Concluding three decades at Hills, Paspalas reflects on past and present challenges

While the spring Covid-19 lockdown closed Hills’ doors, Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Phil Paspalas said it opened his eyes to the next phase of his career.

Paspalas+coaching+wrestling+during+his+first+year+at+Hills+in+1989.

Contributed by Phil Paspalas

Paspalas coaching wrestling during his first year at Hills in 1989.

While the spring Covid-19 lockdown closed Hills’ doors, Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Phil Paspalas said it opened his eyes to the next phase of his career.

[Recommended: Phil Paspalas, Hills assistant principal and athletic director, to retire in 2021]

“Spending more time at home with my wife and my family, I realized just that it was time to start moving on,” Paspalas said of his intention to retire in 2021, which the Board approved last month. “I love being here, I love what I do, but it’s just time.”

When Paspalas talks about time, though, he is confident of his ability to take on what is in front of him. During his going-on 32 years as an educator and administrator, Paspalas has not shown a hesitance to adapt to the unfamiliar.

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‘I had to learn while I was teaching’

Paspalas’ first year at Hills was in 1989, when he also began to coach wrestling. He had taught for five years prior and had previously earned a Master of Arts from Montclair State University and a Bachelor of Science from Trenton State University, now known as The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).

“One of the big challenges,” he explained, “was that I’ve taught so many different subjects since I’ve been in this school district –– and a lot of them I had to learn while I was teaching.”

Among them is photography, which he taught at Hills for several years. On the other end of the school, there was the physics and technology program, which Paspalas started with now-Superintendent Erik Gundersen and which has continued at Valley.

“I have known Mr. Paspalas since my first days at Pascack Valley High School,” Gundersen commented to the Trailblazer. In addition to describing him as “an advocate for the importance of athletics and school spirit at [Hills],” Gundersen credited Paspalas for for the technology program’s success.

His experience in this department helped him start the Pascack Pi-oneers, the district’s award-winning robotics team.

“Our team exists due to the hard work and determination of Mr. Paspalas,” the Pi-oneers said to the Trailblazer. “As our first Head Coach, from day one, he instilled our work ethic, our appreciation of hard work to achieve our goals, and to be the best we could be.”

Likewise, Paspalas credits his leadership of the team for preparing him for the jobs he holds at Hills today: Assistant Principal and Athletic Director, positions he took on in 2007.

Thanks to his predecessor, social studies teacher Owen Haveron, Paspalas felt prepared for his new titles, being introduced to the ropes more before the job instead of on the job.

“[Haveron] was really generous with his time and paid it forward,” Paspalas recollected. Thanks to him, Paspalas was shown how to manage all of the systems, order equipment, and make sure officials and transportation are on schedule. “He was really tremendous, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for that.”

‘It was tremendously involved, and it was really rewarding’

The experience he had under Haveron’s wing over a decade ago heavily influenced the timing for his retirement. Citing his desire to make for a smooth transition between Athletic Directors –– “so that no programs notice the change” –– Paspalas won’t be retiring until the end of the 2020-21 school year, leaving time for him to prepare the next person for the job. “That’s what our kids deserve, and that’s what Haveron did for me,” Paspalas explained, “so I feel I’m honor bound to do that for the next person.”

I want there to be a smooth transition because that’s what our kids deserve, and that’s what Haveron [the previous Athletic Director] did for me, so I feel I’m honor-bound to do that for the next person.”

— Phil Paspalas, Athletic Director and Assistant Principal

Certainly, Paspalas won’t be preparing his successor under the most normal of circumstances, let alone the most normal athletics season. In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on education, the future of Hills’ mascot remains uncertain such that some students and teachers have compared the school to the Washington Football Team, which recently removed its own controversial mascot and is using the “Football Team” name while it settles on a new one. At Hills, many continue to wear Cowboy merchandise in the meantime.

“What even are we?” one Hills student asked.

The June 23 Board decision resulting in that semi-existential question had no role in Paspalas’ retirement plans, he affirmed. On the contrary, he had largely confirmed his intentions to himself before the vote to remove the Cowboy and Indian mascots occurred. “The Covid lockdown gave me time to really do some soul-searching and talking with my wife about where we are and where we want to go,” Paspalas said. “It just provided me with the time I otherwise wouldn’t have had.”

No matter the events that led him to plan his retirement, Paspalas emphasized he will continue to play an active role, as he has before, where he is asked to.

“If they ask me to be part of the mascot committee, I’ll gladly and be honored to serve on that committee, but my time is coming to a close and if I’m not asked to be a part of [deciding the new direction], I’m okay with that too,” Paspalas explained, suggesting that he is satisfied with his accomplishments at Hills.

Describing his time as Athletic Director and Assistant Principal as a rewarding challenge, Paspalas specifically cited his efforts to reconfigure the athletic complex, where he oversaw the construction of new tennis courts and the school’s first softball field, as well as new parking, bleachers, coaches’ box, and press box.

Stephen Schmidt
The Pascack Hills athletic fields from above. Paspalas oversaw their renovation as Athletic Director.

These things, Paspalas said, were “amongst the most challenging because they required a heck of a lot of work to help make happen.” Still, he admitted his involvement in their completion “was really rewarding.”

In 2016, when the administration was hearing complaints from students and staff about Hills’ school colors –– brown, white, and orange –– Paspalas said, “It’s a hard thing to tell kids, ‘Hey, you gotta do this. You gotta like this.’ But at the same time, we’re not just going throw it all out, 50 plus years of tradition, because it’s not an easy [thing to do].”

‘More than anything else, I’m going to miss the kids’

More than overseeing the numerous construction projects as Athletic Director and his various responsibilities as Assistant Principal, Paspalas emphasized he will miss students and watching them compete above “anything else.” Being actively in the classroom as a teacher, or actively coaching sports like football, softball, and wrestling, came with a level of connection with students Paspalas said he had already missed during his time as an administrator. He maintained that, because of his current role, he still gets “sheer joy” when he watches Hills students play –– no matter if he is familiar with their attendance records or the lens through which students view administrators.

I love watching our kids compete. And that I’m probably going to miss the most: the sheer joy I get from watching our kids compete.”

— Phil Paspalas, Athletic Director and Assistant Principal

Play students will, Paspalas promised, expressing hope that the return of athletics would be accompanied by success. “I’m playing a big role in that because myself and all the other [Athletic Directors] in the schools that we compete against are in constant meetings to try to map out how we’re gonna have athletics in this new environment where we’ll dealing with this pandemic,” he detailed, saying he was invested both directly and personally.

Already, the 2020-21 school year has come with Covid-related hurdles, a September start that Paspalas amounted to “the most different opening of school” he has ever experienced. Calling it “pretty darn successful,” Paspalas credited his administrative colleagues, Hills Principal Tim Wieland and Assistant Principal Charleen Schwartzman, as well as Valley Principal Glenn deMarrais, school nurse Rose Welyczko, and the district’s healthcare staff.

So far, there have been no positive Covid-19 cases among Hills students or faculty reported to the public since schools reopened under a rotating hybrid schedule, where each alphabetical half of the school attends in-person every other morning. However, Covid-19 continues to circulate throughout not just the country as a whole, but among Bergen County residents. Most recently, Woodcliff Middle School, from which many Hills students graduated and where many of their siblings currently attend, reported a positive case among a teacher, forcing a two-week switch to all-virtual instruction. With its many connections to the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Woodcliff Middle School is one of many educational institutions in New Jersey with similar start-of-school stories.

An example of two school days under Hills’ current instruction plan.

“I’m sure that their individual and unique local situations brought the leadership in those school districts to do that,” Paspalas explained, taking the time to praise the instruction plans developed at Hills and Valley. He offered a caveat to the district’s current success.

[W]e have to realize that we can’t just do what we’re being asked to do in school and then once we leave school go back to the way we may have been behaving in the summer.”

— Phil Paspalas, Athletic Director and Assistant Principal

“As long as the kids in our community take what we’re asking them to do seriously, I think we’re going to be okay. But we have to understand that we have to realize that we can’t just do what we’re being asked to do in school and then once we leave school go back to the way we may have been behaving in the summer.”

Speaking to students on the first days of school, both Paspalas and Assistant Principal Schwartzman repeated this point multiple times. While it was most obvious in the walkie-talkie directions given to the school’s security officers to make sure students kept masks on and maintained social distancing in the parking lot, Paspalas’ thinking alludes to the thousands of Covid-19 cases that have been confirmed among college and some high school students who attended crowded parties.

He underscored, and repeated, the need for consideration of others. “When you leave school, there’s 800 other kids and students and 70 teachers that need you to think about keeping yourself safe. Because whatever you do when you leave school, you’re going to bring into school the next day. I think if everyone keeps in mind that what they do individually is going to affect everyone else, if everybody can buy into that, I think we’re going to be okay.”

Paspalas is not alone in his 2020-worn hope to continue on the path towards normalcy with little interruption. His own goalpost is to return to a real normal before the start of the 2021-22 school year and athletics season.

“I think everyone’s had enough of things happening,” Paspalas relented. Citing the changes in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s policies, he acknowledged “everyone’s had enough of at the last minute, things get canceled or things change.

“I think the quicker we can get back to normal –– the real normal –– I think the better. And that’s my hope for [Hills] as I go into retirement: that we can get back to normal and giving our school and community the absolute best we have.”

As Paspalas reflects on a three-decade career he defines by rewarding challenges –– feeling his way through photography class, founding the physics program, realizing the robotics team to its potential, advocating for Hills athletics –– here’s to beating the odds on his goal for not just Hills, but the world –– and seeing to it that those kids get to play.

@PHAthletics on Twitter
Paspalas in 2018 with Robert Buccino, who is also retiring.
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