By Ron Leir
You could say Ron Shields’ career as a Harrison educator was preordained, given that both his parents taught at Harrison High School.
His dad, Fred Shields, a 1936 soccer Olympian, was a physical education instructor and his mother, Amelia Nowak, was in the business department. Fred taught 40 years at HHS; Amelia, 28 years, after spending a decade at Hillside High. They met while teaching in Harrison.
On June 30, Ron Shields will be calling it a career after 42 years at HHS, the last 19 as the school’s principal; and, joining him in retirement will be his spouse, Mary Pat (Millea) Shields, who has taught English and art at HHS for more than 30 years. By coincidence, Ron and Mary Pat also first got to know each other at HHS.
But the public school legacy goes back even farther: Mary Pat’s grandfather, Robert B. Millea was a Harrison Board of Education trustee when the board broke ground for a new school on the site of what is now the Hamilton Ave. elementary school.
Ulimately, all roads led to Harrison High, no matter what the location. Mary Pat and Ron and Mary Pat started off in the building off Harrison Ave. that now houses the Washington Middle School; in the early ‘90s, they moved to the high school’s current location.
An economics major at Boston College with the Class of 1972, Ron Shields had his mind focused on Wall Street until, he said, “in my sophomore year, my parents suggested I get on the substitute list to get some exposure to teaching and that really opened my eyes to the field of education.”
He started taking education courses during the summer at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City and in November 1972, he got his secondary school teaching certificate.
And in December 1972 he got hired by the Harrison Board of Education as a high school social studies teacher.
“I loved being a teacher,” Shields said. “It was a thrill. And I owe much thanks to my cooperating teacher Arthur Tortorello for guiding me through my first year.”
At the same time, he said he drew inspiration from his dad, “by the way he dealt with the kids. It wasn’t just as teacher-student – he knew their family backgrounds so he could relate to them on a personal level.”
Shields soaked up similar lessons when he served as the batboy for the Blue Tide nine in ’62 in the old Kennedy Stadium when Fred Shields was the coach. “They used wooden bats then,” Ron recalled.
During his tenure as a school administrator, he says he’s tried to lead by example. “I tell my students, ‘If I’m late, you can be late. If I’m on time, then I expect you to be on time.’ ”
Like his dad, Shields was a sports mentor, coaching freshman basketball six years in the ‘70s and the varsity from ’79 to ’81. That last year, he recalled with pride, the team went 16-10 and beat Sparta in the state tourney. “We knocked out Wood-Ridge and ended their 35-game home win streak.”
From ’83 to ’85, Shields coached cross country, finishing as conference champs. “We called them the ‘Pack Attack.’ ” His assistant coach was – guess who? – Mary Pat Shields. (The pair tied the knot in ’83.)
The couple also combined to aid the high school drama club, mostly during the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Mary Pat attending to musical direction and Ron, to the business side.
When he was named guidance counselor in 1974, Shields continued interacting with students as adviser to the student council and helped run the student store which, at that time, dispensed school uniforms, jackets, notebooks, pens and pencils.
In 1985 Shields was appointed assistant HHS principal, serving under then-Principal (and now Mayor) James Fife, and, a decade later, he was promoted to principal, with the move to the new school location on Hamilton St. coming in 2007.
“I’ve been blessed with a warm, supportive, collegial staff – in particular, my math facilitator Debbie Ronan and my language arts facilitator Christina Nidowicz,” Shields said. “But the guy I need to thank so much for putting me in this position is [the late former Mayor] Ray McDonough. He gave me a lot of support. But I should also say that I couldn’t have done this job without the person who’s always given me her time and loyal support – my wife. I also want to thank the Board of Education and Superintendent Jim Doran for their support.”
“In 28 years as an administrator, I’ve never had a grievance filed against me,” said Shields. “I guess that says something about how I’ve tried to treat everyone fairly.”
Over the years there’ve been many changes, Shields said, particularly in education technology, from administrators “doing grades by IBM cards to today’s computers,” to the introduction of computer labs in the late ‘80s to computer banks, to “Smart” boards and laptops in every classroom by the ‘90s, to the phase-in of the still-evolving state-mandated high school graduation test.
“But what has remained consistent,” Shields said, “is that the kids have always given me their best.” And, Mary Pat added, “The slang and fashion may be different but these kids still have the same anxieties, focus and dreams.”
The culmination of the school’s collective effort has been the U.S. Department of Education’s designating HHS a “Blue Ribbon Exemplary Improving School” in September 2013. “We were one of the few Title 1 schools in New Jersey to be acclaimed as a Blue Ribbon school – we exceeded expectations,” Shields said.
So why retire now? “I’ll be 64 in October and I believe I’ve taken Harrison High School as far as I can go,” Shields said.
In his new life, Shields said he plans to pursue his photography passion. “I’ll be working with Jim Wright of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission on an e-book focusing on bird life along Disposal Road and Mary Pat and I will be doing some traveling,” he said.