January 27, 2012

2012 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Principal overcomes challenges to lead high school students

As the principal of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, John Hegarty always makes students the priority. Here, he interacts with Scecina students. (Photo by Chad Tuley)

As the principal of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, John Hegarty always makes students the priority. Here, he interacts with Scecina students. (Photo by Chad Tuley)

By John Shaughnessy

In every child’s life, seeds of doubt and seeds of inspiration get planted.

Sooner or later, one of those seeds takes root, making all the difference in how a life blooms.

Just look at the life of John Hegarty, principal of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis. His story could serve as a guide for any student who has ever wondered and worried about overcoming the challenges to a dream.

When Hegarty was a teenager, the seeds of doubt were spread for him when college advisers in both the United States and Ireland recommended that he shouldn’t pursue a career in education because he had a speech impediment that caused him to stutter noticeably.

In contrast, there were the seeds of inspiration from two of his teachers and Blessed John Paul II.

Hegarty knew the power of a teacher from the time he entered a two-room schoolhouse in Ireland as a child, and saw how one teacher challenged all his students—a group that ranged from fifth-graders to eighth-graders—and made each one of them believe they were the most important student in his class.

The young Hegarty also knew the unflinching support of a high school English teacher in Ireland who told him to never back away from following his dream of becoming a teacher.

Then there was the inspiration of Pope John Paul II, who came to Ireland in 1979—the first time a pope had ever visited that country. Nineteen then, Hegarty and three of his friends squeezed into a tiny Fiat 850 and drove through the night to participate in a Mass that the pope was celebrating in Galway for the young people of Ireland. The four friends found themselves among about 500,000 people stretched across the Irish countryside.

“It strengthened my faith,” recalls Hegarty, who was born in the United States before his family returned to his mother’s hometown in Ireland when he was a child. “It made me want to serve in some capacity. He had that joy about him, that smile, that inner peace.”

Still, even with those inspirational influences, the seeds of doubt stemming from Hegarty’s speech impediment kept him from following his dream. Nine years passed before he returned to the United States in 1988, coming to Indianapolis where a brother lived. It would take another two years—and a visit from two men—for him to see that he truly had a future in working with young people.

“It was 1990, and two guys came down to the bar where I was working as a bartender, and asked me if I would coach the boys’ soccer team at Scecina,” recalls Hegarty, who played Gaelic football and semi-pro soccer in England in the 1980s. “As I began coaching, the desire to teach came back.”

In the 1990s, Hegarty married his wife, Patricia, welcomed two sons into the world, continued to work and pursued his degree in education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He earned his degree in 1999, the same year he started teaching at Scecina. A short while later, the severity of his speech impediment faded significantly.

“It started to go away the first year I was teaching,” he says. “I noticed that the kids didn’t care. I felt if the kids didn’t care, then I shouldn’t worry about anyone else. In the 20 years I’ve been at Scecina, I’ve never heard a child mock me because of my speech impediment. That’s amazing. I came to the realization that it’s part of who I am, that’s how God made me, and if you have a problem with that, talk to God. It’s not totally gone, but that approach has helped it to go away.”

It also helped Hegarty to realize he had found a home at Scecina. In 2005, he became the vice principal. In 2010, he became the vice president of student life. He started as principal this school year.

“My strengths are academics, teacher development and a student-centered approach to education,” he says. “At Scecina, we have a huge cross-section of society. Every child comes in with a different set of strengths and weaknesses. And we’re small enough [343 students] that we’re in a position to know what those strengths and weaknesses are, and direct our attention to them.”

One of the strengths of the school—its foundation of faith—led to one of the most memorable moments that Hegarty has experienced at Scecina. It came on the morning of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I had an Honors English class that morning,” he recalls. “We started praying the rosary in the classroom. That was so powerful a moment when those students got down on their knees and prayed. It helped us get through it. It’s a blessing to teach in a Catholic school.”

Fans of Hegarty believe it’s a blessing that he’s an educator at a Catholic school.

“The Catholic faith is at the core of his identity,” says Joseph Therber, president of Scecina High School. “John recognizes the unique gifts and strengths in every student. He’s a hard worker with a great sense of humor. John values our traditions, values and mission. He has been a significant factor in Scecina Memorial’s growth and success for many years.”

Hegarty had such an influence on Francisco Gomez that the 1998 Scecina graduate became a teacher after he played soccer for Hegarty and served as an assistant coach with him.

“He’s the type of person who puts kids first,” Gomez says. “When he coached me, everyone on the team played hard for him because he cared about us, and we cared about him. He’s just a wonderful human being.”

For Hegarty, it all comes down to a motto that guides his life, a motto that dominates a wall in his office: “May you live every day of your life with faith, hope, love.”

It’s an Irish blessing from an educator who overcame the challenges to live his dream.

“I feel very strongly that I’m a role model for kids,” he says. “I have an impediment, but it’s not a rock, it’s not a wall. I want to tell people that whatever they have, you can get around it. It may slow you down, but it can’t stop you. We have some kids here who have speech impediments. I tell them they can do whatever they want—especially teach.” †

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