Emerald Mountain School's last original employee retiring after 25 years | SteamboatToday.com

Emerald Mountain School’s last original employee retiring after 25 years

After 25 years helping to establish Emerald Mountain School as a mainstay for private kindergarten through eighth grade education in Steamboat Springs, Debbie Gooding and her dog Bode are retiring at the end of the school year. Gooding has ushered through more than a thousand kids during her reign as a plumber, painter, counselor, property manager and, most importantly, director of admissions and development.
Photo by Hilary Spillane

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One of Steamboat Springs’ most beloved fixtures in education will be retiring after 25 years. Debbie Gooding has ushered through more than a thousand students at the private kindergarten through eighth grade Emerald Mountain School, originally known as the Lowell Whiteman Primary School.

“Everyone should have a Debbie in their life,” said Head of School Samantha Coyne Donnel. “It’s her work ethic, combined with being a really good person. I could not be more grateful for Debbie.”

Gooding was there at the beginning in 1993 when well-known educator Nancy Spillane and a group of local parents turned an old police station into a new private school.

“Initially, I was hired to be the admin assistant, but what I loved about this experience is I’ve done everything,” said Gooding. 

And when she says everything, she means everything. From painting the first walls to unplugging toilets to scooping up bear poop, all while planning auctions and camping trips and serving as admissions and development director, Gooding has been the school’s mainstay and last original employee.

“I’m coming in hot to retirement,” Gooding laughed.

Spillane explained that Gooding had a gift for compartmentalizing her life, which is why she has been so effective for 25 years in helping to run the school.

“One of her secrets is she knows how to take care of herself. It’s a trait I’m envious of,” said Spillane, explaining that in the early days when parents and staff would be working all night to get the school ready for their first year, Debbie would calmly tell them, “you can work ’til 1 a.m., I’m going home at 5.”

In fact, Gooding just finished up her last fundraising auction for the school and is working up to her last day coordinating the school’s famous camping trips, where all the kids end their year with an outdoor education experience.

“This isn’t the kind of place where people say ‘this is not my job,’” Gooding said. “Everybody here is the kind of person willing to pitch in where help is needed.”

Longtime colleague and administrative assistant Mary Williamson is still a little stunned that she’s losing her office partner of 19 years.

“She’s just loving and kind and a thoughtful friend, and parents always come to Debbie for help,” Williamson said.

And students will especially miss her “motherly” ways, Spillane added.

“One of the jokes we used to say — if a child was sick, got a bump at recess or not feeling well, Debbie’s answer to everything was ‘Let’s go get you a drink of water,’” Spillane said.

Actually, Gooding brought in another secret weapon about five years ago to help her with students — her golden retriever Bode.

“He’s always available for therapy in the office,” Gooding said. “If a kid doesn’t feel well and needs to lie on the couch, they can pet him and immediately feel better. Having a dog … it lowers everybody’s blood pressure.”

Throughout her years at Emerald Mountain School, Gooding has been through several heads of school, even filling in as interim in that position during a rough patch in the school’s history.

“It’s rare that you work with someone that’s been at a school for 25 years with all the institutional knowledge she has,” said Donnel.

To replace Gooding, school leaders have hired a management company to oversee the school’s rental properties and hired a part-time business office person and a full-time admissions and development employee. But don’t worry, Gooding said she’s not leaving Steamboat and is ready and willing to answer any questions and help the school with its transition to new staff.

And what will the long-time Steamboat resident do in retirement?

“My initial plan is to spend the summer in the Adirondack Mountains where my family has had a house for 113 years … spend time with my 88-year-old mother, my brothers and nephews and nieces,” Gooding said.

She’ll then take a trip to Scotland with friends. Gooding will eventually return to Steamboat where her two sons now live with her grandchildren.

Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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