There would be very few Macleans College students over the past 33 years who wouldn’t remember Mr Lonergan.
Deep-voiced with silver hair (at least in recent years), the 61-year-old is inimitable – a special educator who understood and interacted with students and teachers in a way that only he could.
Mr Lonergan – “Jim” – arrived at Macleans College in 1983 and left on the last day of term three this year as deputy principal of the school.
As a former pupil, I went along to his final goodbye earlier this month – a Saturday afternoon function in the Macleans College staff room for past students and staff.
“It was really great that some of the foundation staff and foundation students were actually there,” Mr Lonergan said to me over the phone a few days later.
He sounded genuinely touched that they, along with other students, teachers and parents, had turned up to see him off.
Stories were shared at the event, sincere thanks were passed on, and the final chapter of Mr Lonergan’s time at Macleans was closed.
Before that there had been a “very moving” assembly on the last day of term three, a staff and school board farewell that same afternoon, and a past teachers goodbye event a few weeks earlier.
At the school assembly, principal Byron Bentley and all four head prefects spoke about Mr Lonergan’s stay at Macleans, each covering a different aspect of his tenure.
“Then the kapa haka did a very rousing farewell haka and then the whole school stood and I walked out through the entire school to say goodbye,” Mr Lonergan recounted to me.
“It was very emotional for me and for a lot there as well I think.”
He is already nine weeks into his new job as chief executive of College Sport.
Mr Lonergan said it came out of the blue and that he wasn’t actually looking at leaving.
“But the opportunity was too good not to apply for…so when I saw it I thought, well, this is something that I could actually do outside teaching that I’d really enjoy.
“It was nice to think I wasn’t retiring – that I was going onto something else and certainly a new challenge. But it was hard to leave somewhere where you’ve been going in each day and often on weekends as well. It’s a place where the car automatically turned – it directed itself to that front gate.”
Something Mr Lonergan mentioned during his speech at the final farewell was his lunch-time missions, where he would walk around the school for the best part of an hour getting to know the students and staff.
I remember seeing this a lot – it was his trademark – and so I asked him about it a few days later.
“I made an effort every lunch-time to walk around the eight [whanau] houses and also would call past and see staff as well,” he said.
“My style is always to make those personal connections. The more people you know, the more you are aware of what’s happening. I loved walking around the school just having conversations and if there was a new student, introducing myself to that student.”
He said he tried to know every student by name.
This personalised teaching style meant Mr Lonergan was proactive, rather than reactive. He knew when there was trouble and was often able to shut it down before anything occurred.
“It’s far better to be prepared to stop things happening before they do,” he said.
“If you’ve got some understanding of how the students and staff feel, you can actually make changes before things do blow.”
Because of this, Mr Lonergan earned the respect of a lot of students – even if they didn’t admit it at the time.
“I think it’s often the kids at risk that you make a difference with,” he said.
“They’re the most appreciative 10, 20 years on when they’ve actually left school. A lot of kids go through some trying times, but in fact I could say basically every kid I’ve dealt with – there’s good in them.
“And it’s about really getting through those teenage years. If they can keep out of serious trouble, they actually turn out to be good citizens and they appreciate the work that’s gone in for them during those school years. Just being listened to is often important.”
Everything that made Mr Lonergan successful at Macleans College – he was the house leader of Rutherford House for six years, head of chemistry during that same period, and a member of the senior management team since 1994 – is sure to make him a success at College Sport.
The organisation works across 107 schools and 45 sports and Mr Lonergan’s time as chairman of Auckland Rugby and his current role as deputy chairman of New Zealand Schools Rugby will have prepared him well for this new challenge. His master’s degree in business will also come in handy.
Nine weeks in, he said he is loving the new opportunity.
“It is challenging, but there are, I think, some positive changes that I can make here. If we can increase participation numbers it’s good for Auckland, it’s good for those kids who aren’t competing and there are some serious issues with obesity and health. The more active kids are, the better for society long term.”
Mr Lonergan said he will continue to get out and see some of the sporting and cultural events put on by Macleans College, but he recognises that he now has 107 schools to support.
He is also looking forward to spending more time with family on weekends, after 33 years of wandering around school sport fields.
“Weekend time – having more time with family – is really important,” Mr Lonergan said.
It’s the very least he deserves after a teaching career full of generosity and dedication.
Jim Lonergan has left his mark on Macleans College. I, and many of the students who have passed through the school, and those who are still passing through and will continue to in years to come, am, are, and will be better off for it.
By: Scott Yeoman