Salute Our Heroes: Retiring Topeka High principal put students first

Rebecca Morrisey made a point of putting the interests of students first in her role as principal at Topeka High School, 800 S.W. 10th Ave.
Updated: May. 29, 2023 at 4:01 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Rebecca Morrisey, who is retiring at the end of June as principal of Topeka High School, realized a long time ago that it would be virtually impossible to please all the people all the time.

So she took a more realistic approach: Find the best solution for the most people and make decisions accordingly.

Her main goal, she said, was to put the students first.

That philosophy served Morrisey well in her 40 years as an educator, administrator and coach at both the high school and college levels.

Morrisey, 61, announced her retirement earlier this month. Her retirement will take effect at the end of June.

That means she’s wrapping up the various duties that come with being a principal, including dealing with students and parents and working with faculty and staff members.

She says she’s looking forward to the inevitable change of pace that’ll be coming her way, including being able to enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee in the morning and getting back into the groove of reading books for pleasure.

As she stood this past Wednesday, May 24, in the main hallway of Topeka High, wearing a shirt that said “Happy Last Day of School,” and as she watched students file past her for the final day as principal, she acknowledged the experience was a bit “surreal.”

Not surprising, as the chapter was about to close on four decades in education.

“What is striking me most today,” she said that day, “is the fact that I won’t be in charge of this beautiful building anymore. And that’s OK, because who this building is isn’t about me. This building is about the people in it for generations.”

Her biggest challenge as Topeka High principal?

“Surviving COVID and pandemic,” she said, noting it was “something that nobody had experience with that is currently alive or in education.”

The thing that gives her the most pride?

“The increase in the graduation rate,” she said, “from 73 percent to 95.5.”

Those numbers didn’t occur in a vacuum, and Morrisey is quick to credit her staff for the progress she has overseen.

“We have an amazing staff,” she said. “In education right now, there’s such an exodus out of the business that you hear about, but you don’t feel it here.”

After her retirement takes effect, Morrisey says, she plans to spend more time with her three grown children and several grandchildren. Her children live in Minnesota and the Kansas City area.

“I am missing things,” Morrisey said, “and it’s time that mother-grandmother takes a breath and is there when her kids need her to be there and grandkids need her to be there.”

Morrisey is a former college basketball player at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City and coach of four girls’ state high school championship teams. She also was the women’s basketball coach at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

Morrisey said she’s already made plans to help at a basketball camp that one of her children will run in Minnesota. One of her granddaughters, coincidentally, will be in that camp as a player.

Morrisey also is fending off requests to be an official for high school basketball games.

Additionally, she’s considering options to be a consultant for schools.

Her 40 years in education certainly gives her needed credentials in that area.

Morrisey came to Topeka High in 2016 and served seven years as principal.

What’s she going to miss the most?

“People,” she said. “It’s always people. I can see the building. I can walk through the building. And the building’s special. I love this building. I’m a history minor... I love the Tudor-gothic architecture.

“But it’s always the people. You miss the kids, you miss the teachers, you miss the people you work with, you miss the staff. Everywhere I’ve been, I miss the people whenever I leave.”

Yet she acknowledged that the time had come for her to step aside, and that she was certain her successor will find new ways to continue building on the school’s long history, as well as the progress that has been made in recent years.

Morrisey says she has high hopes for the next principal at Topeka High.

“I want someone who really understands and values the traditions and the diversity that is Topeka High School,” she said, “and someone who better take care of my people.”

She chuckled upon making that last statement, but there was also a tone of seriousness.

Morrisey said when she came to Topeka High as principal, she knew it would be the last stop in her career in education.

Students and staff said Morrisey contributed a great deal to them as individuals and to the school as a whole.

“I love Ms. Morrisey,” said B.J. Canady, a senior-to-be at Topeka High and one of the state’s top high school football players. “She’s really caring and she’s always there for somebody when you need her. Really nice to talk to. I’m going to miss her.

“She’ll always be there if you need somebody to talk to -- always there to talk about sports or whatever. That’s what I really like about Ms. Morrisey.”

Topeka High boys basketball coach Geo Lyons, himself a graduate of Topeka High, said he gained a great deal from working with Morrisey this past year. He said he was grateful Morrisey gave him the chance to return to Topeka High to lead the basketball program.

“She taught me how to give out some roles, especially to my other coaches, not to take everything on,” Lyons said. “To have my other coaches be coaches.

“And I think she does that with her staff here, too. Not big on micro-managing, letting people find their own niche, then giving them a good word and pushing them forward.”

Topeka High Assistant Principal Rob Hays said Morrisey can look back with satisfaction over her years at the school.

“I know she’s going to have a lot of fun out on the golf course with her grandchildren,” Hays said, “and she’s going to be able to look back and I think have very fond memories of what she accomplished while she was here.”

The search is on for Morrisey’s successor and it’s expected to last into the summer.