SHERIDAN — At the intersection of faith and education, you will find Mary Margaret Legler.
Much like her mother, she has a quiet strength that suits her work with small children — but she is also fun-loving, and wholly dedicated to her calling.
“My mother was a teacher, and I knew I wanted to help and educate children,” Legler said. “I believe one of the biggest callings a person can have is to educate children, and help them become successful in the future.”
Legler has been the principal at Holy Name Catholic School for almost 10 years, and before that, had a long career teaching in public schools. Coming to Holy Name — and Wyoming — with her late husband, Larry, felt like fulfilling a dream.
“It was my dream job to be working at a Catholic pre-k through eighth grade school,” Legler said. “It is exactly that, a dream job. It is everything I love: faith, children, teaching and the outdoors.”
The couple was only in Wyoming for a year or so, though, when Larry suddenly passed away. Leaning on her own strength, she kept pressing on for the children in Sheridan County, though she was new to the community.
“You never know what your strength is until you are faced with struggle,” Legler said. “I saw that with my mother, too. She raised four kids on her own, she had three different bouts of cancer, and she beat it through sheer grit and determination. She had Parkinson’s, and she passed away a few years ago, but she showed me that you never know your strength until you are forced to utilize it.”
And sometimes, as with the devastating loss of her husband, being strong means moving on, because that is the only thing left to do, Legler said.
“One of the things my mother used to say is, ‘I can choose to be sad, or I can choose to be happy, and I choose to rejoice’,” she said.
As a lifelong Catholic, Legler said Proverbs 3:5, “Trust the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding,” has always held particular meaning for her.
“I think that is what it is in a nutshell. You trust, and do the best you can with what you are given. You try to serve others and you take care of others,” she said.
Legler believes that having a genuine connection with students and their wellbeing has positive effects on behavior and academic achievement. She encourages teachers at HNCS to use best practices, including asking teachers to “believe with every fiber of their being that all students will learn.”
“With high expectations, effective lessons and the ability to motivate, teachers encourage all students to believe in themselves and reach their God-given potentials,” she said. “Teaching is not another day at the office. It’s an honor, a privilege and mission.”
Since she began at HNCS, enrollment has risen 42 percent. She attributes this to an amazing, dedicated staff — but the staff turns the light right back on her.
Rena Anderson, who teaches social studies and English at HNCS in grades 5-8, said that after teaching in the public school system for 25 years, she was ready to leave education.
“Mary allows the teachers to be independent, and she treats us like professionals. She doesn’t micromanage us. She stands behind her faith, and also encourages research-based teaching, so it has been nice to be in a classroom that has an ability to use both those tools,” Anderson said.
It’s obvious that she wants what is best for the students, Anderson said. She also uses state standardized tools to measure students against other Wyoming children, tracking data to ensure they are prepared for high school and beyond.
Legler encourages students to read as often as possible, to participate in programs like History Day and to get back to what school was before standardized testing took hold, Anderson said.
“I was ready to leave education behind until I came here, and it was like, ‘Wow,’ because of her leadership. I tell her all the time that I just love my job now,” Anderson said.
Legler wasn’t always in a private school setting. She taught for years at public schools in Arizona, after putting herself through college at Grand Canyon University, where she received degrees in education and special education.
“It was a struggle to work my way through school,” Legler said. “I worked at a group home for adults with mental and physical disabilities, and I worked there for many, many years.”
In addition to her course load, Legler would work 40 hours on the weekend, bathing, feeding and caring for the residents. Her clients were adults, often older than she was at the time.
“I learned (to practice) kindness, mercy and dignity for all, from the cradle to the grave. Everybody needs love and care, regardless of what situation they find themselves in,” Legler said.
Her first job was in a very small town called Wikiak, Arizona, where Legler taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade to the children from about 20 families. She was 25, and the job was challenging but fulfilling. From there, she went to a public school district Prescott, Arizona, where she decided her lifelong mission would be to help students fall in love with learning.
Kristine Kreutter, a public school colleague from Arizona, met Legler when she was a brand new classroom teacher.
“She took me in under her wing, and I see her as my mentor teacher,” Kreutter said. “Mary just does that naturally for people, and she helped me grow into a teacher.”
That meant both physically — Legler helped Kreutter set up her classroom — and mentally, acting as someone to talk to about challenging situations or new ideas.
“She is the kind of that person who is always willing to jump in and go above and beyond. I don’t even know if I would be the teacher that I am today without her helping me,” Kreutter said.
Tanya Dunlap, another public school colleague from Arizona, said that though it wasn’t her job, Legler also took her under her wing.
“Without her guidance that first year, I would have been a wreck. She was a shoulder to cry on but also a great sounding board full of wisdom beyond her years,” Dunlap said. “As I progressed in my teaching, Mary challenged me in a positive way to keep learning and try new things.”
Legler leads by example, she said. She showed other teachers how to be advocates for their students, and showed others how not to let the stress of teaching — or life in general — take away one’s joy.
“She taught me to never stop laughing. Though I haven’t seen her in years, I can still hear her laugh, as I heard it often,” Dunlap said.
At Holy Name, Legler loves every one of her students. She does, however, want to empower girls to use the scientific method and tools to internalize the idea that they, too, can be scientists. They, too, can participate in the STEM fields.
They, too, can be leaders in their lives, no matter what life hands them.
“One in five children are living with a single mother in the United States. I was thinking about, what does that mean. What does that look like?” Legler asked, and perhaps because her own mother was the first in her family to go to college, was a single mother and valued education to the point that all four of her children received college degrees.
“A single mother needs to worry about retirement, and needs to worry about health, and all the things that everyone else worries about … and she needs to spend enough time with her children, and lead in the workforce,” Legler said. “A school can be a place to help her with that.”
Editor’s note: On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming territory passed the first law in United States history granting women the right to vote and hold public office. At The Sheridan Press, we are counting down to the 150th anniversary with a new series, “Year of Wyoming Women,” to be published on the 10th of every month.