After 50 years in education, a new chapter awaits

When he was growing up, Dennis Puhalla didn’t see himself as a future teacher or principal.

”I was always planning to be a golf pro,” he said.

Although he became a caddy at the Wyoming Valley Country Club at age 9, attended Wilkes University (then Wilkes College) on a golf scholarship, and accepted a job as a golf pro in upstate New York, Puhalla eventually became another kind of pro, devoting 50 years of his life to education.

After a half century as a teacher and administrator in both public and private schools, he plans to retire at the end of this academic year from his position as head of school at Wyoming Valley Montessori School in Kingston, where he has worked since 2010.

“It’s time,” he said. “I’ll be 75 in November.”

It’s easy to see Puhalla enjoys his job, as he walks through classrooms at the Montessori School and greets children by name.

“We have 128 students,” he said, “and I know them all, from the oldest to the youngest.”

In a classroom for 7-year-olds, he introduced a reporter to students who were counting by practicing Spanish words, using a worksheet with pictures of a pollito, or chick.

These kids seemed a little too young to tell a visiting reporter what their head of school is like.

But in roomful of 9 to 12-year-olds, it was a different story.

“He tells really funny jokes,” said 11-year-old Cara Murphy.

“He makes up songs about us,” said Natalie Mantush, 12.

“He says he has an evil twin,” 10-year-old Ronan Kleinheider added.

“He played soccer with me in the great room,” said 9-year-old Ollie Piazza.

“He wears silly ties,” said 9-year-old Sahira Shamsedeen.

“He’s more than just a principal,” said 11-year-old Kenley Berryman. “He’s a friend.”

When Puhalla was their age, he was already working at the country club near his home in Hanover Township, “shagging and chasing golf balls,” and caddying, back in the days when golfers walked the golf course and kids carried their bags.

“I was like this,” he said with a laugh, holding his hand out to indicate the shorter stature of his youth. “The bag dragged on the ground.”

As he got older Puhalla graduated from carrying one bag to two, then became assistant caddy master. And of course, he played enough golf to become good at it.

As a high school senior, he became one of the first two recipients of the Tony Lema Golf Scholarship, named in honor of a champion golfer who died in a 1966 plane crash. The scholarship could have been applied to any school in the country; he chose Wilkes.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “A great education.”

While he expects he would have managed to attend college in any case, the scholarship made higher education more accessible to the young man whose father had died when he was only 7 months old.

Eager to pay it forward, over the years Puhalla organized a golf tournament that has raised $94,000 for college scholarships for Hanover Area young people. Thinking about how much scholarship funds meant to him, and now to new generations, he becomes teary eyed.

Hanover Area is where he first became an elementary school teacher, at the former Askam school which he remembers as “wonderful, small and intimate.” Later he would work at Hanover Green, Lyndwood and Lee Park elementary schools, all in the Hanover Area School District. “They’ve all been good experiences,” he said. “The only one I missed was Memorial, where I graduated from.”

After 37 years at Hanover Area, he looked for a change of pace and began driving for a limousine service. Then he learned of a job opening at the Montessori School, which he admits he had thought of as “that crazy school where kids run around and play all day.”

He soon came to a different opinion. “Maria Montessori’s great premise was ‘follow the child,’ you shouldn’t restrict their growth,” he said. “It’s exciting to see kids during pre-algebra in Kindergarten,” he said. “And 95 percent of our kids, if not all of them, are ready at the end of Kindergarten.”

“Teachers work with the same kids for a 3-year cycle; they know the weaknesses, the strengths,” he continued. “Teachers check their work and give immediate feedback … you want them to learn, not just memorize. You want them to not just read but to comprehend what they’re reading.”

When he retires at the end of the academic year, Puhalla and his wife of 40 years, Marianne, who live in Forty Fort, will have more time to indulge their hobby of traveling and to visit their daughters Cathy in Colorado and Jillian in Manhattan.

“His ‘honey, do’ list is hopefully going to include more cooking,” Marianne Tucker Puhalla said, laughing in a telephone interview. “He makes a killer lasagna and great pasta fagiole. I’d love to see him expand his culinary repertory because I’m still working full-time” (as manager of donor communications and relationships at Misericordia University.)

Despite the joys of retirement, she knows her husband will miss the daily interaction with the students at Wyoming Valley Montessori.

“He loves the kids and he understands them,” she said. “I jokingly tell people ‘I married a fourth grader,’ because he knows how their minds work.”

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