By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
As Paul D. Ott entered Cardinal Gibbons as a freshman in 1962, how could he have known the Catholic high school in Fort Lauderdale would become his calling?
After graduating with the class of ’66 and then from the University of Notre Dame, Ott returned to his alma mater and never left — until this month, that is. Ott is retiring after 48 years as an educator there, 15 of them as the school’s fourth principal.
But his ties to the school go even deeper than his tenure there. He was the second of five siblings to attend, and his wife, Therese, and their children Matthew, Michael and Daniel are also Gibbons alumni.
As well as a teacher of English, religion and public speaking, Ott also served as student activities director, a reflection of his own involvement in athletics as a student at both Gibbons and Notre Dame. There, during the National Championship era of legendary football coach Ara Parseghian, he learned that exceptional academic and athletic programs were not mutually exclusive.
“The spirit and enthusiasm generated from the athletic program carried over into the classroom so that the chant, ‘We’re Number 1,’ applied to the pride students had in the entire school, not just football,” says Ott, 70.
When he returned to Cardinal Gibbons, those lessons not only helped to foster a rich athletic heritage that has produced the state’s defending football champion, but also he says informed an educational philosophy that encourages all students first to be the best people they can be, and then to fulfill their potential as students, athletes and team members.
Ott also worked to bring major additions and enhancements to a campus that, from his graduation year to his retirement, has seen its student population double from nearly 600 to 1,200.
As the school year winds down, Principal Ott calls us into his office for a few words before the last bell rings.
What about being an educator will you miss the most?
That’s easy — the kids. By sharing their lives with me they have enriched my life tremendously. Good teachers have the potential to change lives by helping young people get a glimpse of who they can really be. When you see that spark of realization in their eyes — that’s awesome!
Is there one special memory you will take with you when you leave the school?
Last year when our choral group sang as part of the Candlelight Processional at Disney World, I was moved to tears. Knowing that I would be retiring soon, it represented to me how far our school had come in offering our kids the opportunity to be all they can be. We had accomplished great things academically and athletically, but their performance, for me, was the heart and soul of who we need to be.
In your half-century as an educator, you’ve witnessed dramatic changes in education. Which do you feel have been the best and the worst?
The focus on individual differences, such as different learning styles, has helped teachers understand that kids learn differently and we have to approach them differently. All kids can learn but they do it in different ways and at different speeds. Technology has certainly changed the way we learn and the way we teach. As one of the first 1:1 iPad schools in South Florida, we suffered through the growing pains of this new delivery system and it has dramatically changed the way we do things — mostly for the better.
What troubles me most about education is a change that has not occurred. Teachers continue to be underpaid for incredibly important work. Our children spend the majority of their waking hours with their teachers and coaches. How much should we value those people with whom we entrust our children? We could never pay them what they are truly worth, but we can do a whole lot better than we are doing.
Is there one accomplishment of your career that strikes you as having had the biggest impact?
If you can model what it means to be a good and caring teacher and have others follow your lead, that’s impactful.
What are your plans for retirement?
I want to read, travel and relax. But most of all I want to spend time with my family. I have three of the most fantastic grandsons in the world and I don’t want them to grow up without me. I’ve spent my life with other people’s kids and grandkids and loved every minute of it, but now I want to spend time with my own!
Cardinal Gibbons will celebrate Ott’s career with a cocktail reception on June 1. For more information, please call 954-491-2900, Ext. 143.