If Thom Clement wants to chill for awhile and just relax, no one can blame him. After all, the outgoing principal of Bull Run Elementary has spent the last three decades of his life in education and he's certainly earned a rest.
"I TURNED 55 and have been with both Fairfax County and the state of Virginia long enough so I can get full retirement," he explained. "So I've decided to take a break and then look around and see what my options are."
Clement, of Little Rocky Run, began his career in 1975 as a middle-school teacher in Loudoun County. He joined Fairfax County Public Schools three years later, teaching fourth, fifth and sixth grades for the next 14 years. And he taught at Union Mill Elementary when it opened in 1986.
He then did a stint as a resource teacher in the Area IV administrative office before becoming assistant principal of London Towne Elementary in 1989. Afterward, beginning in 1991, he served as principal of Canterbury Woods Elementary for eight years. And on Feb. 1, 1999, he became the first principal of Bull Run Elementary.
"I came here to open the new school, and it's been a great seven years," said Clement. "I got to establish a new, school community and hire the staff — meshing people from 25 elementary schools and later adding others."
That whole, initial year and all the firsts associated with it still stand out in his mind. He and the staff often invented things to deal with situations as they came up and, along the way, Bull Run began building its traditions and forming its unique identity. Said Clement: "It was hard work, but very rewarding."
Besides that, he said, "Surviving 9/11 and the sniper incident — those incidents are burned into my memory. We started doing Veterans Day remembrances after 9/11, and I have fond memories of the veterans speaking here. And there's nothing quite like hearing more than 1,000 kids singing patriotic songs around the flagpole."
Clement said the saddest part of his job came one year when the school's enrollment unexpectedly declined and "I had to de-staff two young teachers I just loved. It was so painful."
But there have been way more happy times at Bull Run, such as the student parade around the school to celebrate its fifth anniversary. And all the Blue and Silver Honors ceremonies. Those are the school colors and, every nine weeks, said Clement, "I read nice things about the kids and their achievements."
"I'M SO IN AWE of and inspired by what they've done," he continued. "And I never get tired of watching the kids grow, try new things, learn, overcome fears and explore new interests." Bull Run has an emphasis on arts, drama and music and, said Clement, "Many kids haven't had that chance before. But here, they get to go up on stage and perform, and I'm always amazed at what they do."
Looking back on his time at Bull Run, he said he'll especially miss "standing in front of the school every day and watching 900-some kids come in those doors. It's been a joy for many years."
As for Bull Run's teaching staff, Clement said, "The teachers here are the most professional, committed and passionate group I've ever worked with. They have the same motivation, values and drive I have, and they've taken things to new heights. I've enjoyed seeing the teachers grow professionally and branch out into new things — becoming leaders or teaching different subjects or grade levels — and that's been rewarding, too."
Students past and present have nothing but praise for him. "What I really love about him is that he gets really involved in what we're doing, and he has fun doing it," said Marika Emanuel, 13, a Bull Run grad and rising eighth-grader at Rocky Run Middle.
Clement always promised to do outrageous things if the whole school body read a certain amount of pages each year and, recalled Marika, "One time, he kissed a bull. Another time, we duct-taped him to the wall and poured slime on him."
Her mom, Florence Emanuel of Virginia Run, called Clement's leaving "sad, because I don't think he'll be easily replaceable; he's very kid-oriented. He's not afraid to do lots of new programs, such as geography bees and plays, and he's always there at every activity. He is so supportive of the kids. We were at the Hershey, Pa., track meet — that's a long way — and he showed up to cheer them on."
Third-grader Valerie Frigerio, 9, said Clement's "really funny. He jumped out of an airplane this year for the reading contest. And during this year's talent show, he played in a Family Feud skit. I wish he wasn't leaving."
Office assistant Ann Chevalier said he even let the students turn him into a human, ice-cream sundae when they met one of his reading challenges. "He's just a caring person who makes learning fun," she said.
"He's such a good sport," added clinic-room aide Mary Vinson. "We're going to miss him terribly. He's just been fabulous and really loves the kids."
SCA President Nick Burroughs, 12, liked Clement's support of the school musicals. "He's really nice," said Nick. "He knows almost every kid and he's really friendly to everybody."
Parent Ron Rabbu of Confederate Ridge II said his son Tim started at Bull Run when it opened and, as a graduating sixth-grader, leaves along with his principal. Describing Clement as a good leader, Rabbu said Tim was in special-ed classes and the principal always supported that program.
"It's very inclusive and the kids are involved in the broader school community," he said. "The school will miss Mr. Clement. I'm sure his replacement will be competent, but he's the founding principal."
Administrative assistant Connie Mayhugh started working on plans for Bull Run with Clement, in April 1999, before the school opened. "He took on this rookie who didn't know anything about finances and was willing to take a chance on me," she said. "And he's always helped us deal with any situation involving the staff, students, teachers and community."
SHE SAID Clement originated the school talent show and always thought of a skit for the staff to do. "It usually involved the character, The Little Old Lady, portrayed by second-grade teacher Judy Wetzel," said Mayhugh. "And at the fun fair, he let the kids throw pies at him."
Guidance counselor Dana Doss also opened the school with Clement and said he's been "awesome to work with. He's an empowering person; he gives you that sense of confidence to be the professional you're qualified to be. And he's become a good friend and confidant to me, helpful in my parenting with my own children."
Also there from the start were sixth-grade teachers Susanne Shahidi, John Kelly and Jason DeCroo. Shahidi said Clement's "great in that he's hands-off. He lets us teach and have power over our classrooms; he's trusting in our abilities. He's also about educating the whole child, and he's given us programs [to do so]."
Calling Clement "kid-friendly," DeCroo said he'll miss his easy, laid-back demeanor and great sense of humor. "He's been wonderful to work for," said DeCroo. "And if you had any problems, he always had an open door."
Kelly was glad to have a principal so supportive of music and drama — plus his other interests. "I coach girls basketball at Chantilly, and he's allowed teachers like me to pursue things outside of the school," explained Kelly. "It's hard to see him go because he's an administrator good at his job — and a good friend, as well."
Clement's also a husband and father. He and his wife of 26 years, Carol, met while both were teachers at Sterling Middle School in Loudoun County. And, she said, "It's been quite a ride." She and all four of their children — sons Randy, 24, J.C., 22, Scott, 20, and Corey, 17 — were at the farewell party given to Clement by the community.
Carol's the librarian at Deer Park Elementary and, although she has five more years until she can retire, she says her husband truly deserves his retirement.
"He's worked really hard and I've never seen him let up," she said. "When he's with the kids, it's obvious how much they love him. He's awesome. I've known all along how great he is, and it's always been nice hearing other parents say nice things about him, too. I'm very proud of him."
Saying, "The kids make it fun," it's no wonder then that Clement had mixed emotions about leaving Bull Run. But after 31 years in education — 28 of them in Fairfax County — he's ready for the next chapters in his life.
"IT'S BEEN a very joyful journey," he said. "But now I'm looking forward to an opportunity to explore other options for work — maybe something totally different — and spending time on Lake Anna and on the Occoquan River. Someday, my plan is to get a motorboat again."
And he'll continue to be a role model for children. Clement's a member of Centerpoint Church in Fair Oaks and leads a church Scout group. And, this summer, he'll take 17 youngsters on a Camporama in southwestern Missouri.
Before leaving Bull Run, he was feted at special ceremonies held by the students and also by the parents. Teachers, staff and alumni hosted a dinner in his honor at the Waterford in Fair Oaks. And the SCA and PTA presented him with a granite plaque into which his picture was carved.
"I can look around the school and see things that have been special memories or happenings for me," said Clement. "And hopefully, when people see that plaque, it'll remind them of happy memories and good things that happened here."