Mary Mackbee is winding through the halls of St. Paul Central High, recalling the days when she’d find herself lost in the maze of doors and lockers and stairwells.

That was back in 1993, when she was the new principal here, finding her way in a school with a storied history and a more recently acquired rough reputation. She already had nearly three decades of experience in education, but she felt uncertain. At times, she wished she’d picked a different school and a less complicated job.

But 25 years later, she’s still here, striding through the building with an earned confidence. She has a pedometer on a lanyard around her neck and an encyclopedic memory for the faces that fill the halls between classes. She’s greeting passing students who yell, “Hey, Ms. Mackbee!” She’s answering questions from teachers and security guards and maintenance workers, picking litter off the floor and wondering out loud about a fixing a cafeteria television on the fritz.

Mackbee is the constant in a place that’s seen thousands of students come and go, along with shifts in demographics, fashion trends and technology. Central’s staff members and students say they can’t imagine what the building would be like without her, but soon they’ll have to figure it out: Mackbee plans to retire when the school year ends next spring.

“I looked at my numbers, and I’ve been in the district about 50 years, here 25 years and I’ll be 75 next year,” she said. “And I thought: ‘Those are good, round numbers.’ ”

By the time she leaves St. Paul Public Schools, it will actually be closer to 53 years since Mackbee stood in front of her first class in St. Paul, at the now-closed Mounds Park Junior High on the city’s East Side. She was a new graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, recruited away from her home city of New Orleans by a St. Paul district eager to add more teachers of color to its ranks.

It was a different era. Female teachers were required to wear skirts or dresses, and the student body and staff of St. Paul schools were overwhelmingly white. Today, Mackbee leads a school with 60 percent students of color, in a district that’s even more diverse. She also wears pants almost exclusively, a uniform she says is essential for her long, active workdays.

Most days, Mackbee is at school by 6:30 a.m. She’s frequently still there at 8:30 p.m. or later, attending basketball games, band concerts and other student activities. During the school day, there are plenty of meetings — far more than there were a decade or two ago, she says — but Mackbee prefers to be up and moving, involved in what’s happening outside of her office.

For years, it has seemed to students that she’s everywhere, all the time.

‘No task too small’

Adrian Perryman, a 2003 Central graduate, remembers Mackbee walking the halls and attending athletic events and school dances. Back at the school for an event a few weeks ago, he spotted her again: wiping down tables in the cafeteria.

Perryman, now assistant director for academic advising at Concordia University in St. Paul, said the lessons he learned observing Mackbee now help guide his interactions with students.

“It’s being able to do the work, no matter what it is,” he said. “There’s no task too small.”

Sitting in study hall in the cafeteria earlier this month, current Central students agreed. Magdalena March, a junior, said Mackbee strikes a balance between being a helper and a disciplinarian, quickly assessing if a lost ninth-grader needs advice or if a chronic troublemaker requires a stronger push to get to class.

“She’s never mean, but she’ll look you in the eye and be stern,” March said. “She’ll get you where you need to go.”

Walking the halls at passing time, Mackbee sometimes seems to have X-ray vision. Scanning the throng of students hustling to class, she greets several by name. When the bell rings, she sees right through students trying to act like they are holding proof they don’t need to be in class.

She spots a student dancing through the hall, headphones in, oblivious to his principal closing in on him. She shouts his name, then again. He heads up the stairway, still unaware of Mackbee’s presence.

“That child,” Mackbee says, shaking her head. “At least this year, he’s going to class.”

Down another hall, she spots two girls exiting one of the school’s elevators — a move that’s forbidden, other than by students with disabilities.

“Ladies, did I see you getting off my elevator?” Mackbee says, eyebrows raised.

The girls feign ignorance for a moment, and then quickly realize Mackbee isn’t leaving without an answer. One hangs her head, embarrassed.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “it won’t happen again.”

Mackbee is quick to point out that her job isn’t all about discipline, and shouldn’t be. She has plenty of frequent flyers in her office, and Central has had its share of high-profile disciplinary problems during her tenure, from large-scale fights on campus to a serious assault on a teacher by a student.

But she makes a point to get to know students who are staying out of trouble, excelling in sports or drama or in the school’s highly recognized International Baccalaureate program. She’s proud of the dozens of National Merit finalists who have come out of Central, and of the students who went on to careers in a wide range of fields.

Among them are a handful of people who now serve as administrators in the St. Paul district. Mary Weyandt, assistant principal at Como Park Elementary, was a student in Mackbee’s seventh-grade English class at Mounds Park Junior High in the late 1970s. She remembers Mackbee as an energetic teacher and now knows her as the kind of administrator who makes everyone feel valued.

“I can’t imagine how many people she’s touched over the years,” she said.

Jamal Abdur-Salaam, assistant principal at Hamline Elementary, graduated from Central in 1995 and has had two children attend the school. As a student, parent and colleague, he said he’s been consistently impressed by Mackbee’s ability to make time for the many people in her orbit.

“The only way you could have made it that long at Central is to show up like that,” he said.

What lies ahead?

Mackbee will leave St. Paul schools as the district’s longest-serving principal. Two other administrators with more than 50 years of experience have retired in the last two years: Hazel Park Preparatory Academy Principal Delores Henderson and Harding High athletic director Gerald Keenan.

Without hesitation, Mackbee says she knows what she’ll miss most when the next school year begins without her: “the students.”

She plans to hike at Glacier National Park in September, sign up for some Silver Sneakers classes at the YMCA, and spend more time with her eight grandchildren. (Mackbee raised four children with husband Earsell Mackbee, a Minnesota Vikings defensive back she later divorced.)

Beyond that, she wants to keep busy — and stay away from Central for a while.

Mackbee said she wants to let her successor chart his or her own course without having to escape her shadow. She’ll be back for graduation next year, but that might be it.

“I’ll do that, but I’ll try not to be a strong presence,” she said. “I’ll try to be a memory.”

 

erin.golden@startribune.com 612-673-4790