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Fife mourns the passing of Superintendent John McCrossin

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Amid the hustle and bustle of a new school year starting, thoughts and memories of Superintendent John McCrossin remain in the minds and hearts of the Fife Schools community. Less than six months into his position as the district’s newly-appointed superintendent, McCrossin was diagnosed with cancer and began taking chemotherapy treatments. He continued working as he always had, choosing to not let the diagnosis take him away from his duties nor the school district he loved so much, but he passed away on Tuesday, Aug. 26. A public celebration of his life will be held on Saturday, Sept. 13, at 1 p.m. in the Fife High School gymnasium. The McCrossin family requests that remembrances be made to the Fife High School Scholarship Foundation, PO Box 1270, Milton, WA 98354.

As superintendent, McCrossin put his all into nurturing the growth of Fife Schools, calling upon his many years of broad experiences gained from being an educator and coach hungry for knowledge and challenges. McCrossin was a student of life itself, as much a learner as he was a teacher, always deeply interested in everything and everyone he encountered.

“He literally touched thousands of families in his teaching career,” said Fife School Board President Bob Scheidt, who was friends with McCrossin for more than 25 years. “Just like many other people in the community, he helped nurture my children. How do you repay a man for that? All my children went through the Fife School District and John touched their lives and I’m thankful for that.”

Scheidt said that McCrossin had already put a plan in place for the 2014/15 school year and that’s the plan the district is staying with. As the school board was made aware of McCrossin’s cancer diagnosis months ago, the board prepared itself for the possibility of the worst outcome concerning the superintendent’s health. “[District administration] has met with building personnel and teachers and John’s vision for this year is in place. We’re going to make sure that as a district we carry that forward this year.”

Born on Jan. 30, 1956 in Dayton, Ohio, McCrossin graduated Lakes High School in 1974. He immediately enlisted in the Navy, serving onboard the USS Trenton as a personnelman, until 1976. From there he earned an Associate Degree from Tacoma Community College and a Bachelor of Science degree from Western Washington University, 1982. He took his first job in education at Fife School District that same year as a teacher and coach – actually a “jack of all trades,” which was the case for teachers in those days when they taught practically any subject requested of them.

Even though he would move on to other local school districts during his career, he always came back to Fife. McCrossin was a living example of what “Fife for Life” truly means, for his life revolved around the city and school district in which he and his wife of 34 years (and Lincoln High School teacher), Connie McCrossin, raised their two sons (and Fife High graduates) Kevin and Kyle. McCrossin enjoyed reading, golf, traveling, clamming and puttering but his greatest enjoyment was his family.

Always interested in exploring new things, McCrossin left Fife Schools for a while beginning in 1989. At Lincoln High School in the Tacoma School District he taught social studies and was head basketball coach. He earned a Master of Education in Educational Administration degree from University of Puget Sound in 1995, and completed an administrative internship while at Lincoln, serving as athletic director. That same year McCrossin moved on to the Sumner School District where he taught for one year at the junior high level and was head basketball coach and attendance coordinator. In 1999 he went to work for the Puyallup School District as assistant principal then came back to Fife for good in 2000 when then-Fife High School Principal Jeff Short recruited McCrossin as his assistant principal.

McCrossin was later promoted to principal at the high school, and it was during this time that he earned his superintendent certification from Seattle Pacific University (2004). In 2007, he was made principal at Surprise Lake Middle School (SLMS), which gave him new experiences to learn all about what goes on in the elementary schools and basic instruction.

After four years at SLMS, former Superintendent Steve McCammon approached McCrossin about coming to the district level as director of student services, which included the job of food services coordinator. This presented a brand new learning opportunity for McCrossin, as during this time he worked in Fife’s human resources department overseeing classified employees and he also took a place at the table among the district’s contract bargaining team, which provided him experience in how school finances operate, giving him an even bigger picture.

In 2013, McCrossin embarked on perhaps his biggest challenge as superintendent of the Fife School District. Considering McCrossin’s experience in so many different types of school districts and positions, Fife School Board President Bob Scheidt said the board was then, and is now, proud of its decision to have chosen McCrossin for the superintendent position. “It was a tough decision because there were other candidates that were qualified as well, but with the longevity John had in the district, we felt strongly that he should be the one,” Scheidt said. “To John’s credit, he knew there were things he needed to prepare himself for this – the different degrees he earned and positions he held. He was very qualified to run the district.”

Ask any of his co-workers and they will say that McCrossin’s stellar career in education was borne on the rare combination of personal and professional gifts that made him a beloved coach, teacher, principal, superintendent and friend to all who knew him. Reflecting his take-charge attitude and enthusiasm for his job, one of the first things McCrossin did as superintendent was to reorganize the office by instituting two new positions to assist him. He promoted Kevin Alfano from principal at Endeavour Intermediate School to Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools and then brought on Ben Ramirez from the Yakama School District as Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools.

“He was a guy who would get up at 4:30 in the morning, read, go to the gym then come to the office. And that didn’t stop when he was diagnosed with cancer,” said Alfano. “I got the sense that being superintendent was in the top five of his bucket list, so working after being diagnosed with cancer wasn’t even an option. He loved doing that and he loved his routine of coming to work and going home.”

While he knew McCrossin only for a short time, Ramirez said that upon meeting McCrossin and Alfano, he knew right away that working in Fife Schools would be a great experience. “I knew this would be a good fit for me and an interesting team to work with. They had a ‘let’s go forward’ mentality and I hit it off with them pretty quickly.”

“We spent hours having deep conversations about (McCrossin’s) vision of this district and how to put that vision into action,” Alfano said.

This is the type of inspiring leader McCrossin was, and there was probably no better place for him to have honed this skill than on the basketball court. To say that McCrossin loved the game is an understatement – he fell in love with the game in college and that love never wavered. In fact, he continued working with University of Puget Sound basketball players up until a couple of months before his death. His love for the game touched everything he did, as lessons learned on the hardwood often cross over to life itself. It was through basketball that McCrossin met one of his closest friends in the mid-1980s, Fife Municipal Court Judge Kevin Ringus.

“He had the gift of no matter who he came across, if you gave him the opportunity he would enhance your life,” Ringus said. “It didn’t matter what the scenario or what you were dealing with, he’d sit there and talk to you about it and you’d feel better when you left the conversation.” Ringus said this was especially apparent when McCrossin worked as principal at SLMS. Even though at more than 6-feet tall McCrossin towered over his young charges physically, on the inside he was at their level when it came to how he interacted with the little learners.

“He just blended right in,” Ringus said. “He could sit with a third-grader and make that student feel like it was his show.”

“He had a passion for the game and a passion to teach,” Alfano said. “He took that passion into his general leadership as a building principal and superintendent as well – knowing your team. He put his heart and soul into being superintendent as he did in coaching – he did everything with purpose.

As a person, McCrossin’s character drew people to him because he really did care and people could sense it. “He was genuinely interested in people,” Alfano said. “It didn’t matter who stopped by, he always had time. And if you stopped by, it wasn’t for a minute or two; it was always a good conversation. He was genuinely interested in your life.”

McCrossin had a gift for accentuating the positive, even encouraging telephone callers to keep the sunny side up. This was the size of the man’s heart. “His voicemail and e-mails for years always ended with ‘make it a great day,’ Alfano said. “He truly believed that everybody could make it a great day no matter what.” Alfano also commented on what a thoughtful man McCrossin always was. “On his calendar he had the birthday of every person that works in this district office so he could make sure he sent a card.”

“This goes back to everything he did had purpose,” Ringus said.

Alfano said McCrossin made remarkable accomplishments in just his one year as superintendent, leaving the district well-positioned for the future. “This past year was probably the biggest change in education in Fife in a lot of years with the new teacher evaluations and Common Core. We did that seamlessly because of his vision.

“If you look at his educational accomplishments as a superintendent in one year, we passed a levy, we finished contracts with our teachers, principals associations and classified employees, and started all day kindergarten,” among other things.

“At heart he was always a coach,” Ramirez said, “and great coaches leave great plans and he left a great plan for our district. Things are in good shape because of the work he started. People should be comfortable that we’re in a good place.”