MODESTO — Mary Lou Dieterich sat on the hot seat, being grilled by unabashed young journalists asking the tough questions. “How old are you?” “What’s your favorite dessert?” “Which school is your favorite?” “How did you set up the school?”
Dieterich answered without flinching. After so many years as a teacher, a mom and a principal, she’d faced worse. Her age she volunteered with a laugh, noting it was well under the 100 years the second-graders probably thought.
Favorite dessert? Tiramisu.
Favorite school? “I wouldn’t dare say. I worked at all of them as interim principal after I retired,” she said. That answer came as a surprise to most in the Mary Lou Dieterich Elementary School class taught by Stacy Jensen.
How did she set up the school? Well, even though the 10-year-old campus bears her name, she didn’t help build it, she told 7-year-old Jace Guzman. But she did get to pick the mascot: dolphins, she explained, because dolphins are amazing and the quarter-round roof lines of the school remind her of waves.
Jace will be writing the story of Dieterich’s visit for the Dieterich newsletter, having been picked for the job because he had one of the best questions. He was planning a Q&A format, he said.
How did she set up the school? When was she born? What state can you drink? That last one is a riddle, Jace said (The answer: Arizona tea). He’s just a reporter for this year, Jace added. Look for him in a couple of decades as a doctor or famous singer.
Dieterich said she knew she wanted to be a teacher early, starting her career at age 20 in North Dakota. She team-taught at a rural school with her husband before arriving in Modesto, where he joined Modesto City Schools and she went to work for Stanislaus Union, teaching classes and reading skills for 22 years at Chrysler Elementary before becoming a principal.
She was Jensen’s principal during her early years as a teacher. Back then, Jensen said, “the district was like a little family.”
Dieterich is still part of the family, on Thursday reading “How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World” while keeping a dialogue going with kids crowded on the carpet before her. She also volunteers at Sipherd Elementary in Empire, where her daughter teaches. It’s all part of keeping in touch with kids, collecting those hugs, she said. “The kids make it,” Dieterich said. “The curriculum’s fine and all that, but it’s the kids.”
The kids – sitting politely “with phalanges on craniums,” in desks grouped as continents, quieting with a countdown in French – get a lot from Dieterich as well, Jensen said.
“Just to have that connection with the namesake of our school,” Jensen said. “We’re so fortunate to have her, alive and well.”