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A quality world: Remembering Whittier principal Craig Kitto

Whittier School File

Snow piles around Whittier School on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, off North 5th Avenue.

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When Whittier Elementary School was interviewing for a principal three years ago, music teacher Sara Croghan said she knew right away who would be the perfect fit for their tight-knit school.

Each of the nine candidates arrived at her fifth grade band class during their school tour. They all introduced themselves and shook her hand. They were nice. They were professional.

But when one candidate arrived, he didn’t approach Croghan first. He started to walk around the room, talking with each student, making them laugh and sharing stories of his own time playing an instrument in fifth grade band.

“He talked with each student, he got the whole room round up and made them feel good even though they were graduating and he would never have been their principal anyway,” she said.

Croghan knew then that’s who the next Whittier principal needed to be.

“We hired the one principal that took time and talked to the kids during his interview,” she said.

It’s but one of many moments that epitomize who Craig Kitto was to his family, friends and students at Whittier Elementary.

Craig Kitto

Craig Kitto

Kitto, 45, died Feb. 14 from injuries sustained after being partially buried in an avalanche in Beehive Basin earlier that day. He was the principal at Whittier since 2018.

The family and friends who spoke to the Chronicle had no shortage of memories illustrating his passion and caring for his students, his ability to inspire others, his deep love for family and his kid-like joy and love of playing.

He was a man who regularly picked up students who missed the bus or had no other way to get to school.

A man who tracked down a couch and a fridge and helped move it on separate occasions because families were in need.

A man who, upon hearing two students had never tasted a Wendy’s frosty, promptly took them to Wendy’s and bought them one.

A man who charmed his way into a pandemic-locked-down hospital to check on a student of his who broke their arm.

“He’s the champion of all children,” Croghan said. “He’s extremely well-loved and was the role model for so many of our students.”

It was that infectious energy and his ability to “emanate love” that attracted Lana Kitto when she first met him at a church convention in Manhattan in the late 1990s.

Lana, who is originally from Canada, was driving back home when she decided to make a stop at the event. It was there she met Craig, and they fell “instantly in love,” she said.

“We were engaged in three weeks and married in seven months,” she said. “… We lived a life of adventure and I never made it back to Canada, except to visit.”

His ability to validate people and make them feel important in his presence was a key part of what drew her in.

“It didn’t hurt that he was very good looking,” she added with a laugh.

Lana said their family — with the addition of daughters Kenna in 2003 and Mollie in 2006 — was always on an adventure. They would travel to Mexico every year, and routinely visit Florida and Las Vegas. The family loved to camp, surf at the lake, and adventure on the mountainside.

“What we had was magical,” she said. “It was the love of a lifetime. We lived a lot in 22 years…We had a love that just, everyone comments, how well meant we were for each other.”

Lana said Kitto knew early in life that he wanted to be an educator, when his high school principal told him he would make a great teacher.

“It was about the 10th grade he knew his direction. It was almost like a calling for him,” she said.

Although Kitto knew education held his future, he didn’t always plan to become an elementary school principal. He was a high school teacher, coach and assistant principal for most of his 23 years in education and worked in Alaska, Montana and Wyoming.

After being passed over for a high school principal position, Lana encouraged him to apply to be the principal of Meadowlark Elementary in Wyoming.

“He was great with derelict teens, so no one thought it was a good fit for him,” she said.

Yet, he got the job. During his five years with Meadowlark, Lana said he routinely came home covered in snot with rips in the $600 suits he used to wear.

“It was like he came alive,” Lana said. “… It allowed him to be goofy and a kid. He had no judgment. Craig just saw the kid, the soul.”

When Kitto became principal of Whittier in 2018, it was a coming home for him.

He grew up on the Kitto Ranch near Townsend and graduated from Broadwater High School. He then moved to Bozeman and received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in History Education from Montana State University.

In his three years leading Whittier, he became deeply ingrained within the district, too.

“No one believed that he’s only been here three years because he’s so good at connecting with staff and colleagues and parents at his school,” said Casey Bertram, interim co-superintendent. “He did lots of little things that go unnoticed that have a big impact on a school and a school community.”

He became known for always putting kids first and ensuring they were at the center of any district conversation.

“Whatever was right for kids was what we needed to do and that was not always the most comfortable thing for adults to hear,” Bertram said. “He pushed hard for kids.”

His drive to put students first was on display this last school year, when a debate about when and how to open schools to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic seemed so polarizing.

“Craig was always so great at recognizing there were a portion of students where school was where those students need to be and school was where they’re safe and where they’re loved and its where their family is,” Croghan said. “He did such a good job amidst that chaos of always remembering that he was their voice.”

Kelsey McPherson, Whittier’s counselor, would often greet students arriving in the mornings alongside Kitto.

“We would stand together and greet the students in the morning and certain kids, he would just give them the biggest bear hug,” she said. “… Craig would go to the individual kid and make sure they felt important.”

McPherson, who started the same year Kitto did, said she always felt like she could go to him and ask to focus conversations on the social emotional wellbeing of students.

He would end every conversation, even the hardest ones, by telling the kids he loved them and they were in his “quality world.”

“Some of our hardest kids who are in and out of the principal’s office often are having the hardest time with this because they knew he loved them,” McPherson said.

Kitto’s dedication also extended to his staff, where he would routinely ask what he could do for them, where he encouraged them to find and search for the good even in times of trial.

“Craig never pushed people,” Lana said. “He just encouraged the belief that there were greater heights within you.”

He was known for being a big kid himself. During recess duty, instead of hanging by the sidelines to watch students, he was often right in the mix alongside them, playing basketball, jumping rope and making them laugh.

“He was always pranking and joking around,” Lana said.

Even now, she said, there’s laughter in their house because of him.

Nikki Wiers, a fifth grade teacher at Whittier, said at the heart of everything, he was a family man. He stressed the importance of putting family first to his staff, students and their families, she said.

Those ‘Mr. Kitto hugs’ also became famous over the last three years.

“He always had a big smile and a big hug. It wasn’t a weak hug. He put his whole body and soul into the hug and the kids felt it,” Wiers said.

During the last week at Whittier, the staff have tried to embody those hugs for their students and each other.

“We’re just trying to honor his memory by embracing our children, our loved ones and remembering the joys of life. That’s what he did day-to-day,” Wiers said. “He reminded us to remember the good things.”

Talking to family and friends of Kitto, one starts to get the feeling there’s no end to the stories they could share, examples of when he prioritized his students, made each individual feel valued and chose to see his role in the school beyond a simple job title.

And so the staff at Whittier, to remember the man who embodied that kind of dedication throughout his life, will hug their students and families a little tighter. It might not be a perfect “Mr. Kitto hug,” but they’ll pour their love, grief and hope into it.

After all, it’s what Mr. Kitto would have done.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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