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Beloved administrator, teacher retires after 36 years

RONAN — Among the faculty and staff at Ronan Middle School, there’s a universal truth known about Jim Gillhouse: his primary concern is for the well-being, health and of course the education of the kids he teaches and works with. 

But after 36 years of dedicated service to Ronan’s young students, the middle school is losing their fearless, selfless leader to the inevitable — retirement. 

Gillhouse began his journey almost 40 years ago, when he followed his soon-to-be wife to Montana from the Midwest. Cathy had gotten her first teaching position as the music teacher at Charlo. 

To make ends meet, Jim started substitute teaching in Charlo, Dixon and Mission, while he went back to school to get a degree in education at the University of Montana. 

After he completed his degree, he accepted a job at Ronan. It was the first place he was hired to teach and he and Cathy were happy to call their new endearing community home. 

“We ended up liking it so much that we never did leave,” Jim admitted.

His career at Ronan has been long and diverse. He has served as a fourth-grade teacher, a fifth-grade teacher, a middle school principal, an elementary school principal and a coach for freshman basketball and football. 

“One thing I found really rewarding were the students that I got to know while teaching fourth grade, I got to know while coaching (later,)” Jim said. “I’ve always missed coaching.”

But one thing has never changed throughout his transitions within the district — Jim loved his work and he devoted his life to teaching and serving the Ronan students. 

Throughout his 36 years he has seen a plethora of changes — tangible and intangible — that have transformed the schools and the students. One fall morning, Jim watched the school move from the old brick building, built in 1920s, to the new school. Jim enjoyed teaching in the old building and though he felt a certain affinity to it, he appreciates the new facilities immensely. 

Probably the biggest change that Jim saw was the introduction of technology to the learning process. It was quite a change to the curriculum and the education of students on many levels.

Though the Internet, Facebook and e-mail can be distracting, Jim believes that if used efficiently, the students are able to be more productive using the educational tools that the modern classroom offers. 

“The most amazing changes have been in the area of technology,” Jim said. “What students are able to do now with technology, they can really use to their advantage.”

With new electives and more advanced levels of study, students at Ronan Middle School can take advantage of more rigorous and rewarding academic pursuits.  

“I think that with the curriculum that we have now, the educational opportunities are way better than what we have had in the past,” Jim said. “Students have the opportunity to learn these subjects on a (higher) level.”

Perhaps one of the most pertinent changes that has occurred during Jim’s career was the major shift in middle school philosophy. Though Jim has switched between middle school and elementary school, he recognizes that teaching middle school requires a certain type of person to fit the middle school niche. 

According to co-workers, Jim was ahead of his time in believing in the middle school philosophy. His was of the mindset that middle school students are not just short high school students, but a different classification of students all together. 

“Jim was a visionary,” Ronan Middle School teacher Linda Jones said. “In a time of junior high mentality, he was a person interested in a middle school philosophy.”

The shift in the teaching philosophy happened in the late '80s to the early '90s and Jim felt the change was very positive. He watched teachers who subscribed to the more modern philosophy have great successes with their students. 

For Jim, he judged his successes by the results he saw in the students. He was always rewarded for his dedication by observing a student make a complete turnaround — from head down and unhappy one year, to honor roll the next. He also enjoyed teaching multiple generations of Ronan’s families.
 
“I’ve had the opportunity to get children (of former students) into my schools. Whole families have come through,” Jim explained. “It’s always a fun conversation with those parents reminiscing of those years. Sometimes I pull students into (my office) and show them a picture that I have of their mom and dad.”
 
Teachers at the Ronan Middle School know they are losing someone special — a crucial element to the school, who poured his heart and soul into the lives of children.
 
“Mr. Gillhouse is for the kids. He was about taking care of the kids and making sure they were safe and happy,” middle school teacher Crystal Pitts said. 
 
She added that he was always searching for new ways to help the students succeed and he was open to new ideas. 
 
“No matter what he thought or you thought personally, if it was something that was going to work for kids, he was all for trying it,” Jones said. “He was all for students being number one.”
 
And at such a critical time in the lives of students, it’s obvious that they need someone in their corner — a teacher, a parent or an administrator who understands the mentality of the pre-teen and can reach beyond all the barriers to help them.  
 
“When these students are older and they are adults,” Jim said. “They are going to remember how they were treated. They may not remember what you taught them.”
 
Though he doesn’t intend to go back to work any time soon, Jim has no plans to sit back and kick his feet up. He has a list of hobbies and activities that will keep him busy, including spending more time with his grandchildren in Missoula.
 
“Only boring people get bored,” Jim said. “I’m looking forward to staying active.”
 
He intends to enjoy Montana’s strongest feature: the great outdoors. His days will be spent hiking, skiing, bicycling, and catching up on some reading. 
 
He also plans on following in the footsteps of his father, who after his own retirement went back to school. He will switch his role in class from administrator/teacher to student by enrolling in classes at the University of Montana.
 
Though retirement will be enjoyable, Jim will miss interacting with the students and the teachers quite a bit. And after 36 years of teaching and guiding Ronan’s students, he’s a vital
part of the Ronan School District and the Ronan community will certainly grieve his absence.
 
“He was an asset that Ronan needs to be thankful for and appreciate,” Jones said.  

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