FORT WAYNE – For more than three decades, Mike Caywood has been collecting memories in his office at Holland Elementary.
There are photos of his annual visit to North Carolina with each class of fifth-graders, notes from his admirers, and paintings of seagulls, lighthouses and ocean views.
And then there are the memories that can’t be seen – but those he will hold in his heart forever.
It’s been a great ride, Caywood said. It’s unusual for someone to be in a single building for 31 years, so I must be doing something right.
Caywood, 68, retired this week after 41 years at Fort Wayne Community Schools and 31 years as principal at Holland.
In 2013, he was named the Indiana Association of School Principal’s Elementary Principal of the Year.
Caywood will be replaced by J.R. Ankenbruck, who has been principal of Washington Elementary School since 2010.
It’s his love of kids that kept him coming back year after year, Caywood said.
It’s been a pure joy to come in here everyday and see the kids. I love the hugs and the high-fives, the smiles, he said. We have a wonderful staff who fight a lot of battles every day but are so dedicated to educating every kid.
He’s always ready to brag about his staff, he added, especially since he has hired everyone except one teacher who has been with the school for two years longer than he has.
They aren’t just my staff. We are a family, Caywood said. I’ve watched many of their kids grow up while I’ve been here. I’ve been with them through the happy and sad points of their life.
For the past 22 years, Caywood has also forged a special bond with each fifth-grade class that has traveled with him to North Carolina. He has taken more than 800 students since the trips began.
The weeklong trip begins with a 16- or 17-hour drive to Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, and ends with a chance for students to leap into the ocean.
Since many of the students have never been to the ocean, that’s always a highlight of the trip, Caywood said.
For some of them, it’s the experience of a lifetime, he said. It might be the first time they’ve ever seen the ocean and everything is exciting.
The trip has also been a great way to help students experience the environmental topics they study throughout their early years, Caywood explained.
Holland Elementary serves as a magnet school that focuses on environmental studies. Students learn about natural resources, conservation and the environment and have access to a large outdoor lab.
As part of the trip, the students participate in team-building exercises, maritime studies, environmental quests and explore an aquarium and the ocean.
They also learn about ecosystems, salt marshes and dissect a squid, Caywood said.
The kids get really into the dissection thing. And it’s great for the girls in the group because it’s a good introduction to science, he said.
Caywood has invited Holland teachers and staff to help chaperone the trip.
Jerry Durst, a special education teacher at Holland, has attended the trip more than a dozen times.
It just changes the kids, Durst said. They make new friends fast and they keep those friends long after they leave Holland.
Durst, 65, will also retire from Holland this year after working in the district for 44 years. He is the longest-serving employee to retire this year, according to FWCS.
Durst said it’s the little things that students enjoy most about the trip – picking up crabs from the ocean floor, examining animals and plant life they’ve only seen in books and experiencing a world outside their own.
There’s one day when everyone makes hush puppies (baked cornmeal in a ball shape) and of course, that’s not something most of them like. So they take them outside and throw them to the seagulls. They have so much fun with that, Durst said.
Both Caywood and Durst said the future of the North Carolina trip is uncertain, but they hope the school can continue the tradition even after they are gone.
Though his retirement means an end to the many years of traveling with students, Caywood said he still plans to sightsee with his wife, Nancy.
Nancy Caywood will also retire this year from FWCS after 23 years of service. She will retire from her position as a second-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary.
FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said Mike Caywood’s tenure at Holland is not the norm anymore.
It’s just not the case anymore. We used to have principals stay in our buildings for their entire administrative career, but that just doesn’t happen often anymore, Stockman said.
On Wednesday, Caywood was celebrating his final nine hours as a principal by hugging his staff family as they cleaned out their classrooms and headed home for the summer.
I’ll miss it, but I’m excited to spend some time with my wife and renew that friendship – talk about something other than school, Caywood said.