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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 29, 2010
Gala to celebrate retiring principal
By Saranac Hale Spencer
VOORHEESVILLE Mark Diefendorf followed an unconventional course, charted by circumstance, to a career in education.
Through several professional incarnations, Diefendorf learned to teach and ended up spending 22 years at Voorheesville’s high school, first as a social studies teacher, then as the principal.
“A teacher affects eternity,” he read this week from a painted wooden sign hanging on his office wall. It was a saying his late wife, also a teacher, was fond of quoting.
It’s not so much what is taught, but the connections made, he said, citing the e-mails that some of his students from the mid 1990s sent him after the recent death of popular historian Howard Zinn. Diefendorf had taken his advanced-placement history class on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Potsdam where Zinn was speaking, he said, picking up a stiff yellow poster from the event that they had taken off a wall and had Zinn sign.
That kind of trip would never happen in today’s environment, but he said, “Those were the kinds of connections you could make with kids.”
Zinn, with his take on the underside of history, was somebody Diefendorf could relate to, he said. “We take care of the top kids very well,” he said of Voorheesville’s school district, adding that it also has a good special-education program. “I see the kids with one foot out the door,” he said.
He’s able to relate to students on all levels, Diefendorf said, because “I listen. It’s as simple as that.”
Path to Voorheesville
Graduating from the Vincentian Institute in 1967, Diefendorf had always liked social studies, but done well in science. He took his guidance counselor’s advice and went to study chemical engineering at Case Western on a football scholarship.
A self-described jock in high school, Diefendorf was on the football team, the baseball team, and the track team, on which he excelled at relays. He liked the camaraderie of team sports and the way a group would “work on a goal together.”
He dropped out of college after football season, before the end of his first semester.
“School didn’t matter much to me at all,” he said of himself as a young man, in love with “a beautiful young woman,” with whom he ran off, she later became his wife.
To this day, he said, “I don’t really know what a chemical engineer does.”
On March 18, 1968 Diefendorf signed up for the draft, thereby avoiding the infantry and getting training to repair field radios. He was to report to Okinawa, but, in December of that year, his father died and he left the Army to support his mother and three siblings.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Diefendorf built elevators for Otis as the Empire State Plaza was under construction. He went to the State University of New York at Albany at night.
First studying math, then switching to social studies, he “settled in American history,” Diefendorf said.
After completing a master’s degree in criminal justice, he worked as a probation program analyst for juveniles in the justice system. From that, he contributed to the construction of an intensive supervision program for adults, which would evaluate the ability for some felons to operate under intense probation in an effort to ease the burden on an over-crowded prison system.
“That’s where I really became a teacher, trainer, instructor,” Diefendorf said, since he had not only to explain the program to judges and lawyers, but convince them of its merit.
He later became the criminal justice coordinator in the state’s division of alcoholism and alcohol abuse, where he helped to institute a program to discourage alcohol and drug use in the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, which led to a significant decrease in conflicts among prisoners and between prisoners and guards, he said.
“People are more aggressive with alcohol and drugs,” he said, so part of the program included Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and regular shakedowns of the cells, which sometimes had stills made by inmates.
Diefendorf then spent two years staying home with his two sons. “I’m a good cook,” he said, with his own recipes for three-pepper chicken, soups made from “a potpourri of things I have leftover,” and omelets.
There is great responsibility in managing the house, he said. Those years gave him “an appreciation for people who stay home,” he said.
The next couple of years he spent installing energy-efficient devices for a company begun by a friend. His showers still have the water-conserving heads that he put on them during the late 1970s.
In the early 1980s, Diefendorf got on a substitute-teaching list, which he liked for about a year until a job for a social studies teacher opened at Bishop Maginn in September of 1983. The following year, he was the social studies department chair.
“Bishop Maginn had given me such a great foundation,” he said. “I was allowed to do everything.”
With two college-age children in the summer of 1989, Diefendorf described a schedule working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a unit secretary at St. Peter’s Hospital and then from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. as a summer-school teacher at St. Anne’s. At 2 p.m., he interviewed for a job in Voorheesville, telling the administrators that he deserved the job if he could remain coherent.
He got the job and said, “I literally doubled my salary coming here.”
One of his interviewers was a brand new superintendent named Alan McCartney, who had played football for Thiel College. In the last game of Diefendorf’s 1968 season, he tackled a running back who left him unconscious. “That was me,” McCartney said after Diefendorf recalled the running back’s number.
“It has to do with the connections that you make,” Diefendorf said this week. “The world is a small place.”
Diefendorf’s office is now scattered with pointed objects he has confiscated from children in his role as principal and with evidence of an active classroom he takes a miniature basketball from a shelf and reads the names, written in felt-tipped pen, from his 1990 mock trial team as if they still exist as students.
“It’s rather deflated,” he says, looking at the sagging orange rubber.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “It’s been bittersweet.”
Diefendorf will be honored at a gala on May 1 held by the Voorheesville Community and School Foundation.
Asked by the foundation’s president what he wanted to leave for the school, he answered that he’d like an electronic sign for announcements in front of the building and a plaque to recognize McCartney’s contribution to the school’s performing arts center, which had been the superintendent’s request when he retired in 2005, shortly before the district was audited by the state’s comptroller.
After retiring, Diefendorf has plans to travel with his wife and spend time with his grandchildren five currently with three on the way. He calls them the magnificent seven.
Beyond that, he plans to advocate for wind and solar energy, Diefendorf said.