Big. That was the first impression. Towering and authoritative compared to other adults. Impeccable suits. An enormous, genuine smile. Back in the mid-1970s, when I was a scrawny high school student at Madison West and Milt McPike was an assistant principal there, he had the stature of someone who could dominate a roomful of standing people while seated in a chair.
But he was almost always on his feet, roaming the halls - first at West, then for 23 years as the principal across town at East High, where he built a reputation for being able to match the names and faces of all his students on sight, and engaging them in setting high standards for themselves. By 2002, McPike had distinguished himself to such a degree that his retirement was met with a palpable sense of loss.
News of his death on Saturday, at 68, from a rare form of cancer, compounds the loss. But among students, parents and colleagues, it is also converting first impressions into lasting memories.
Four years before she was first elected to the Madison School Board, Carol Carstensen encountered McPike as the parent of a daughter who was starting her freshman year at East. "One of the things I remember from very early on was how impressed she was that he knew who she was," Carstensen recalls. Her daughter had gone to a dance but forgotten her student ID. "Milt said, 'Oh, yeah, I know who she is. Let her in.'"
This was, Carstensen says, indicative of his efforts to cultivate a sense of East as home to an extended family. "Milt was committed heart and soul to East High School," she remembers. "He took a very personal interest and was instrumental in changing the perception of East High."
Long viewed as a school attended by students from blue-collar families who were themselves destined for the trades, East was transformed by McPike's relentless insistence on academic excellence. By 1989, the U.S. Department of Education had designated East as a National High School of Excellence. In 1990, Reader's Digest listed McPike among 10 American Heroes in Education.
His high standards extended all the way through graduation ceremonies. "I remember as the kids were lining up to go into the Field House, Milt would walk down the line," Carstensen says. "You had to have decent shoes on, not tennis shoes. Boys had to wear long pants, not shorts." McPike wouldn't tolerate beach balls or silly string or any other distractions.
Hugs were a different matter. Carstensen remembers her husband "being astounded at all the kids who would come up to Milt and give him a hug."
This affection endures.
Melissa Sargent graduated with East's class of 1987. Her first memory of McPike dates to four years earlier. "Gigantic man," she recalls. "But he had such a warm smile. He made it seem like high school was going to be good. Very reassuring."
When she reflects on his legacy, she thinks of the thousands of young lives he helped shape - including her own. She went on to take a degree in psychology from UW-Madison. Now a co-owner of the digital-imaging business Opacolor and a mother of three, Sargent is PTO president at Gompers Elementary and has served on a number of nonprofit boards. McPike, she says, impressed upon her "what a difference you can make as an individual," and she credits him as "one of the people who encouraged me to be a good community member."
Breinne Wolf graduated with East High School's Class of 1996. Now a Stoughton High School teacher, she remembers McPike as "a big teddy bear. When I think of Milt McPike, all I can say is Milt McPike is East High School. I've never met a more caring individual than Milt. It didn't matter what gender, what race, what economic status you had, we were all equal in his eyes." She remembers that, and his "amazing, booming laugh."
His impact on Wolf's life and career was profound. "I had such a wonderful experience at East that I decided I wanted to go into teaching," she explains. But when she went to see her guidance counselor, "she said she wasn't sure that was the right field for me. So I was kind of bummed about it, and I saw Mr. McPike in the hall, and he said, 'Hey girl, what's wrong?' And I told him about it, and he said, "Don't you ever let anybody tell you there's something you cannot do.'"
Everyone dies, even the most impressive high school principals. But before they die, great educators perpetuate themselves by broadcasting thousands of their students out into the world.