Until a few months ago, Donald Graff had never set foot in the Valley - only a drive through northern Arizona 30 years ago. But his second-place finish for a Florida Catholic school principal post left a strong impression there on parishioners who had once belonged to Christ the King Catholic parish in Mesa.
They asked Graff's permission to share his 39-year education credentials with those looking for a new principal for the Catholic grade school in Mesa. He flew here in May for an interview and was swiftly hired.
With three weeks of experience on the job, Graff is readying his 15 member staff for the new school year that begins Aug. 12. The 44-year-old school, the second oldest Catholic school in Mesa, is targeted to enroll 220 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
"One of the first things I would hope to work on is making its Catholic identity a little stronger," said Graff, 62, who spent the past six years as the principal of St. Matthew's Catholic School in Green Bay, Wis., serving the parish where the Green Bay Packers iconic football coach Vince Lombardi joined when he arrived there in 1959.
Graff said that while Catholic education is strongly competitive with other forms of educational options, "to really compete in the marketplace, I think it is important that our school has excellence in academics." And because it comes with tuition, $3,800 per year, "we have to offer something over and above a good education. We have to offer something with value that isn't available in the public sector.
"Spirituality, the Catholic values, the Catholic social teachings have to be foremost in our curriculum," said Graff, who grew up in the parochial schools on the south side of Chicago and then earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Catholic colleges in Wisconsin, Mount Senario College in Ladysmith and Silver Lake College in Manitowoc.
Graff spent 33 years teaching social studies and coaching basketball, football, wrestling and track at the small public schools in Lena, Wis., just north of Green Bay. For 24 years, he and his wife, Linda, operated Graff's Family Restaurant where for virtually all that time, the breakfast special was eggs, hash browns and toast for just $1.25. Graff served six terms on the village council and two terms as the village president (comparable to mayor). For 30 years, he was on the volunteer fire department of Lena, where the fires came "too often in the winter and too often in the middle of the night."
Christ the King has been awarded $800,000 across three years from the Diocese of Phoenix and the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust for new roofs on classrooms, insulation, air-conditioning upgrades and parking lot improvements. The church, 1551 E. Dana Ave., has begun to mark its 50th anniversary. The school, Graff said, has traditionally had "very high standards of academic excellence" and has posted some of the highest test score averages of Valley schools.
Graff said he remembers his coaching days in tiny Lena. "I was never criticized for saying a prayer before a game or after a game. In a larger city school, the superintendent would have had issues with it," he said.
"I believe in the importance of making sure the kids are raised with values," he said. "I am a proponent of Christian values. It is important that kids have a good foundation of what is right and what is wrong and to be able to carry that with them into their adult lives."
The new principal said he wants students to embrace service learning to help benefit others. "I think it is very important for children to see the world" beyond their nice homes with all the modern conveniences and realize they aren't typical of much of the world, he said.
"They need to practice good stewardship, and they need to accept what God has given them, nurture it, have it grow and then return it and share it with the rest of society."
For information on the school, call (480) 844-4480 or visit www.diocesephoenix.org/school/christ_king_school/default.htm.