“A dynamically gifted person.” “She’s been my mentor for 10 years.” “An impressive lady.” “A remarkable woman.” “Kay is St. Francis.”
These are just a few of the myriad of comments by staff and alumni of St. Francis High School about Kay Gaines, who will be retiring from the school after 43 years on March 31.
“I think it’s a good time to retire – I have my health, I have my energy, so I want to move while I can still re-engage,” Gaines said about her upcoming retirement and move to Lewiston, Idaho at the end of March so she can be closer to her sister’s family, as well as her two grown sons and two 3½ year old granddaughters currently living in Colorado.
“It will be very difficult to leave my life-long friends in Sacramento, but I’ll carry wonderful memories with me,” Gaines said in a letter emailed out to St. Francis High School supporters in February. “I have good health, lots of energy and a loving family, so I’m very fortunate.”
Where it all Began
Gaines began her St. Francis High School career at literally the very beginning of 1969 – she came in to interview for a part-time social studies teacher position on Jan. 2 and started the very next day. Gaines worked part-time from 1969 to 1973, then became full-time from 1974 to 1984, and later the Social Studies Department chair from the mid-70s until 1985.
Rosemarie Bertini, a 1972 graduate of St. Francis who came back in 1997 to become an Italian instructor for the school, recalls Gaines’ reputation as teaching difficult, serious classes.
“When you’re a kid at that age, you’re just going to do anything you can to not put yourself in that position, but when we got to senior year there was no way around it – Civics was Mrs. Gaines,” Bertini said. “And I just thought, ‘Am I going to live to see the end,’ because I knew it was a lot of work!”
Reflecting on her student experience, Bertini said that although at a young age taking a class from Gaines might have been something a student would want to avoid, Gaines knew it was something her students could do. And Gaines would do what she could to keep them on track.
“In the end we were so full of accomplishment – when you left that class, you’d truly learned something and in addition you had this confidence in it,” Bertini added.
Gaines herself admits she was a really tough teacher.
“I think that students can reach very high levels if you ask them to – they can learn skills, improve their own academic knowledge,” she added. “We did a lot of writing in my history classes because that skill you’ll take with you for the rest of your life.”
St. Francis Theology Department Chair Rick Norman recalls beginning his own career at the school in 1977 when Gaines was the chair of the Social Studies Department. He said her long career has allowed her to have a real grasp of the history and vision of St. Francis as she’s managed of number of transitions the school has gone through, from changes in campus location, buildings, administration and enrollment.
“She’s had to weather all the transitions and she’s been just incredibly graceful at guiding that school academically and administratively, and supporting just so many programs at the school,” Norman said.
Also during her time as a teacher, Gaines taught the first advanced placement (AP) U.S. history course St. Francis, which is a course high school students can take for college credit. According to St. Francis AP Literature teacher Rich Weldon, the AP program Gaines started then has grown. He said of the two English AP courses the school offers, over 100 students take the junior year course, while between 60 to 80 students take the senior year course.
“The AP programs, not just in English but in other departments, have really flourished under her because she just believes they could do it and it didn’t matter if it was math or chemistry – it was kind of like move over boys, here come the girls,” Weldon said.
Nora Wehrenberg Anderson, 1983 alumna, recalls her first interaction with Gaines in August 1981 in her AP U.S. history class.
“Lucky for me, I learned so much more,” she said in a note she recently wrote to Gaines to wish her well on her retirement. “I learned how to think critically, to write well, and about how positive role models are all around us – people like you!”
Leaving a Legacy
Gaines continued to support the AP program at St. Francis as she made the move to assistant principal in 1985, followed by becoming principal in 1998. Gaines then decided to retire from the principal position in 2004 to take on her current role as director of special projects.
Gaines said her current role is a “catch-all” phrase that covers a wide variety of unrelated things, a good portion of which are connected to the school’s academic teams, many of which Gaines started during her career, including the Mock Trial, Model United Nations, and Academic Decathlon, and others she also coached, such as the school’s Robotics Team.
St. Francis Director of Admission Moira O’Brien said Gaines is the reason why they have academic teams at the school. Although Gaines ran them herself for a while, she then found staff to take on each team and stick with them.
“We were the first all-girl school to ever go to the national championship in robotics, our speech team wins so many prizes,” O’Brien explained. “It’s all Kay’s energy, she built them, and they are so successful and the girls love it.”
And Norman said the building of these academic teams is what is bringing students to St. Francis today.
“For the first time we interviewed the incoming freshmen – many students now are coming to the school for academic teams,” he said. “She was the one that really got all that rolling.”
For 2010 graduate Amy Bush, being part of the St. Francis Debate Team is what she recalls most from her time at the school.
“Participating in debate meant a lot to me because I had spent eight years in speech therapy prior to coming to St. Francis,” she recalled in a written note to Gaines. “To have St. Francis welcome me and make me feel that they were proud of me is something that has inspired me beyond measure, and still continues to.”
Another program Gaines began and currently oversees is an exchange program with a sister school in Japan. The program with Nakamura Gakuen Girls High School in Fukuoka, Japan has been ongoing for 15 years now.
St. Francis 2001 graduate Jayme Hennessy recalls the exchange program and the impact it had on her education.
“That was really neat because we were able to experience a global perspective with girls our own age from another country,” she recalled. “That was really something I remember a lot – especially as a high school student, it was pretty great.”
With the eve of her retirement upon her, Gaines reflects back on her experience at St. Francis and a comment a colleague she had taught with for 35 years said to her one morning that while driving to school one morning, he realized he had never gone to work a day in his life.
“And I said, ‘Yup, I feel exactly the same’,” Gaines recalled. “I’ve never gone to work a day in my life. In 43 years I just came to play, and I think a lot of people here feel that way. We work really hard, we work really long hours because we wear so many hats, but it’s just such a rewarding experience.”
That constant drive has Gaines already making plans for her retirement, including involvement with the church, League of Women Voters, and schools in the area, as well as taking technology courses at the local community college.
“I don’t intend to sit,” she laughed.
When asked what she has learned the most from her experience at St. Francis, Gaines said one thing was that she grew in her own faith as a Catholic, which has become an integral part of who she is. And she also learned respect.
“Respect for my colleagues, respect for the kids and their parents,” she added.
Gaines said what she will miss the most is the community.
“This is truly a family, truly a community – people really do care about each other,” she said. “I will miss living in a truly faith-based community where it just happens so naturally and people just celebrate together and pray together.”
And her parting words for her St. Francis family? Be creative, be adventurous, and love each other.
“I’ve just had the best career that I could ever possibly have desired and in the best place,” Gaines said. “I’ve been blessed for sure.”