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Leaving behind a legacy

SHAKE: Principal Russ Degitz took time to shake each graduates hand as the last senior class under his leadership walked across the graduation stage this past Sunday.

by Andrew Maciejewski - amaciejewski@h-ponline.com

The year before Russ Degitz became principal of Huntington North High School (HNHS) in 2015, the graduation rate was at 91.2 percent, according to Indiana Department of Education reports.

Within three school years, he secured the highest graduation rate in HNHS history, topping out at 95.4 percent, and although he will have begun his new position as chief operating officer of Huntington University before this school year’s graduation rate is released, he said this year’s class has been “unbelievable” and preliminary figures show that they’ve maintained the level of excellence Degitz has built. 

As Degitz watched his last class of seniors walk across the stage, he shook each of their hands and looked them directly in their eyes knowing they will bring positive change wherever they land.

“Honestly, when I think about my time here, it will be about the relationships and connections to students and the great staff,” Degitz said. “Seeing the students find success, most obviously on days like graduation, that’s most important.”

When he began as a social studies teacher at HNHS in 2002, he said he never thought he would be sitting in the principal’s office. He went to HU with dreams of being an educator and coach for 30 years, hoping to pass down the knowledge he picked up from the role models and mentors in his life.

“I was raised in a really, really good home,” Degitz said. “My parents were always there and did an outstanding job, but I’ve had coaches along the way who invested even more in more. I saw how much I respected them and the influence they had on me, so I thought if I had the opportunity to do that, it would be a situation where I would love to have that.”

Teaching is a two-way street, says Degitz. He not only learned about himself and leadership as he climbed the ladder from teacher to administrator – holding roles like head baseball coach, HNHS dean of students and principal of Lancaster Elementary – but he said the students have helped him grow as an individual as well.

“I definitely learned that if I had gone to college with them, I probably wouldn’t have been ranked as high in my high school class,” Degitz said with a laugh. “But I think the biggest lesson they’ve taught me is that our future is in great hands. When I look at our top 25 students and I look at the students that are earning all kinds of accolades and experiences, I think about what kind of leaders they will become. It’s pretty exciting to think about what possibilities are there.”

He said they are the reason he was able to finish his doctorate while working overtime to be the best principal possible.

“There is something about an energy from teenagers that can be contagious,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re tired from staying up late the night before doing work because when students come into the building each day, it brings a whole other level of excitement. It’s the whole reason we do what we do.”

Although Degitz grew up in Fort Wayne and graduated from Northrop High School, he said Huntington is his new home.

“We chose this place, and if you count my college years when I was on campus, I’ve been living in Huntington for 21 years,” he said. “I can’t imagine a better place to raise a family when you think about how it’s a safe place, small town with good values, a good school system and plenty of opportunities.”

During the few days that HNHS looked like a ghost town after graduation, Degitz was working hard to ensure teachers were ready for summer school, while also making preparations for the new principal, Rief Gilg, to have a smooth transition so he can continue the legacy Degitz built of leading the students in the direction of “true north.”

“He’ll be outstanding. I’ve actually known Rief for almost 20 years,” Degitz said as he talked about how they started at HNHS together one year apart before Gilg took a position at East Noble High School and later moved onto Dekalb High School.

Each year as freshmen arrive at HNHS, Degitz tells them to think about the legacy they would like to leave when they graduate in four years, asking them to live each day thinking about the impact they want to make so that they will be remembered as a positive force.

Reflecting on his own legacy, Degtiz thanked his staff and all the teachers of the county that helped him lead the next generation of Huntington, and he thanked the HCCSC administration for believing in him.

“Maybe I didn’t make every decision right. Maybe there were bumps along the way, but I’m hoping I left this place in a good position or better than I found it,” Degitz reflected. “I hope the legacy I left would be one where there is possibility... I hope to have served well along the way, and if that’s what I’m remembered for or what students think of me as their high school principal, I will count that as a win.”

Degtiz said it hasn’t fully sunk in yet that his time at HNHS is done, but he said as he drives past HNHS on his way to HU after he works his last day on June 15, he said he knows it will hit him.

“There’s a really big place for Huntington North in my heart still,” he said.