Prayer, school’s values guide Cretin-Derham Hall president

| Susan Klemond | September 14, 2011 | 0 Comments
Richard Engler

Dick Engler is president of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Dick Engler has never thought about whether he’s leading with faith because he doesn’t consider his faith an “add-on,” something separate from who he is.

“I see it as nothing more than I am deeply committed to my faith, and that commitment is not just sitting in the pew so to speak — it’s also walking out and living that faith with others,” said Engler, president of Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.

In more than 20 years in his position, Engler, 60, a member of St. John Neumann in Eagan, has lived his faith through prayer, an open management style and deep concern for the school’s 1,322 students — which has led him to help create a $2.4 million financial aid/tuition fund and start a capital campaign this fall to ensure access for a diversity of students.

Prayer is key

Prayer is an important component of Engler’s leadership, a discipline he learned growing up, he said. Through the busyness of his career, he realizes the importance of making time for prayer and daily Mass.

The charisms of the school’s founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the Christian Brothers, inspire Engler in prayer and form part of CDH’s vision statement, which has to do with faith, academics, leadership, service, equity, diversity and community.

Engler said he is most proud that CDH is guided by the statement’s seven values and is more concerned that graduating seniors leave with these values than with great career prospects.

“Many times schools will say we’ve got a mission statement or a philosophy statement, and that sits on a shelf somewhere,” he said. “Our values are truly alive here at CDH and we truly strive to achieve them.”

An Aberdeen, S.D., native, Engler spent 19 years in teaching and administration at South Dakota Catholic and public schools before becoming CDH’s president in 1990. Though he sometimes misses teaching sociology and Spanish, he said, as an administrator he’s been able to promote values school-wide rather than in a single classroom.

“As an administrator I can develop the culture for the building,” he said. “I can develop this demand for respect and appreciation for the individual and the human dignity of every single person in this building.”

For Engler, leading as an administrator is not about authority, as he thought when he took his first high school principal job at age 25. Rather, it has to do with service and empowerment — and shared decision making.

Inspiring others

According to Lou Anne Tighe, CDH vice president who nominated Engler, he “is fair, compassionate and involves all who are impacted by his decisions in the decision-making process. He is a role model of faith, good humor and humility.”

Engler said he’s been inspired by priests he’s known, including his high school spiritual advisor, the late Father Joseph Murphy and CDH chaplain Father John Forliti.

For Engler, leading also means an urgency to improve. CDH offers $2.4 million in financial aid annually, which meets only 58 percent of the need, he said, adding that he’s begun a capital campaign this fall to create a larger student endowment for financial aid.

“If we don’t, we’re going to be a different looking school and we’re going to lose the diversity that we have presently,” he said. “Socioeconomic diversity [would] be lost in this school and I don’t want that to happen.”

Engler is also working on ways to better teach different students, placing students in smaller groups with one mentor and improving students’ senior-year experience.

He said what most fulfills him in his work are kids — and making a difference in their lives without even knowing it.

“Your very presence, your kindness, your respect for the individual, your openness, your caring, your compassion — that made a difference to this young man or young woman or it could even be a faculty or staff member,” he said. “They’ve made differences in my life the same way. It wasn’t anything dramatic; it was really being the face of Christ to someone else. That’s what makes a difference in people’s lives.”


Title: President of Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul

Parish: St. John Neumann, Eagan

Spouse: Bridget

Children: Derek, Alanah, Ray and Joe

Activities: NCEA planning committee; eucharistic minister, lector


Category: Leading With Faith