For nearly 35 years, Thayer Central Elementary Principal, Kurk Wiedel, has applied advocacy in his professional and personal life while firmly standing his ground.
Not everyone is going to see it his way, he said, but Wiedel, who is preparing to retire after the 2021-2022 school year, looks to the end result of his efforts, which includes city government that is successful under LB840, a measure he pushed for that attracted support from his fellow council members.
Wiedel reflected on his career that began with coaching when he was 19 years old. Not many people know he was a walk-on for the Nebraska Huskers football program.
“I was a kicker. At that time, the walk-on program was big. I wrote a letter with my dad and Bill Hudson, and I walked on. I lasted two weeks,” he said. There were five freshmen kickers and Wiedel was the fifth.
After his debut, Wiedel went to college in Fairbury and accepted a position coaching basketball under superintendent Don Crowder. He was also asked to be an assistant coach for girls basketball.
“That got my foot in the door,” Wiedel said. But Wiedel didn’t walk through right away. He earned his education degree and applied in several places. He actually loves interviewing and did so for approximately 10 schools, including Henderson that wanted him, but didn’t have a contract. They promised to send it.
A board member in Hebron told him they wanted Wiedel at Thayer Central, and Wiedel thought about it.
“I felt I needed to stay here,” he said. He accepted the job and started teaching fourth grade in 1987. Coaching was just part of the schedule and he was the head volleyball, assistant basketball and junior high track coach.
Taking on so much at once didn’t phase him.
“I love teaching, but coaching is exactly the same. I like working with kids and love to see young people learn something and watch them get it,” Wiedel said.
He’s an organizer and a disciplinarian. He seems to enjoy the challenges, especially with students who have a hard time at home.
“They come free reign and do what they want. Some of them don’t have anger control. They have internal quirks. They haven’t been taught the expectations,” he said.
He believes in them, but not the behaviors.
“I’ll chew some butt, but I always tell them I love them, but I don’t love what they did and it has to be corrected. That’s the best part of teaching,” Wiedel said.
Back when Wiedel started, he had 12 kids in the fourth grade while wife Kris taught second grade. He mentioned Holly Mumm who was the other fourth grade teacher and now teaches Title I at the elementary.
“She’s retiring with me this year. She connected with kids better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Wiedel said.
When Thayer Central merged with Gilead, two teachers transferred, Kris Wiedel took the reduction in force route and Wiedel headed down to teach at the primary school, the current location of the Southeast Community College Learning Center.
Wiedel shifted back and forth between grades, coaching and administration before becoming full time principal.
It’s been great, but he would much rather teach, he said.
“I would make a better difference. I have 250 kids, but they’re not totally mine,” he said as he sat behind his desk in the principal’s office at 7:45 a.m., manned telephone calls and had comforting words for a student.
Principals make the most connections and manage at the same time, he said.
“When you’re my kid, I am deciding how we’re going to make this work,” Wiedel said. His own children — he raised them in the district with the youngest, Jasa graduating this May, understood he was their principal at school and dad at home. He also coached his sister Kendra.
“She was a player on one of the first teams I coached. Their team was the first I ever took to state,” he explained.
His philosophy is work harder than his staff. Wiedel tries to be the last to leave the building after his staff every evening. He doesn’t necessarily like managing, but he’s committed.
“I can make a difference the eight hours they’re here,” he said of the students. “It doesn’t mean we don’t show love or discipline, but we’re parenting these kids. If you’re not fully involved in that, don’t teach for me. My teachers work hard and do whatever they can to make the best eight hours for these kids,” Wiedel said.
His commitment was affirmed by a former student, Thomas Yoachim, who teaches fourth grade at Centura in Cairo. Wiedel challenged Yoachim in the second grade.
“He was a very bright boy. I always told him to go into teaching,” Wiedel said.
Yoachim wrote an email to Wiedel last year.
“You’re why I am who I am right now,” Yoachim said.
“He outlined several things I didn’t know I did,” Wiedel said.
Two of his children, Jenna and Simon, are in education, and he guides them when asked, but the message is the same — keep working.
“I don’t how you rate success, but when I see kids care and go on to be successful, that’s it,” Wiedel said. “We’re here to advocate for our kids and I’ll listen to both sides. Sometimes, the child will be right, and if that happens, we’re going to have to have a conversation.”
He didn’t want to talk about controversial issues, such as the state’s health standards being protested by parents across the state, however, he said boards of education are elected to handle those issues.
“Our board has one important job and that is to set policy,” he said. “They should always remember, we get to create our own policies.”
On success, the Thayer Central Volleyball team didn’t make it state, but when the girls were asked about the best part of the year, they told him it was the trip down the Niobrara River.
“The process was as good as the final product,” he said. They were all disappointed, however, Wiedel added they had many winning moments during the season.
“Everybody wants to win a state title, but if they forget about everything you go through, they are forgetting the important pieces,” he said.
He truly loves the sport of volleyball and is planning to officiate after his retirement.
“You still connect with the coaches and kids. Volleyball is intriguing,” he said.
Wiedel will retire knowing he’s enjoyed his career for the most part and has little regret. Earlier on, he did further his education to become a superintendent, but isn’t sure if he’ll ever use it.
One thing for sure, Wiedel will continue to advocate — one of the top words in his vocabulary.