As more than 500 freshmen filed past cheerleaders and shouting students into the gym of their new (albeit 149-year-old) school, the 71-year-old educator who has led St. Paul Central High School for more than two decades gave each of them a high-five.

It was hard to tell who was more excited — the incoming ninth-graders or their principal, Mary Mackbee.

“This never gets old. This is exciting,” a beaming Mackbee said as the theme from “Rocky” reverberated off the gym walls.

“This and graduation are reminders of why we do this.”

Mackbee has been principal of Central, Minnesota’s oldest public high school, since 1993. She joked that she gave herself the job right after then-Superintendent Curman Gaines decided to remove her as the district’s director of secondary education.

It’s a move for which Mackbee is thankful. She said being a high school principal is what she was meant to do. Those who have spent years working with her, and for her, agree.

“Mary Mackbee is the only principal I know that knows 99 percent of all the kids’ names when they come through the door of Central High School,” said longtime Central parent Margaret Coleman, who estimates that she has had 70 kids — her own and foster children — attend the school during Mackbee’s tenure.

“They respect her and she respects them.”

Ask physical education teacher Laura Treichel for her thoughts on Mackbee, and she says simply: “She’s the best principal I have ever worked for. Period.”

To teachers Mackbee is a champion, the boss who is willing to fight those higher up the chain of command to preserve their programs. To parents, she is accessible and approachable and willing to listen to their concerns.

To students she is simply Ms. Mackbee, as ready and willing to sell popcorn and hot dogs at football games as she is to host parent-teacher conferences.

When asked about Mackbee, Scott Howell, the head football coach and boys’ basketball coach, fished around his office looking for a book.

“Here it is,” he said, setting it on his desk — “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Mackbee gave it to him when he’d hit a rough patch in his personal life a few years ago.

“I look at her as a mother figure. She’s the mother I don’t have anymore,” he said. “You know when you mess up, when I am running my mouth sometimes, she lets you know. But you respect the way she brings it to you.”

He added: “I think other schools in the district are jealous.”

The rise of Central High

Mary Morrell arrived in St. Paul in 1966, an African-American teacher from the segregated South who moved north on the recommendation of a former professor at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Her dad had sailed all over the world on cargo vessels, gone for months at a time; her mother was a homemaker. Neither advanced beyond grade school.

But Mary was second in her high school class and won a $200 scholarship to Xavier. Her brother, who was in the U.S. Air Force, paid the other half of her $400 tuition in installments; she had a full scholarship for the remaining three years.

After coming to Minnesota, she began teaching at St. Paul’s Mounds Park Jr. High and later moved to the St. Louis Park schools before returning to St. Paul in 1971.

In 1968, she married Earsell Mackbee, a defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings who played in the team’s first Super Bowl against Kansas City. They had four children and divorced in 1989; Earsell Mackbee died six years ago.

Over the years, Mackbee became an administrative intern, then an assistant principal. When she became principal at St. Paul Harding High School, she was the district’s first female and first black high school principal. In 1987, she moved to district headquarters as director of secondary education.

As principal at Central, Mackbee has presided over the school’s growing prominence in academics through advanced placement and International Baccalaureate programs, College in the Schools and Quest. She also has helped nurture Central’s performing arts programs, including orchestra.

At one time, Mackbee said, Central was known as St. Paul’s “black” high school. Now, it is one of the city’s most culturally and economically diverse — and popular — secondary schools, with a 92 percent overall graduation rate, including a rate of more than 80 percent for black students.

Central boasts instruction in six foreign languages: Spanish, French, German, Latin, Chinese and Russian. About one-third of its students are involved in sports.

No plans to leave

In her time at Central, Mackbee has won numerous “Principal of the Year” awards from a variety of groups. The Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals said she is their oldest active member.

Dave Greener has been a teacher at Central since 1983. The social studies teacher, who also helps advise the school newspaper and yearbook, praised Mackbee for the stability she has brought to the school. That’s no small thing, he said; in his first 10 years at Central, he worked for four principals.

“She is an advocate for the teachers,” he said. “She is an advocate for the kids — if they want to start a new club, she is open to that. And she is hands-on. She will get out in the hall and help with discipline.”

Mackbee is as willing to champion Quest, an interdisciplinary college prep program that was threatened a few years back, as she is to provide $300 for cup stacking, said Treichel. The teachers convinced Mackbee that buying multiple sets of cups for stacking is an exercise that benefits students.

“I showed her data that shows how stacking cups helps in reading, math, cognitive abilities,” Treichel said. “She said, ‘Done.’ ”

Treichel added: “She’s good at supporting people’s passions.”

Mackbee has no plans to leave Central anytime soon. These orientations and graduations — and everything in between — are still exciting.

“I just want to make sure we maintain our rigor and our diversity,” she said. “It just doesn’t get old.”