their negative image.
"You come to work every day knowing you are going to have conflict at some point," he said. "That's just part of the job."
Huwer strictly enforces the school dress code -- no sagging pants, no clothing with holes, no T-shirts that promote alcohol, no unnatural hair colors and no spiked haircuts.
Students have been spending a lot of time in the office recently, but not because of misbehavior. They've been celebrating "45 days of Huwer" and counting down to his retirement.
On a recent morning, third-graders presented him with postcards they had hand-lettered and colored. Students beamed as he read each one aloud.
"Dearest Mr. Huwer" wrote Katie Connolly, 8. "After you retire, you should go for president because if you can lead the school, you can lead the nation."
Other students recommended places to travel or hobbies to pursue.
"You should work at Bass Pro Shop," wrote Peyton Hilpert, 8. "You would be a great employee. You might even be assistant manager. It would be fun. P.S. I heard they have a big fish tank."
A principal with passion
It's starting to sink in that Huwer, 66, is really leaving after 45 years at Millstadt, including 33 as a teacher and 12 as principal.
He planned to retire two years ago, but it just didn't happen.
"Gary Huwer IS Millstadt school," said Elizabeth Biermann, 49, a special education teacher for 28 years. "He lives it. He breathes it. He eats it. He sleeps it. There is no one who is more passionate about this district than him. He does not miss school -- ever."
Huwer's work day begins at 5:30 a.m. at home, where he calls substitutes for sick teachers. He gets to school around 7:30 and stays until 8 or 9 p.m. if there's a basketball game, science fair or awards banquet.
Biermann had Huwer as a teacher more than 30 years ago. So did math teacher Nancy Glaeser, 48.
"He was strict," she said. "But the one thing that stands out in my mind is when he held up a tiny pencil with a perfect eraser, and he said, 'This proves that the teacher is always right. I don't make mistakes.'"
Parent Charlotte Romano, 46, likes Huwer's attitude that the principal, teachers, parents and students are "all in this together."
"My son (Andrew) is in seventh grade, and he said, 'Do you know after we get done eating lunch that Mr. Huwer comes into the cafeteria and cleans up any excess trash to help out the cafeteria workers?'" Romano said. "It's just one example of someone going that extra mile."
Huwer is divorced with two grown children, Ted Huwer and Amber Hays. He's a community activist, serving as a Millstadt Township trustee, senior center board member and formerly township assessor.
Class clown becomes teacher
Huwer's roots with Millstadt Consolidated go back years before he became a teacher. He attended the school as a boy, graduating in 1960.
"If somebody had told me I was going to come back here and be a principal, I would have said, 'You are nuts,'" he said. "I was a pretty good student, but I also tried to be a clown. I would make a fool of the teacher whenever I could. I was very good at that."
Huwer played baseball under late coach Bob Williams, his math and history teacher. Williams became a mentor.
"I admired him," Huwer said. "He was an excellent teacher and an excellent coach. He commanded respect. He was a straight shooter. I wanted to be just like him."
Huwer attended Belleville West and Belleville Area College and earned an elementary education degree at McKendree College. (He later got a master's in school administration at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.)
Huwer taught sixth-grade math, science and art and seventh-grade geography his first year at Millstadt.
"I taught art classes at the same time in three different rooms," he said. "I always looked for art projects that took a lot of time. The students behaved. At that time, if they didn't behave, they got paddled."
Paddling was a practice Huwer abhorred, and he was glad when it was discontinued in the 1980s.
Today, students joke with Huwer in the cafeteria when he collects lunch cards. Sometimes he scarfs down a sandwich while standing between the lunch line and snack line, wearing his trademark tie and sweater vest.
"He tries to be funny," said Allyson Winkelman, 13. "He'll say, 'Are you going through the fast lane or the fat lane?' And he'll say, 'Don't be like me. I went through the fat lane.'"
Allyson was sitting at a table with about a dozen seventh-grade girls. Most admitted to getting in trouble over the years.
"The first time I was sent to (Mr. Huwer's) office, I started crying," said Delilia Megahy, 13. "And he told me to calm down, that I wasn't really in trouble, and I stopped crying."
Huwer is not as patient when he's talking about the state of education in Illinois.
"Being a principal isn't as much fun as it used to be because of the unfunded mandates and the high-stakes testing they force on you," he said.
Huwer's office is decorated with wildlife prints, stuffed waterfowl and items from his many collections, such as antique soda bottles and model cars. An 11-point buck is mounted over his desk.
"I used to hunt when I had time," he said, noting he lives on a farm outside town where hunting is allowed.
That's also where he keeps his 20 classic cars and motorcycles, including five Corvettes, a Hummer, trucks, SUVs and a Mini Cooper.
"I just enjoy driving them," he said. "I've always been a car guy. It's an investment, too. I'd rather put my money in cars than in the stock market."
A model B-29 hangs from the ceiling in Huwer's office, a reminder of late Millstadt superintendent Eugene Brumley, who flew a bomber in World War II. Brumley was Huwer's seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher. Brumley hired Huwer in 1968.
People ask Huwer what he plans to do after retirement. He once joked about being a shepherd on his farm, noting it would be a low-stress job.
That prompted district officials to kick off "45 days of Huwer" by showing up with a bathrobe, a plant hook for a staff and two live goats.
"The goats had harnesses with leashes," said Becky Avara, 53, Huwer's secretary. "So he went through the halls with the goats (wearing the robe and carrying the staff) and let the kids pet them."