When Tom Zellmer retires in July after 38 years on the job, Good Shepherd School won’t just lose a longtime principal. The Golden Valley elementary school also will be without someone to dress up as Santa, a hot dog griller, an occasional history teacher, a fundraising cheerleader and an accountant.

“He’s made a mark on education, particularly Catholic education,” said Kari Staples, Zellmer’s daughter and principal at St. Alphonsus Elementary School in Brooklyn Center. “It’s the ending of an era, and it’s going to be tough to fill his shoes.”

Zellmer treats teachers and students at his school like family, taking into account what’s best for everyone, teachers and other administrators said. And for nearly four decades, he’s been skilled at balancing budgets, too. He has kept his school in the black financially every year, a difficult feat for a small Catholic school.

Last year, the school’s two annual fundraisers brought in $240,000, Zellmer said.

“He’s very good at managing money and knowing what’s there to spend,” said Gloria Tri, a sixth-grade teacher at Good Shepherd for 24 years.

But Zellmer won’t miss squaring the books. “I’m going to just miss the everyday with them,” he said. “I always say … I have 301 grandkids, and I try to treat them that way.”

Trusting teachers

Zellmer always wanted to be a teacher growing up. He temporarily switched to a math major in college, only to return to his passion for teaching and social studies. He then taught junior high — every single subject — for nine years at St. John’s the Evangelist School in Little Canada before getting an administrator’s license.

“I just loved to learn, and I wanted to share that,” he said.

Despite occasional offers to try teaching at public schools, he has always remained at Catholic institutions, he said. “I just like the atmosphere, the fact that you get to live your faith every day,” he said.

But he still misses teaching sometimes. He continued to teach social studies for his first 10 years as principal at Good Shepherd. Now, he pops into fifth-grade classrooms to teach his favorite units: Minnesota history and the Civil War, he said.

As a former teacher, he trusts teachers to make decisions, and many staff meetings become open discussions of what’s best, said Tri.

“Teachers adore him,” Tri said. “He cares about us, he backs us, he listens to us. He has very good suggestions of what to try.”

His love for schools has rubbed off on his family. In addition to his daughter being a principal, his wife was Good Shepherd’s business manager for 30 years. His grandson, also named Thomas, is a third-grader at Good Shepherd.

“He’s the person to inspire me to be a teacher,” said Staples. “Not only is he my dad, he’s my mentor. Who else has that?”

Zellmer believes he and Staples are the only set of father-daughter principals at Catholic schools in the state.

At a Catholic school, everyone has to pitch in as needed, and on a recent day Zellmer had lunchroom duty. He stopped to chat with kids as they toted their quesadillas or salads to tables.

The students voiced their approval of Mr. Zellmer, and several were sad he was leaving. “Everyone at our table thinks he’s awesome,” said Tyler Tovas, a first-grader, as he ate lunch with friends.