With humor, school bells and a few tears, Bozeman public school teachers and staff members honored departing colleagues on the last day of school.

One emotional high point of Thursday’s Recognition Assembly in Willson Auditorium was the appearance of Kevin Conwell. The former Bozeman High School principal was forced to retire early in January after a mysterious illness attacked his nervous system, nearly killed him and left him largely paralyzed.

Conwell wheeled himself on stage in the electric wheelchair that makes him mobile and supports his head, while the crowd of hundreds stood to applaud and cheer.

Superintendent Rob Watson praised Conwell for his kindness, humility and calm, steady leadership for six years at Bozeman High. Conwell’s wife, Barb, wiped tears from her eyes and rang an old-fashioned school bell, the gift the district gives to all retiring teachers.

Conwell raised his left hand from the armrest a bit and waved to everyone.

Many teachers and administrators wore Hawaiian shirts and leis as a prank in honor of Watson, who favors Hawaiian shirts. Watson is leaving Bozeman after seven years as superintendent and three as Bozeman High principal to lead the Missoula County Public Schools. Pat Strauss, human resources director, suggested that imitation was meant to be the sincerest form of flattery.

Andy Willett, an attorney and school board chair, fought to stay composed as he thanked Watson for his hard work, leaving the school district in great shape, getting things done in a calm way, leading by listening and being “a phenomenal human being.”

“It’s been an absolute honor and pleasure working with you,” Willett said.

Watson said his advice to everyone was to be like the bison that, when a storm is coming, face into the storm and so ride it out more quickly than the fearful cattle that try to run away in the direction of the storm and so end up suffering terror longer.

Watson told teachers they have great strength as a group, and together, “you will make a difference in the life of a child, you will close the opportunity gap … As a group you are truly unstoppable.”

Seventeen retirees were honored, who Watson said had “literally helped thousands of students.”

Jerry Reisig is retiring after 40 years as a teacher, physics teacher, coach and activities director. Katie Laslovich, the assistant Bozeman High principal who took over after Conwell’s illness, called Reisig passionate, energetic, kind and full of integrity. His most memorable moments, she said, came when a mother said he had helped keep her daughter from suicide, and when students souped up their potato gun experiment to create a magnificent explosion, which required only a few stitches.

Laslovich said teacher Robin Hompesch, retiring after 25 years, was most proud of creating the wildlife biology course, taking students to see wolves and grizzlies, and leading restoration of Mandeville Creek. The project — for which $450,000 was raised to transform the creek from a straight ditch to a natural meandering stream through the high school campus — is expected to be finished this summer.

Also retiring are:

Robin Miller, former Hawthorne School principal and curriculum director, who had a positive impact on students and teachers throughout the district, said Marilyn King, deputy superintendent.

Lisa Werner, a high school German teacher for 15 years, who liked to take students traveling on summer trips to German-speaking countries around Europe.

Rita Kroon, high school librarian, who calls everyone “Hon,” who was gracious, kind and humble, and had the best gun take-away technique in Run Lock Fight training, Laslovich said.

Ed Linn, a Bozeman math teacher for 24 years, who was once arrested in front of his class when he tried to retrieve his keys during a bomb threat. He plans to work for Habitat for Humanity and restore houses in retirement.

Paula Schumacher, a high school math teacher retiring after 37 years, is an old-school disciplinarian, yet former students thanked her for making them work hard, Laslovich said.

Laura Horton, a math teacher for 36 years, set a high bar and helped students to clear it, Laslovich said. She once kept teaching her pre-calculus while a gopher ran around the back of the class.

Deb Jelinek, a special education teacher at Chief Joseph Middle School, taught for 31 years. Principal Brian Ayers called her “an unsung hero, always looking out for her kids.”

Diane Garrott, a teacher for 25 years, used personal relationships with Hawthorne School kids to help them thrive, especially kids who had experienced hard times and trauma, said Principal Casey Bertram.

Don Curtice, who taught for 35 years at several Bozeman schools, created 30 ice rinks over the years and taught thousands of kids to skate, Morning Star Principal Darren Schlepp said.

Libby Child, special education coordinator at Bozeman High, taught kids with disabilities academics, vocational skills and even human sexuality, said Chad Berg, special education director. She was a “tireless advocate for students, families and staff” who “believes every student deserves education with dignity,” he said.

Also honored were retirees Kari Chapman, executive secretary at Emily Dickinson School; Marilyn Bauer, paraprofessional at Hyalite School; Madelyn Montgomery, paraprofessional at Whittier School; Carol Long, food service cashier at Whittier; and Nancy Brady, assistant to three superintendents.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.