PEABODY — Maryellen McGrath could have retired six years ago. She was eligible. She had plenty to do with a second job as a travel agent. Plans to buy a restaurant would soon develop, as well.
But she stayed because she got the chance to cap her four decades in education as principal of South Memorial Elementary School.
“This is the gem of Peabody schools,” she said. “I have wonderful teachers. And fabulous students.”
She’s retiring now, on Jan. 31, after six years guiding South School and 41 years in education, all of it working in Peabody elementary schools.
“Her dedication to the community and the children of the district has been unsurpassed,” Superintendent Joseph Mastrocola said. He acknowledged that it won’t be easy finding a replacement.
“She’s a gracious lady,” said School Committee member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne. “A beloved teacher and a beloved principal. They really love her.”
McGrath, 62, grew up in downtown Peabody as Maryellen Horgan.
“And I’m still here,” she says proudly, albeit now in West Peabody. She sees Peabody as the sort of community that people get attached to and stay and raise their families. She certainly did that with her daughter and son.
McGrath attended Salem State and was drawn to teaching from an early age.
“It was my dream as a little girl,” she said.
She also had some pretty clear goals regarding the education process.
“I wanted children to be happy to come to school every day,” she said. “At the end of the day when the bell rang, they would sigh because they would have to leave.”
Growing close to her students was inevitable.
“The children that sit in front of you — sometimes it seems you are there with them more than you are with your own children,” she said.
Over the years, she watched those kids grow up and had the unique joy of seeing the children of those students arrive at school.
At the same time, she worked toward advanced degrees at Lesley College and nearby Cambridge College before winning the position of assistant principal at Center School. By the time the opening for South School was available, McGrath could have retired. The way she tells the story, it wasn’t a difficult decision to stay.
“It was something I had worked for,” she said. “And I felt I was too young to retire.”
As she walks down the corridor, the atmosphere in a school full of hyperactive young kids is extraordinarily quiet and calm.
Success at South School has involved others, she said. “My staff, they make me look good.”
As she ran South School, her family bought a restaurant in North Conway, N.H. Her son, Seamus, is the cook at McGrath’s Tavern.
“I’m the hostess,” said McGrath, who notes that many years ago she met her husband skiing in New Hampshire. “We’re doing well.” She’s careful to note that it’s a weekend thing, and “I’m not moving out of Peabody.”
When she made the decision to retire, she was careful to break the news personally, going from room to room.
“I didn’t want to announce it at a meeting,” she said. “I wanted them to hear it from me. ... I’ve been very fortunate. I had a job where I loved to go to work every day. And I’ve worked with great people.”
She’s also had a job as a travel agent and is still anxious to explore new parts of the world.
“Australia,” she said. “I have to go to Australia sometime.”
Because of the quirks of the retirement system, it was advantageous for McGrath to leave in the middle of the year. That can make things a little tougher on the superintendent. Mastrocola said he will present a process for choosing a new principal to the School Committee within a few weeks.