To meet the bright-eyed director of community relations with the constant smile and quick laugh, one might mistake Mary Kay Ramirez for an enthusiastic first-year teacher rather than a 35-year veteran administrator. What might also surprise people is that a lifelong career at St. Francis de Sales (SFDS) was not part of her original plan: “When I first interviewed for a teacher position here, I really liked the school. It reminded me of my high school: Catholic and diverse,” explained Ramirez. “I thought I would teach here for a few years to gain some experience and then move onto other things.”
Ramirez’s main subject was art, but like many Catholic school teachers, she was also called upon to teach other courses, including world geography, earth science, and typing. After Dean of Students Kathleen Madonich passed away, Ramirez was asked to help take over dean duties. Juggling her new responsibilities while continuing to teach art proved to be a professional and personal test for the young administrator: “That was a very challenging year. I learned a lot about myself.”
After Ramirez had spent several years in the dean's office and was finishing her masters in secondary education in curriculum and instruction, the role of assistant principal became available. She transitioned into the role and began working side by side with then principal Richard Hawkins. When Hawkins’ position later became available, Ramirez seemed like a natural choice to succeed him, but she did not rush to throw her hat into the ring: “I had just been recently married and still had a daughter in high school,” she explained. “I knew the time commitment might take me away from my daughter's activities and put a strain on my new marriage.”
The SFDS president at the time, Rick Hussmann, convinced her otherwise, and she accepted the position, serving as principal for six years. “Being principal was one of the most challenging yet most rewarding times of my life,” recalled Ramirez. “My favorite part was being able to shake every graduate’s hand as they walked across the stage. I remembered what each student looked like back on the first day of freshman year and was proud of what they had accomplished in four years. I also knew that they had been given the tools and skills to be successful in the next phase of their life, and was confident they would be!”
Now, as director of community relations, Ramirez finds herself wearing many different hats, as she is responsible for recruitment, admissions, enrollment, marketing, website and social media, and alumni relations, and also sits on the school’s development team. Despite the differences between all of the roles she has held at the school, Ramirez has found some constants: “As I was moving into each new position, I learned that in order to be successful, you need to surround yourself with good people. Create a team that has a hard work ethic, is compassionate about all things SFDS, and is fun to be around.”
Ramirez has done just that, and in the process has made lifelong friendships with fellow faculty and staff members. She has also developed friendships with former students—and was even asked to be in a former student’s wedding. She plays Bunco with other SFDS alumni who are former students of hers, and every month she has lunch with the “SFDS Retired Ladies”: Ms. Lepore, Ms. Mikrut, Mrs. Keating, Mrs. Hroma, Ms. Gesmond, Ms. Bucur, Mrs. Roguljic, Ms. Archer, Mrs. Djukic, and Mrs. Mabs.
One of Ramirez’s most memorable experiences at SFDS was coaching boys’ golf for five seasons. “I was the only female coach in the league, which often caused problems at certain golf courses when we would hold our coaches’ meeting in the men's locker room,” she laughed. “I played golf on my high school team and had great memories of my experience. As a coach, I truly enjoyed being on each of the courses we played as well as mentoring the young men under my supervision.”
Ramirez points to her own Catholic upbringing as a major influence on her professional ethos: “Being a teacher, dean, assistant principal, and principal, I sometimes had to make some hard decisions regarding students, families, and teachers. Having a solid faith foundation helped me treat those situations with compassion, even when tough decisions had to be made.”
As an eight-year breast cancer survivor who lost a sister to breast cancer, Ramirez says that spending time with family and remembering to smile and laugh each day are principles she lives by. Many of her colleagues and students are familiar with her favorite sayings, “Happy Day,” and “Life is too short.” When she’s not busy with her many SFDS duties, Ramirez loves spending time with her 14 grandchildren, walking on the beach, reading, attending Sox and Bears games, going to concerts, and traveling. Wherever her travels take her—including Germany for the birth of a grandson last year and Cabo San Lucas earlier this month—SFDS is blessed and proud to be the place she calls home.