SENECA FALLS — Early on graduation morning, maintenance workers were arranging chairs and risers outside Mynderse Academy's entrance for that evening's ceremony.
Between the end of school, report cards and his own impending retirement, you would think Principal Tony Ferrara would have a laundry list of other things to do — including looking for a lost cell phone on his paper-strewn desk.
But he was right outside with those workers — moving flower pots and adjusting chair rows.
Later that day, Ferrara presided over his last graduation — his 30th at Mynderse Academy. Although it was his preference that the ceremony focus only on the seniors, school officials and the students themselves would not allow that — honoring Ferrara with both a plaque and a performance of “Memories” by senior choral students.
Ferrara, 62, officially ended his career as principal on June 30, but will remain working in the district over the summer on a per diem basis.
Although it may seem like Ferrara has been principal forever, he has worked in other schools besides his alma mater.
After graduating from Mynderse Academy in 1970, Ferrara enrolled at the University of Nebraska. He landed in the Midwest after driving a car out to a first cousin in Omaha.
“I stayed out there for a few days, he showed me around and I liked it,” Ferrara said.
Ferrara graduated with a bachelor's degree in physical education and general science and earned his master's degree (also from the University of Nebraska) in education. He spent four years in Council Bluffs, Iowa, working as a physical education teacher before he returned to New York. Ferrara worked at Aquinas Institute in Rochester from 1978 to 1983, teaching both phys ed and general science. He then moved to another Catholic high school, Bishop Kearney, in 1983-84, where he taught science before returning to his hometown in 1984 to start work as an assistant high school principal.
It's clear it's been an emotional farewell, but Ferrara said he just felt now was the time to retire.
“The gap between me and the kids has gotten to a point where it was in my opinion the right time to move on,” he said. “I'm going out with a great class.”
That class dedicated its yearbook to Ferrara, surprising him with the honor at an assembly attended by his two brothers, Michael and David; wife, Elaine; and two daughters, Lindsey and Jacqueline.
Two of the three Ferrara boys ended up in education — Michael is principal of Waterloo High School, while David is a lawyer in Syracuse — not a bad showing for three boys whose parents never finished high school. Ferrara attributes much of that success to his mother, Jane, who raised three boys alone after her husband died when Ferrara was just 10 years old.
“She was by far the driving force in finishing high school and going to college,” he said. “She felt it was the best opportunity.”
Her hard work also left a lasting impression.
“She taught us you were going to be responsible at an early age. We picked up on that work ethic, responsibility and commitment to family that I strongly believe has carried over to our professional careers, and current family with spouses and children,” Ferrara said.
Ferrara believes there are more challenges in education today because those lessons are lacking. There is less respect for authority and there have been societal and economic changes challenging the family unit. In addition, he feels that today a good number of students are satisfied with achieving just the minimum.
“The big difference I see is the degrading of the family structure or unit,” he said. “If my brothers or I did anything we begged the administrators to take care of it, but please don't call my parents because the consequences would be double,” he said
A hard worker himself
As principal, Ferrara liked to get to work early — between 5:30 and 6 a.m. — to have uninterrupted time to do paperwork.
“That was a very important thing so I could be out there with [the students], whether in the classroom, cafeteria or hallway,” Ferrara said.
His longtime secretary, Lauri Nigro, worked side by side with Ferrara for 24 years. She recalled his love of gardening and how he is the one responsible for much of the landscaping at the high school. Just recently she said he returned at 2 a.m. from chaperoning a New York City trip and by 10 a.m. was in front of the school planting flowers. She saw him there again at 3:30; at 5 p.m. , when she was out riding her bike, she thought he had finally left.
“But as I rode further past the school, I saw his black Avalon at the stop sign on Butler Avenue. He approached me and pulled over. I said 'You're not going back to the school to work on the landscaping, are you?' He said, 'Yeah, there's just a few more things I want to do.'”
Guy Turchetti knew Ferrara first as a student at Aquinas, then as a colleague at Mynderse, where he teaches English and special education.
At Aquinas, Turchetti had Ferrara as a gym and health teacher and remembers a barrel-chested man with a big mustache and imposing nature.
“He literally scared the crap out of me when I was 13, 14,” Turchetti said. “He was enormous.”
But Turchetti, who has taught at Seneca Falls for 16 years, believes Ferrara has mellowed and said there is more to him than a gruff exterior.
“He's much more sentimental than I think he ever lets on with the kids,” said Turchetti, who has told students who feel “bugged” by Ferrara that it's a sign of his commitment.
“If he hated you he wouldn't be bugging you,” said Turchetti, adding each child who graduates is important to Ferrara, not the percentage of students who graduate.
“I don't recall anybody he's ever given up on,” he said.
In fact, Superintendent Bob McKeveny recalls Ferrara giving gym classes on his own time to a student who needed them to graduate.
Turchetti and Nigro said Ferrara was just as supportive with staff as with students. He never hesitated to answer the phones or greet main office visitors if she was busy, she said. Turchetti said he gained his staff's respect because they knew “if you deserved it, he had your back.”
At the yearbook dedication ceremony, McKeveny called Ferrara “a dear friend,” “an icon,” and “a big hero” who had his finger on the pulse of the school. That ceremony also included the announcement that the district's new fitness center would be named in Ferrara's honor.
“Mynderse won't be the same, but we welcome him back here any time, all the time, because he's a friend to all of us,” McKeveny said.
At that same assembly, and during a later interview, Ferrara said he never considered his time at Mynderse “work.”
“If you enjoy your job you'll never work a day in your life,” he said. “It hasn't been a job, it's been an experience and I'm grateful I've had that opportunity.”