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Flathead teacher realizes dream of career in classroom

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | May 2, 2022 12:00 AM

When Pat Reilly lost his job during the last economic recession, he returned to college as a nontraditional student earning his teaching degree. Now after 10 years in the classroom at Flathead High School he’s preparing to retire.

“The best thing I ever did was get my degree,” he said. “When I looked back I would have regretted never accomplishing that.”

Reilly had a long journey to finally realizing his early goal of becoming a teacher. He teaches history and government at FHS.

Growing up in Washington, he earned a football scholarship to the University of Idaho, and was working on his degree but then he got an offer to work at the Hanford Atomic Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington.

“You don’t reject that kind of money,” he said. “I figured I could always go back to school to teach, but four kids later and that kind of put a damper on that.”

Roughly every two years he switched jobs. He was a carpenter, a surveyor, a facilities planner and managed a photography studio. He also spent 40 years as a football coach at Flathead and elsewhere.

But when the recession hit he knew his job as a sales representative at Midway Rental here was likely in jeopardy, so with all his children grown he decided to voluntarily leave so others could stay with the company.

Reilly and his wife Rhonda discussed the decision and he headed to Flathead Valley Community College at age 53. Looking back on that time, he notes it wasn’t easy to return especially with very few of his college credits being carried forward but he put in the work finishing his four-year degree in a year and a half through FVCC’s partnership with the University of Great Falls.

Reilly says it was the support of his wife, who spent 19 years as the head secretary at FHS until her death in 2021, who helped him get through his return to academics.

“She stood behind me and said ‘let’s do it,’” he said. “The best thing about working here was getting to see her all the time. She’d often come to have lunch with me.”

TAKING A leave of absence to care for his wife while she was sick, after her death Reilly was unsure about how to return to the classroom. The staff of FHS was supportive and a tree was planted at the school in her honor, but he says it was the students that have helped him most.

“When I came back it was the students that helped get me through,” he said. “Sometimes when I’d give a lecture something would make me think about her and I’d get emotional. They’d just sit quiet and let me get myself together so I could continue. They gave me a sense of purpose.”

Reilly says he’s proud of the respect his students have always given him. Maybe that comes because of the high expectations — telling them they’ve entered a collegiate atmosphere and he expects them to act like adults — when they first enter his classroom. Teaching International Baccalaureate history, he also stays with a group of students for their junior and senior years of school noting that forms a strong relationship.

Part of his lessons includes teaching how in a world full of divisive politics to be respectful. He says that any opinion is allowed in his classroom and anyone can disagree as long as it’s done so with respect.

Coming from the generation that protested the Vietnam War, Reilly has worked to engage his students with the world.

“We need to empower kids,” he said. “ We need them to know that though the world will never be perfect they can make it better.”

As he nears the end of the school year, Reilly says he pictured retirement differently having planned to spend the time with his wife but is grateful for his four children and 11 grandchildren.

And he accomplished his goal.

“I’m finishing my career as a teacher,” he said. “I’m so blessed in life.”

Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.

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