I spent today rewriting the story of Margaret Hopkin, gathering quotes and listening back to parts of the interviews I did. I managed to pull quotes from every interview, which is cool. Normally I get to the end of that process of excerpting and realize I forgot to review one or more interviews.
I should have built this story around the quotes (i.e. I should have pulled quotes first then written the fill-ins after), but I kind of did the opposite. I guess that’s fine, but a note to make for next time.
Here’s the story I submitted today about Margaret Hopkin.
What type of life does one have to live to compel their friends, neighbors and community to name a school in their honor? The answer in Moab is: One like Helen M. Knight, or one like Margaret L. Hopkin.
Knight, the first woman superintendent of the Grand County School District, led the district for 25 years, starting in 1936. She is also believed to be the first woman to lead a school district in Utah.
Knight’s reputation is tied to the leadership she provided during Moab’s uranium boom, when the town and, by extension, school district saw huge growth and associated challenges of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
The next woman to succeed Knight came 46 years after Knight’s retirement. Hopkin also saw the district through a turbulent time — a budget crunch that led to cuts in jobs and salaries, including Hopkin’s own. By one account, Hopkin cut her own pay in half during the budgetary crisis — both a pragmatic choice to allow more funds to be spent on teachers and one of solidarity with those same teachers.
But the legacy of Hopkin — the conception held today by the people whose lives she touched — is not one merely of effective leadership. She moved up the ranks in the district in the hopes of improving more lives and positively influencing more people, according to her spouse and later successor Taryn Kay, but those are not the first stories that people tell about Hopkin.
“The outpouring — it’s interesting — is coming from teachers, parents, and students,” Kay said, “and some of those students were in disciplinary situations under her watch. To a person, they’re all talking about how she treated them with respect.”
Far from ruling with an iron fist, Hopkin led with kindness and love, her contemporaries say. Megan McGee, the coordinator for the mentoring program, said that Hopkin believed in all students — including and especially those getting into trouble — and treated them “like their future was full of hope and that they’re beautiful, as they really are.” Others agreed.
“When Margaret turned her intense blue eyes on you, you knew you had been seen and seen for your best self,” said Joan Gough, friend and colleague of Hopkin. The two met when Hopkin arrived in Moab in 1979, Gough said.
Marcia Tendick, who worked for Hopkin as a teacher, said that Hopkin “took the lives of her students very seriously,” and “didn’t want them defeated by whatever their backgrounds were.” As a leader, Hopkin was also “sensitive and caring” in providing feedback
McGee said that Hopkin brought “compassion to every interaction,” a trait many people used to described Hopkin. “I felt like she was on a different plane than the rest of us,” McGee said.
Hopkin was superintendent of the Grand County School District for five years, but she worked for the district for 40 years in total, spending some of that time as a teacher and much of the time as principals of Southeast Elementary, then Red Rock Elementary, then HMK Elementary, then the middle school.
“You will not find a more compassionate person than her,” said HMK Elementary Principal Jill Tatton. Tatton saw Principal Hopkin take an immediate interest in getting to know her children when Tatton’s family moved to the area in 2001. She said Hopkin always remembered her children’s names.
Kay said that, thinking of leadership as either a means of wielding power or empowering others, Hopkin embodied the empowering of others, “which is why you see such an outpouring.”
After leaving the superintendency in 2012, Hopkin continued working for the school district as a mentor for Grand Area Mentoring. Most recently, her mentee was 7th grader Athan Hickman.
“She helped me with a lot of things,” Hickman said. “She helped me with schoolwork; she didn’t just take me out to do fun stuff with me.” He concluded with a sigh: “She just always made me feel great.”
Athan’s father, David, said that she was very encouraging of his son. “He would come home from mentoring, and his stuff was all done, but he also had fun,” David said. “She always encouraged him to live life, to love everything and everyone, and to focus.”
David said that Hopkin taught Athan how to own his works and responsibilities. He said he gives Athan the same advice, but Hopkin “was way cooler and nicer about it than me.” He pointed to his history as a military officer and said the habits he got out of that “don’t translate well” to raising children. “I may have the right point, but not the right way of delivering it. She did.”
The anecdote is an expression of the broader idea that Hopkin was an educator, but not just of students. On top of that, she was also a learner and got a lot out of the relationship she built with Athan, according to Dan McNeil, the director of Grand Area Mentoring.
“She wanted to grow and learn and make connections with people,” Dan McNeil. “Her heart grew because of that.”
McNeil wrote a reflection on Hopkin’s life in a post on the mentoring program’s Facebook page. He hailed her support of the program when it started in 2005, her course correction of the school district during financial straits, the “loving relationship” she had with Athan that “epitomized her relationship with the world,” and much more.
“She respected everyone. She provided hope. She saw the humor and beauty all around us, even when we couldn’t,” the post reads. “Now, after Hop has left us, her good will still pours forth,” through many channels and people, including the school district itself.
Now, Kay leads the Grand County School District. She began her term eight years after Hopkin ended hers. To a question of what Hopkin had taught her about the role, Kay said that what she learned was larger than merely how to lead a school district.
“It’s not so much about how to be superintendent,” Kay said. “It’s just about how to live. It’s more global. How to be a good human. And, I think, if you’re a good human, you’re a good superintendent, and a good person, and a good mom, and a good friend.”
Kay finished the thought by citing a proverb that she and Hopkin both loved, from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. The quote can translate to English as such: “When the effective leader is finished with their work, the people say it happened naturally.”