The running joke around the halls of St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School is that if someone chips a cinder block, Principal Walter Lace will feel it.
Lace, who has worked at the school in almost every capacity since it first opened in 1967, takes everything involving the school very personally, said Nan Doherty, an assistant principal.
“He treats it like his home,” she said.
Lace, who turned 65 in November, announced recently to faculty, staff and students that he will retire at the end of the school year. But there’s no question among his peers that Lace will leave with a firmly established legacy.
Lace’s personal dedication paired with inexhaustible drive and faith is responsible for the “renaissance” of St. John the Baptist, more than one of his colleagues insisted.
Barbara Walsh, another assistant principal, said when Lace became principal in 1995, the school had about 900 students and a poor reputation in terms of academics and upholding true the Catholic Diocese values of education.
“The reputation of the place had been tarnished,” said Walsh, who has worked with Lace since 1971. “There was a feeling that we were a public school with a cross on the door, that we were not Catholic enough.”
It was Lace’s mission to change all that. He emphasized the importance of making a good first impression on potential students and their families, Doherty said. He renovated everything he could get his hands on and even made the student dress code more strict.
Most importantly to Lace and to the school, said Doherty, he introduced “thriving programming,” including a more diversified course schedule and extracurricular activities.
Today, the West Islip school has 1,700 students and a waiting list to get in, she said, a strong campus ministry, successful sports program and students that are challenged and also respected.
Lace is most proud of the students that the school turns out. He said that last year, 64 percent of the graduating class received partial or full scholarships to college. Lace also said each year the school's special education students graduate and go on to college.
“I’m very proud of that fact,” Lace said. “If God created students that learn differently, then it was up to us to educate them.”
Even before Lace became principal, Walsh said he was an impassioned and dynamic sociology teacher who former students come back to see often.
Monsignor Jim Vlaun, president and CEO of Telecare TV, is a 1978 graduate of St. John the Baptist who returned to the school as chaplain in 1992. He said Lace’s sociology class inspired him to major in sociology in college.
“He was able to synthesize the science of sociology not just with everyday life, but with faith,” Vlaun said.
As chaplain, Vlaun worked with Lace as part of the team tasked with cleaning up the school’s image and recruiting students.
“It was a team of six or seven administrators,” he said. “When we weren’t in school, we’d go on vacation together. Our understanding of faith and education and life was so similar, it was just an amazing time for us to be together and work in this particular area.”
Vlaun said that since he left the school, he and Lace have remained good friends. He said that outside of school, Lace enjoys spending time with friends and family, going out to dinner and the rooting for the New York Jets.
After he retires, Lace who lives in Brightwaters with his wife, Arlene, will continue to teach sociology at the Touro College of Health Sciences and remain on the Board of Advisors of St. John the Baptist. He also is looking forward to some down time and spending time with his grandson, Brett.
Walsh called it an “honor and privilege” to have worked with Lace, and said she’ll be proud to continue working at a school where his vision will remain strong.
“My hope is that the generation of people that benefited of a catholic education because of him go out to the world and spread what he has given them,” she said. “That would be his greatest legacy.”