ORLEANS — Tom Conrad’s long service to the Nauset Public Schools, first as principal of the high school and then as superintendent, will end with his retirement in June. Conrad shared the news at a joint meeting of the Nauset school committees Feb. 3.
“I have been truly blessed to be in public education over 43 years, 29 of which in the Nauset system,” he said. “I am totally grateful to be able to work in a community that values education at the highest level.” Conrad promised to work toward a smooth transition to a new leader for the system.
“I think you have really set us up to be successful in terms of putting together a group to develop a strategic plan that will really lead us forward,” said Orleans Elementary School Committee Chair Gail Briere, adding that a search committee will be formed soon and a search consultant hired to help with the process. “In the meantime,” she said, “we are going to enjoy every single day that we have with you, Tom.”
Conrad said he’s looking forward to enjoying “three beautiful grandchildren that have come into our life the last 13 months. I’m going to work unbelievably hard to be the best grandparent I can be.”
That Conrad intends to work hard at something is no surprise to those who know him.
“He’s multi-faceted,” longtime high school teacher Mark Mathison, who is also president of the Nauset Education Association union, said in an interview. “He’s got apartment buildings that he has to take care of. He’s out lobstering all the time. When he has any time in the summer or weekends, he’s out setting traps with his buddy Johnny Quigley. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.”
“I see him as a visionary,” Briere said in an interview. “He anticipates paradigm shifts in education and society and continuously reinforces the need for reflection, analysis, and implementation of best practices to meet those future changes. You have seen his energy, his optimism. He is open to new ideas.”
That’s what Nauset Superintendent Michael Gradone was looking for in 1993 as he considered candidates for a principalship that was open again after just a year. “Nauset High School needed a shot in the arm,” he said in an interview. “Schools go through cycles. I wanted to have things shaken up a bit. Tom had lots of ideas for programs that he had initiated at his previous high school.” That would be Marshwood High School in Eliot, Maine. Ironically, Conrad had learned about the Nauset position a year previously while vacationing on the Cape, but too late to apply.
“He always had ideas on the front burner,” Gradone said. When a science teacher wanted to start a marine biology class, he said, “she was understandably focused on the college-bound student who might major in marine sciences and get a grounding before applying to colleges. Tom gave her a blinking green light on the condition she design two courses, one for the college-bound and one for the kid who couldn’t wait to get out of high school so he or she could fish for a living. That’s what set Tom apart. He wanted Nauset to be among the very best high schools everywhere, but also kept very much in sight the fact that we served a wide variety of kids.”
Conrad “came in here and dragged Nauset High School kicking and screaming from a blue-collar-focused school into the 20th century, the 21st century,” Mathison said. “The demographics of these towns were changing, and he recognized the need to have multiple AP courses instead of multiple automotive and welding courses. Kids in the trades could get some basics here; we still have arts, metal and woodworking.”
Mathison was impressed that Conrad, whose children went through the Nauset system, “made it his business to know about other people’s kids… He knows the kids that are playing sports, that are in the chorus, that have won art awards from The Boston Globe, the kids in woodshop that have produced some simple little table with their own two hands and some simple little tools. He’s genuine and sincere about knowing the kids and their families, and celebrating whether the kid goes to Harvard or becomes a plumber.”
“The Monday after Columbine,” said Gradone, recalling the 1999 school shootings in Colorado carried out by two high school seniors, “I did what every superintendent in the country did. I met with my high school principal and said, ‘Can it happen here?’ It was the most reassuring conversation I can remember because what (Conrad) did was tick off the individual students from the student body of at that point close to 900. In each case, he could find either some adult on the staff or some program that each student cared about, because what we were looking for was the social isolate who might become so angrily disengaged they might turn to violence… It was testimony to the fact that he never lost touch with the students.”
“One of Tom’s real strengths is his interpersonal skills,” said Briere, who met him when she became principal of Orleans Elementary School. “He builds relationships with others, very sincerely. Whatever we’re working on, his total attention is on that particular topic… Very often he says to us, ‘To stay the same is to fall behind.’ He’s always challenging us.”
The superintendent “is really resilient in the face of adversity,” Briere said of his leadership in response to the pandemic.
Conrad’s “attitude and energy are always positive,” regional school committee chair Chris Easley said in an interview. “He truly never shied away from extra work if doing it would improve education. He rose to every occasion.”