By Claudia Mathis
ONEIDA — Despite facing the same challenges as all the Catholic schools across the diocese, St. Patrick’s School in Oneida is thriving — thanks in large part to Peg Brown. In 2002, St. Patrick’s was on Bishop James Moynihan’s list of schools to close.
Peg Brown, then a newly-elected school board member, saw the seriousness of the school’s financial situation. “I could see that they were going nowhere fast,” said Brown. She came out of retirement from serving as director of physical education and the director of nurses at Oneida City Schools to volunteer for six months as interim principal at St. Patrick’s. With her experience as an administrator, she thought she would be able to improve the school’s financial predicament.
Bishop Moynihan met with Brown at the beginning of her term as principal. He told her that he would reconsider closing the school if she could increase the enrollment, raise enough money to pay off the school’s deficit and produce a balanced budget for 2003.
Brown needed to raise $60,000 in six months and she succeeded.
Brown said that Bishop Moynihan gave the school $5,000 and told her to raise funds to match it. “I called everyone I knew in town,” Brown said. “People really helped us. I told myself that I would stay one more year to turn the school around.”
Brown keeps careful records of all the gifts the school has received. “We have many wonderful benefactors,” she said.
Brown continues to serve as principal at St. Patrick’s. Under her leadership, the school has transformed from a school in debt with a declining enrollment to one that is thriving and is fiscally sound. New programs and improvements have been put into place, helping to boost enrollment at the school. There are 30 children enrolled in the Pre-K program and 105 students attending kindergarten through sixth grade.
Father Richard Kapral, pastor at St. Joseph and St. Patrick in Oneida and host pastor of the school, stated that Brown is extremely committed to the school and he believes that she has an incredible ability to administer. “She’s an excellent leader — she has a great way of energizing people,” Father Kapral said. “She has great contacts throughout the city to call on for help. She’s done an incredible job with the school.”
Brown explained that St. Patrick’s, a regional school, is the only Catholic school in
Madison County and is supported by 11 parishes. Brown often speaks in support of the school at the parishes’ Masses and at organizations such as the Catholic Daughters and altar rosary societies.
Some of the improvements that have been made to the school include updating technology, upgrading textbooks and focusing on structure. “This year, the emphasis is on manners — we don’t tolerate bullying,” said Brown.
Brown was instrumental in helping St. Patrick’s earn the prestigious Middle States Association accreditation, setting it apart as the only elementary school in Madison County to have earned such an honor.
Brown also created a unique and very successful Pre-K program at the school. The program offers a strong academic program (math and reading skills) and also accepts five-year-olds. (Public Pre-Ks can’t accept five-year-olds by law.) It also offers parents the flexibility of full and half-day schedules.
Janet Jones’ two children, Jamie and Harry, are students at St. Patrick’s. They are the third generation in the family to attend the school. Jones listed St. Patrick’s strong academic program and small classes as a few reasons for enrolling her children in the school. She and her husband also like the fact that religion is built into the curriculum and that the children are allowed to pray in school. The students often bring in prayer requests to school. Several mornings a week, the children practice singing the hymns that will be sung at the weekly Mass at which Father Kapral blesses each child.
“My mother always said that singing is like praying twice,” said Brown. “I tell the children that.”
“Peg is one of the best advocates of the children,” said Jones. “Her primary concern is their safety and well-being.”
Brown is beloved by the students, staff and parents alike. And she in turn loves them. “I get more hugs than you would believe,” said Brown.
“We wouldn’t trade her for the world,” said third grade teacher Kathie Hudson. Hudson has taught at St. Patrick’s for the last 26 years. “She instills fairness in all of us and we all get along very well,” said Hudson. “She’s outstanding — she tries to keep us right on top of the latest technology.”
Brown explained why she is so devoted to the school. “It keeps me young and I enjoy it,” she said. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere — the teachers are excellent, the kids are very polite and the families are very supportive.”
Brown is single and lives with her Yorkshire terrier but considers the school her family. Although she doesn’t have the time to play golf as she did when she was retired, Brown presently enjoys gardening and painting.
When she celebrated her 70th birthday last April, Brown’s school family surprised her with a gift of a hot air balloon ride and her birthday was proclaimed Peg Brown Day in the city by the mayor. She is well known and beloved in the Oneida area.
A role model of Christian living and generosity, Brown ensures that any child who wants to attend St. Patrick’s can, regardless of the family’s ability to pay the tuition. She sometimes uses her own resources to pay the tuition. That unselfish giving of her time, talents and resources earned her the Oneida Rotary Club’s prestigious Roses to the Living Award in December 2004 and Brown was recognized by WSTM Channel 3 as Educator of the Week for her dedication to St. Patrick’s School in 2004.
Before teaching physical education at Oneida High School from 1965 to 1995, Brown earned a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Brockport and a master’s degree from SUNY Cortland.
From 1983 to 1995, she served as director of physical education as well as director of nurses at Oneida City Schools from 1988 to 1995.
Brown was inducted into Delta Kappa Gamma, the Honorary Teacher’s Society for Outstanding Women Teachers, and is the recipient of many awards for her dedication to her students and women’s athletics. Her awards include the NYS Coaches Association Honor Award, Section III Special Service Award, Zonta Award and the NYS Coaches Association Certificate of Recognition.
When Brown served at Oneida High School, she coached the girls’ field hockey, basketball, volleyball and softball teams, guiding many of her teams to championship seasons.
Brown was very active in the Association of Women’s Physical Educators in New York State, serving as the central area’s chair and in various other offices. She was also appointed to serve as the only high school representative in the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport, which was the national board that wrote the rules for girls and women’s basketball.
In addition, Brown served as Section III girls basketball chairman and served on various Middle States Review Committees form 1970 to 1990.
A woman of boundless energy, Brown has served as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, lector and religious education teacher at her parish, St. Joseph’s in Oneida and then at St. Mary’s of the Lake in Sylvan Beach, where she was the first female lector.
Brown received yet another award on Jan. 28 at the diocesan Catholic Schools Light the Way Dinner at the OnCenter in Syracuse. She received the Witness to Faith Award, which is given to the educator in the Syracuse Diocese who contributes initiative, creativity and conscious and enthusiastic labor to best educate children and instill the values of the Gospel.
When she learned that she had received the award, Brown said she felt honored and a little overwhelmed. A modest woman, Brown added, “I don’t know why I won it.”
St. Patrick’s faculty and staff surprised Brown at the Light the Way Dinner by announcing that they had established the Peg Brown Scholarship Fund to help students in need next year and for years to come. They kicked off the fund by contributing a sizeable pledge that will be donated each year.
Brown is committed to instilling the values of the Gospel in the students at St. Patrick’s and stresses the value of a Catholic education. “This is the foundation of their lives,” she said. “I feel very strongly about it. We can do so much here that they can’t do in public schools. What better thing is there than to teach them to turn to God when they feel anxious or have problems?”