Retirement is often viewed as a chance to slow down and not have to do anything. It’s a lifestyle most don’t need to train for. McLean High School principal Dr. Donald Weinheimer, however, worked out diligently over the last 12 months to get in the physical shape he wanted to tackle the adventures that he’s planning on finding himself in during retirement. After five years helming the Highlanders, Weinheimer is retiring this month and doesn’t plan to look back.
To prepare himself to take on whatever comes his way, Weinheimer lost 30 pounds over the last school year and is at “fighting weight.” His daily regime included 400 sit-ups, walking or running five miles, and doing 50 push-ups. “When I set my mind to something, I’m very determined,” said Weinheimer of his physical achievement.
Weinheimer made the choice to retire while he’s in his prime because he wants to “re-create” his life while he’s still young and able.
“I ALWAYS LEAVE A PARTY WHEN things are really great. If you’re the last one to leave the party, it’s not so exciting. I don’t see this as a retirement; I see this as creating a new phase in my life while I’m still young and healthy. This is just another great exploration,” Weinheimer said.
He has spent, by his calculations, the last 40 years in high school, a prospect that mortifies most adults. The last few years at McLean High School have been some of the most influential and intense of his career.
“There have been trying days. Nine/11 and the snipers stand out. We have so many kids whose parents work at the Pentagon. We had to deal with that day like everybody else. There has been a good deal of crisis over these last few years. With the war, we’ve had parents and families going over there,” said Weinheimer of some of the issues he’s tackled.
As the head of the school, he knew that the student body would look to him for direction and ways to emotionally deal with the issues they were confronting. “If you deal with them appropriately, everyone realizes life goes on. They learn how to deal with things and grow from it,” Weinheimer said.
STUDENTS AT ONE POINT reacted by staging a peace sit-in, a la the 1960s. “I was a teacher in the ‘60s, so I’d experienced activism,” Weinheimer said with a knowing smile. He reacted swiftly and decisively with action that did not please all the students or parents but did enable the school to continue to function and the students to be heard. Students were allowed to stage their protest at set intervals in the day and to speak on the subject at allotted times.
“You need to let them express themselves. Some of the students were even very eloquent, I thought. But not everyone was happy with how I handled it. If you don’t give them a voice, though, you’ve got a whole other set of issues on your hands,” Weinheimer said.
“My style is basically that I’m easy-going with a sense of humor. But I’m very direct with the things I expect to happen,” Weinheimer said.
His directness and intentionality with young adults stem from his experience as a parent. He is the father of four sons, three of whom have graduated from rival Langley High School and one who is a student at Cooper Middle School and headed to McLean's nemesis.
WEINHEIMER IS NOT ABOVE THE RIVALRY, and his affection for the parents and students at McLean is clearly evident. “Let me point out that McLean graduated two days before Langley this year. We needed to show them we could do something first,” Weinheimer said with a mischievous smile.
“A lot of our McLean people feel they are in the shadow of Langley. It’s true we’re not as wealthy, as a school, but we have some things here that aren’t matched. McLean parents are there. They come to the practices, and they come to the games. They really show up for these kids.”
“I think McLean is a jewel of a school because we have a mixture of cultures and people. We are not one color or one people. You can have diversity, and it either works or it doesn’t. It works here. Sure, groups of kids hang together, but there’s a lot of cross-over. We’re diverse and accepting of our differences,” said Weinheimer.
As principal, he says he’s witnessed the appreciation for diversity and cultural understanding at McLean firsthand. He added that while the students may not have every material wish fulfilled, he has seen tremendous respect and appreciation being demonstrated by the teens for what the administrators do. “After a dance, they’ll come up and say, ‘Thank you. I had a good time,’ Can you imagine, they are thanking me?” Weinheimer said.
“Langley kids don’t appreciate what they have sometimes. My own son sometimes falls into that,” said Weinheimer.
Congeniality has served the outgoing principal well over the years. He extends that courtesy not just to his staff but to parents and students as well. For example, once a month he would take the senior class officers to J. Gilbert’s restaurant in McLean to talk with them. He treated them to lunch each time.
Rebecca Newberger, the senior class Secretary said that these lunches were really important to the class officers. “It was a nice way to meet with him and just talk about what’s going on. So much happens senior year that it’s nice to have that. It’s an example of how he kept us all together,” said Newberger.
“He was always really involved with the students. It’s one of his best traits. He’s very supportive,” said Newberger.
BEGINNING JULY 1 PAUL WARDINSKI WILL take over as principal of McLean high school. Wardinski is coming from nearby Marshall High School, where he was the Academy administrator. Weinheimer was active in the process of choosing his replacement.
“If I was going to offer him any advice, it would be to quickly get to know everybody. You’ve got to know them and connect with them. The most successful people make connections in general. Commonalty and connection is important,” said Weinheimer.
That type of advice doesn’t surprise Weinheimer’s assistant, Sue Robinson. “You know that book ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’? That’s him to a T,” said Robinson.
Weinheimer said, “There are people who are anxious about having a new leader. But I say don’t judge him against me. Cut him a lot of breaks — he’ll do just fine.”
Not judging him may be difficult, considering the legacy Weinheimer leaves behind. He oversaw the ongoing construction at the school, which has lasted for years. He’s dealt effectively with a student population increase of nearly 200; dealt with crises of terrorism, war and anthrax; and this year has the distinction of having every graduating student pass his SOLs.
“He was amazing with the renovation. He unified the whole thing and made sure we got the best use of every bit of money. That was a huge legacy to leave.” said Robinson.
“His attitude is incredibly positive — that we’re doing something great here. That makes the whole school feel that way. It truly does trickle down in the school,” said Robinson.
Weinheimer said, “I’m leaving a better school, better staff, better teams. I think I’m leaving a school where the atmosphere and the environment are better.
“I’ll take memories of all the great times — students, staff, whatever. The negative stuff dissipates very quickly. It’s a drag. I’ll remember the great experiences — it will sustain me over a lifetime.”