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Beloved Keene principal says goodbye after 44 years

Editor’s note: We highly recommend listening to this story.

Dick Cate has been the principal of Symonds Elementary School in Keene for 44 years, and this July, he’s retiring.

Cate began his career in education when he graduated from Keene State College in 1964. He’s now 81 years old, and says he’s ready to pass the mantle.

“Oh, you should have been at the meeting when he told us he was retiring,” said Amy Strong, a kindergarten teacher at the school, “No one could move. Nobody. There was so much sadness in that room.”

Strong has taught at the school for 24 years. She’s one of the teachers who’s known Cate the longest.

Bags, jackets and raincoats hang on both sides of the hallway. Colorful art made by the kindergarten classes is plastered on the walls. At the end of the hall is a classroom with open doors.
Michelle Liu
The hallway of the kindergarten wing in Symonds School.

“He lives his life for this place. He lives his life for these kids. He lives his life for these teachers,” she said.

Cate says his school growing up didn’t have many resources.

“So when I had an opportunity to kind of create an environment, we kind of went hog wild,” he said. “And the place is stimulating and fun, I think. Eons better education than I ever had.”

Being an educator was something that Cate says he just fell into. When he started as a teacher, he found he really enjoyed working with the students.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from the feedback that I get from people and how happy people are here and [how] sad [they are] to leave,” he said. “It’s a community school. Somebody told me the other day that six generations have come here.”

 Dick Cate points at a felt mural of the Galapagos Islands, with blue-footed boobies, flamingos and turtles.
Michelle Liu
Dick Cate points to a felt mural of the Galapagos Islands created by former students and an artist from Ecuador 20 years ago, as part of an international cultural ambassador program. Artwork like this decorates the halls of Symonds.

It’s clear Cate has had a real impact on the community of students, teachers and parents at Symonds. The school’s PTA established a fund in his name to go toward enrichment programs for students. There’s also a plan to rename the road in front of the school ‘Mr. Cate’s Way.’

Amy Strong says he really listens to his teachers and is a strong advocate for them, and the kids.

“Mr. Cate is such a strong leader in that he values everything that everyone has to say. It's hard to do, and I don't think you find it very often,” she said. “If you can come to him with an idea and give him some research behind it, he's behind you 100%.”

One of the ideas he’s supported is Symonds' school song, which was written by a class of fifth graders 25 years ago with a little help from a professional composer Cate brought in.

“Symonds' would be really different without him,” says Savannah Carlson, a fifth grader. “It's very exciting. You act a lot as a community.”

The fifth graders graduated this week. They’ll be moving on from Symonds. And this year, so will Dick Cate.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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