Joe Salamack walks the halls of his high school like a father escorting his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. He’s proud of what he’s accomplished — yet the feeling of letting go is laced with sadness.
After six years of service, the popular principal of Bishop O’Dowd is moving back to New York, and the whole thing seems surreal. “I feel like a ghost,” he admits.
Salamack was hired in 2005 as the Catholic school’s first lay principal. O’Dowd needed updating, and Salamack had the credentials and connections in the campus community to make a difference.
One of his first priorities was to strengthen the spiritual life at O’Dowd with more time in church together. “I felt through the spiritual life, where we all went to Mass together, where we all gathered as a community — that was important to me.”
The school needed physical improvements too, such as landscaping the lawn and buying tables with bright yellow umbrellas to create a more pleasant school setting. With the help of the school’s president, Dr. Steve Phelps, they earmarked money for painting the hallways and installing colorful new lockers to complement the rich red wood walls.
“They’re working so hard academically,” he says, noting that “Race to Nowhere” was filmed at Bishop O’Dowd and he wanted to honor the message, which is to help students deal with academic stress.
“You want to find a balance with academics, sociability, athleticism and spiritualism,” says Salamack. One of O’Dowd’s biggest achievements, he says, was to finally get lights on the athletic field so the Dragons could have night games at home. Meanwhile, the boys and girls basketball teams went all the way to the State Division lll Championships last month. Salamack was one of their biggest fans.
“Mr. Salamack has been so supportive and enthusiastic,” says senior Michael Belick, a member of the varsity basketball team. He says the principal’s school spirit was contagious.
But Salamack’s support has been seen in some nonconventional arenas as well, such as the school cafeteria. He rolls up his sleeves and works the lunch line every day — because he likes to interact with the kids.
“Mr. Salamack, did you bring any cookies today?” asks a student when the principal pops his head into a classroom. He’s known for offering fresh-baked cookies to classes where students are all wearing uniforms. He gently but firmly reminds “violators” to wear their school polo shirts the next day.
“He is a local celebrity,” says parent Rebecca Faiola, “and everywhere Joe goes, he is known. He connects people, challenges people to excel and wants nothing more than a student to be happy and successful in his or her studies.” Perhaps that is why it’s so hard to say goodbye. Salamack has known many of his students since his days at Brett Harte Middle School and as vice principal at Montera Middle School before coming to O’Dowd. He’s been part of the Catholic community for decades and even met his wife, Lori, at Corpus Christi Church.
Walking the campus, he’s surrounded by memories of family and faith. His daughters Kelly and Allison graduated from O’Dowd during his time here and he proudly points to their pictures on the alumni wall. They go to college back East now, and that’s been a deciding factor in returning to New York, where he and his wife own a home.
But all the justification in the world doesn’t make it any easier. Salamack dabs tears from his eyes as he thinks of his time at O’Dowd. Like a loving father who’s done everything he could to raise his family, he realizes his job here is done.
“I wouldn’t leave if I had more work to do,” he says.
A community Mass will be celebrated at Bishop O’Dowd High School on April 10.