2000: R-H Legend Returns to Stabilize High School

  • After Chris Tanski’s unexpected death in August 2000, the Senior High School was left with a huge leadership void. Its well-respected principal died suddenly just weeks before students returned to the classroom, and the district had quick decisions to make.

    Fortunately, it didn’t take long to identify someone to provide a steady hand. The district turned to Werner Kleemann, 60, who was given the unenviable task of serving as the interim principal of Rush-Henrietta Senior High School.

    In a September 20, 2000, story, Democrat and Chronicle reporter Matt Leingang described his interaction with the newly named building leader this way: “Werner Kleemann stares at the walls of his office. His eyes begin to well with tears. It’s emotional for him to sit in the principal’s office…”

    Many people believed Kleemann was the perfect man for this difficult job. He joined the district in 1971, serving as a physical education teacher at the former Gillette Elementary School. The following year, he became high school football coach and kicked off a legendary gridiron career. He won six league titles. His 1976 team went undefeated and still lives in sports lore, having been ranked No. 1. in the state by the New York State Sportswriters Association.

    His deep connections to the district made Kleemann the perfect choice to lead during a difficult time. “Not only is the former head football coach a recognizable figure in the school community, but Kleemann was also a friend and confidant of Tanski,” Leingang wrote. “The two often met for coffee on summer mornings, rehashing the Yankees game from the night before or sharing family stories.”

    Kleemann had retired from the district in 1999 but his calendar did not remain empty for long. He soon was asked to be the high school’s interim assistant principal, a role in which he was working alongside Tanski daily. He never imagined he would find himself leading the entire school in his friend’s absence. With great purpose, Kleemann pursued three goals Tanski championed that were still on display in the principal’s office. They were improving academic achievement, improving parent communication, and providing a physically and emotionally safe school environment.

    Kleemann was up to the challenge, serving for many months until a new principal was hired. By June, he had developed a sense of peace regarding the situation. In a message included in the 2001 Senior High School yearbook, Kleemann wrote: “Lastly, what an honor and warm feeling I have about carrying on the mission of a dear friend and the opportunity to continue the traditions and practices he had established. I know, for sure, that he is pleased.”

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