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It was more than a job

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At eye level next to Mary Carrier’s office door on the ground floor at Cloquet Middle School hangs a color crayon statement with a drawing of a woman in the corner:

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“My role model is Mrs. Carrier,” young Mathias Hill wrote in purple. “Because she is nice, does stuff for me, and acts like an aunt to me.”

How many others could say something similar about Carrier, who will retire from her job as the middle school principal’s secretary on Sept. 18. How many lives has she touched, how many people has she helped?

Principal Tom Brenner doesn’t have a head count of students and teachers Carrier has helped over the years but he said she will be sorely missed by many at the middle school.

“She is such a fabric of what we do,” he said. “When she goes, it will be such a loss, because she is such a part of everything we do here. Eventually, it (the fabric) will grow back but it will never be the same.”

Carrier graduated from Cloquet High School in 1967, then started working one building over at the Cloquet Middle School in 1968.

She said she was only supposed to be a short-timer.

“[Principal] Nick Weis hired me,” she said. “I was just going to help out for a few days because nursing school didn’t start until October.”

That was 45 years ago, and Carrier has been there ever since.

Of course, her job has changed over the years. When Carrier started, she was the secretary for all the teachers for several years. Next she was hired as secretary to Assistant Principal Bob Gerlach. Then, when Dorothy Lisignoli left to be secretary to the superintendent, Carrier got the position of principal’s secretary. And there she stayed.

And that’s just fine. If it weren’t for health issues, Carrier might stay a few years more.

“I love the people here,” Carrier said in an interview in her office Friday, an early afternoon event that was punctuated by various teachers and other school staff popping in with questions, requests to use the fax machine and warm greetings after a summer off. “It’s a happy place for me, a family place. Everyone is one big family in our building, we all care for one another.”

“I love helping people and I love the kids.”

Carrier said she especially loves seeing kids grow up and return to teach in the district.

One of those kids is now her boss, Principal Brenner, who grew up in Cloquet and attended school here. When he was a middle school student, Carrier was “head secretary” and even used to babysit his wife, Michelle.

He chuckled.

“When I started here in 2002, she was my secretary and she has been invaluable,” Brenner said, adding that it was his first time to be head principal at a school. “I was smart enough to get out of her way a little bit and let her tell me what to do. She is such a resource. She knows everybody and she gets along with everybody. She is the middle school.”

Ann Yorston is another former student who returned to teach. On Friday, she popped into the main office with six-week-old Evelyn, who had no qualms about spending time in Carrier’s arms while her mother made some photocopies for work.

“It’s so special to watch the kids go and come back and see them them grow up and be part of their family,” Carrier said, rattling off more names of folks who she knew first as middle school students and now as teachers, including Stef Biebl and Aaron Young, among others.

Carrier worked her magic when Evelyn considered getting fussy after waking up from a nap. Instead, the infant gazed at Carrier and nearly let herself be soothed back to sleep.

In the meantime, Yorston told Carrier she would be returning with breadsticks courtesy of her mother.

“Her mom makes the most awesome breadsticks,” said Carrier, who got to know Yorston as a student when Yorston played basketball and Carrier used to take tickets at the games and stay to watch.

Brenner said he thinks Carrier may hold the record for most years working at Cloquet Middle School.

A lot of things have changed since her first days on the job. Carrier worked under eight different middle school principals and has seen thousands of students come and go. Fashions, politics, faces and names, curriculum and activities have waxed and waned over the years.

On the other hand, Carrier doesn’t think kids have changed too much since the days when she grew up in Cloquet, living down the block in her mom and dad’s house on the 200 block of Carlton Avenue.

“We go in cycles, like clothes,” she said. “Bell bottom jeans were in style when I graduated and they came back in style later. Kids are the same.”

She paused.

“I think things have changed in the way that the school district doesn’t get as much support from parents as we did. Now both parents have to work a lot of the time and kids are on their own a lot. I think you see behaviors now that reflect that.

“There are always a handful of kids that get into trouble, but I think the biggest difference I’ve seen is in the family structure.”

She marvels at some of the activities kids today get to participate in.

“They’re doing such exciting things with kids,” Carrier said. “Like Matt Winbigler’s new position [helping teachers make better use of technology in the classroom], or people like Dr. [Cynthia] Welsh, who devotes her heart and soul to the science fair. We didn’t have the outside activities they do now, or the strong gifted and talented program that came later. There’s so much opportunity now.”

The biggest changes over the past 45 years in terms of her job have been in the area of technology, Carrier said. Teachers, kids, even the buildings haven’t changed much … although the high school moved to a new building the year after she graduated, and the administrative offices moved from the second floor of the old wing to the ground floor of the new (built in the 1950s) wing sometime after that.

She recalls the early days when she had to track all the money in and out in a giant ledger, 20 columns across. She had to write everything in by hand, in tiny print.

Then came the first computer.

“I remember what we did to get our first computer,” she said, explaining that Russ Smith was the principal at the time. “We hosted a country music concert and a concession stand, but hardly anyone came. We bombed so bad, I think the staff ate hot dogs for a month.”

Members of the Cloquet School Board took pity on them, she said, and bought the middle school a computer.

“It was our first Apple, and it used those big floppy discs,” she said, explaining that a fellow named Charlie wrote programs so the school could track kids and the activity fund on the computer and do mailings.

“Now pretty much everything is on the computer,” she said.

Ironically, in those pre-computer days, Carrier said she had more time to interact with students, especially the special-ed students who all (K-12) used to be served at the middle school.

“I used to go swimming with them, that was a highlight for me,” Carrier said. “And I used to do more with the classrooms, but we had more staff back then so we were encouraged to go out and help with the kids.”

Another highlight has been the planters in front of the school, something the lady with a green thumb advocated for and took charge of.

“Those were special to me,” she said, adding that in recent years she has purchased the plants and the kids have taken charge of the planting, something she hopes gives them ownership in the school’s outdoor beautification efforts.

Helping is a big part of what makes Carrier happy. As she said, she likes to help people. At the middle school, in the neighborhood and at church.

In her free time, Carrier said she enjoys making cards for people (she plans to continue making the birthday cards for CMS staff along with Corrine Campbell, her replacement and an excellent photographer whose photos often enhance the cards), gardening when she’s healthy enough and doing some traveling, starting with a trip to Portland to see her godmother.

Carrier comes from a family of hard workers, from her grandmother, who ran a boarding house behind the post office, to her parents, Albert and Betty. Betty took on sewing to make extra money and could make a dress just by seeing a picture of it.

“She sewed for others until ‘the velvet Christmas,’” Carrier said, lowering her voice to add drama to the name. “That Christmas she sewed a white velvet wedding dress and red velvet bridesmaids’ dresses. She did the bridesmaids’ dresses first, then we had to clean the house from top to bottom before she could sew the wedding dress, which had a big flowing cape with fur around the edges. After that, my dad said that was the end. I guess he’d had enough.”

Betty also sewed clothes for her family and taught her daughter to do the same.

“I never had a pair of ‘bought’ pants until I worked here,” Carrier said, adding that she is excited to have more time to sew again in her retirement.

“I really am looking forward to having time just for me,” said Carrier, stressing that she will also enjoy spending more time with friends and family — helping to deliver her great-niece Nevaeh is another one of the highlights of her life — as well as her “adopted” family (Byron and Mary Jo Hill and their kids and grandkids).

When asked, she said her advice for today’s parents would be to make time for their kids.

“Just keep loving your kids,” she said. “Pay attention to them. Be part of their lives and don’t leave them alone because they need you. Take time for them.”

There will be an open house for Carrier at Cloquet Middle School, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Sept. 24 and all past and present students and staff members are invited to attend, along with anyone else who wants to come.

CMS Family and Consumer Science teacher Mary Jane Lundberg  wanted to invite readers to attend the open house and noted she was thrilled that Carrier was going to be featured in the Pine Journal.

“We at Cloquet Middle School are so pleased to share Mary with the Carlton County community,” Lundberg wrote. “She has been an important part of so many people's lives — both young and old. Again, thank you for recognizing Mary as an important member of not only our Cloquet Schools community, but as a great member of the community at large.”