PAXTON — Being brought out of retirement may mean fewer walks on the trails of Mahomet’s Lake of the Woods and fewer lunches with his friends, but Tom Shallenberger would have it no other way.
The 58-year-old Mahomet resident, who retired in June 2017 after a career in education that culminated with a nine-year run as principal of Fisher Junior/Senior High School, has been having a blast in his new — although temporary — position at Clara Peterson Elementary School in Paxton.
"I love these little kids," said Shallenberger, who is serving as the school’s interim principal through the first 45 days of the 2018-19 school year as Principal Amanda Wetherell is on maternity leave. "I’ve dealt with junior/senior high school kids for most of my career, but it’s kind of fun to hang out with these little kids. And the staff here is top-notch, so it’s been a great experience."
Shallenberger was supposed to begin his duties at Clara Peterson Elementary School on Aug. 23, but he ended up starting earlier — "since the beginning of school," he said — because Wetherell’s baby girl arrived earlier than expected.
Shallenberger said he gladly accepted the interim role when the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district’s superintendent, Cliff McClure, contacted him to ask if he would be interested in filling in. The two had established a friendship years ago, back when McClure was coaching football at Hoopeston Area High School and Shallenberger at Mahomet-Seymour High School. But Shallenberger’s willingness to fill the void had little to do with doing a friend a favor.
"I love being around kids, and I just thought, ‘I can do this for a little while,’" Shallenberger said. "I thought it’s kind of nice, ya know, that I don’t have to do it the whole year — I’ve just got to do it for a couple of months.
"I’m enjoying myself, and I’m enjoying being around the kids. That’s the biggest thing is I just like being around kids."
Shallenberger said he has acclimated nicely in his first couple of weeks on the job. He credits his staff for making the transition as seamless as possible.
"The staff here is amazing, and they’ve done a great job helping me out," Shallenberger said. "They’ve been fantastic."
The ongoing construction of an addition to Clara Peterson Elementary School has caused few problems, Shallenberger said — "other than (the school has) lost a few classrooms because they had to block off (the construction area) because they’re adding on."
"For the most part, everything’s been going well," Shallenberger said.
Shallenberger is expected to continue working there through Oct. 16.
After that, he plans to return to retired life.
"I’m sure that my wife will have things for me to do," he said with a laugh.
Shallenberger also plans to get back to his walks on the trails of Lake of the Woods, which is "real close" to his Mahomet home. He also plans to get back to having lunches with his friends and "just enjoy the retired life," he said.
Shallenberger’s career in education began as a physical education and health teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. He then was involved in a newly started alternative-education program at Mahomet-Seymour High School before he landed a job as principal at Fisher Junior/Senior High School.
Throughout his career, Shallenberger also spent time coaching football at Mahomet-Seymour, eventually landing in the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
When Shallenberger retired from Fisher Junior/Senior High School, the school district’s superintendent, Barb Thompson, credited him with "an absolute and complete turnaround of morale in that building." Thompson said the turnaround began when Shallenberger initiated the changing of the hallways’ paint from institutional green to the black-and-orange school colors.
"You’ve gone the extra mile, made course changes, began the learning lab system. Watching you love and care for these kids has been a highlight of my educational career," Thompson told him during a school board meeting in May 2017 in Fisher.
Before arriving for work in Paxton earlier this month, Shallenberger had been to the Ford County community several times before, he said. Shallenberger said he likes the "nice, little town" and has taken a particular liking to The Humble Hog barbecue restaurant.
"That’s a good place right there," Shallenberger said.
Shallenberger said Paxton is fortunate to have the school system it has.
"I just think that this town’s very fortunate to have the dedicated staff that they have at this school — and, I’m sure, all the other schools — and Cliff (McClure) is a top-notch administrator, too," Shallenberger said.