The onset of senior-itis will inevitably strike hundreds of students at Palmer Ridge High School this spring, but one senior administrator won’t let thoughts of no more school affect his job.
Yes, longtime principal Gary Gabel is retiring following the school year. But you won’t see him slacking off.
“At lot of people bring that up and ask me if I’m counting the days,” Gabel said. “I’m not. I want to make sure I finish this job with more energy than when I started. I want to leave the cupboard full, and I want this place set up for continued success. I don’t check things off but try to enjoy the time I have.”
In 2007, Gabel was chosen as the first principal of Palmer Ridge, which opened its doors in August 2008 to 535 freshmen and sophomores and 70 staff members. Today, more than 1,200 students and 120 staff members occupy the three-story, split-level building that rests on a 69-acre site in northern Monument.
And in that short time, Gabel has witnessed a bevy of accolades for the school, including a U.S. News and World Report honor as one of the country’s best high schools, a 96 percent graduation rate and three state championships in the sports arena in 2018.
“I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time,” Gabel said. “On and off the field, across the whole spectrum it’s been something not everyone gets to experience. I feel fortunate to be part of that, but the real credit goes to how hard the teachers work. They’re the most committed group of individuals I’ve ever worked with.”
Gabel started his educational career at Platte Valley High School just outside of Greeley, where he spent nine years at the small, rural campus. He then returned to his alma mater in Northglenn, where he was dean of students before arriving in District 38 as assistant principal at Lewis-Palmer High School.
He stayed at LPHS for seven years, but with limited opportunities with only one high school and one middle school in the district, Gabel took a position in the much larger Cherry Creek School District as an assistant at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora.
After four years there, Gabel felt accomplished in the knowledge he gained there, ranging from advanced placement, international baccalaureate, AVID and other programs.
But there was one career goal still unchecked.
“I wanted to be a principal,” said Gabel, whose nephew Billy is the longtime wrestling coach at Pine Creek High School. “I heard about a new school in District 38, and I loved the district and community, so I threw my hat in the ring. Not only did I get to open a new building, but it was my first principalship. It couldn’t get any better.”
Being the man in charge didn’t come without times of tension and growing pains, but those who knew him best recalled someone who kept true to his word and didn’t compromise.
“One of the things about Gary is that things never flustered him,” said former social studies department chair Mark Ewig. “I had 26 years in the military before I started teaching, so I’ve seen a lot of leaders and people who are in the position of sitting on the hot seat in various ways. He was always able to keep things in perspective, whatever the situation. He was always helping teachers as much as possible and sometimes had to fight with administration in order to get things done. He was able to do that and always kept teachers and students in mind.”
District 38 Superintendent Karen Brofft said Gabel’s influence was most felt by the students he led each day.
“Throughout Gary’s career in D-38, he has always remained focused on creating a high school learning environment where students feel involved, cared for and motivated to succeed. Gary’s legacy will continue to impact our district and Palmer Ridge High School for many years to come,” Brofft wrote in an email to The Tribune.
While Gabel won’t soon forget the times he spent at Palmer Ridge, he came to the realization that it was time for someone else to steer the ship.
“It’s my 31st year in education, I’m the founding principal and I really think Palmer Ridge is in a good place,” Gabel said. “With excellence in both academics and athletics, I kind of want to do the John Elway thing and go away when things are good and not when bad. I’m very grateful to be able to open this new school, but it’s going to be hard to walk away from relationships you have on a daily basis. The staff here has become a second family to me.”
Gabel lives in Parker with his wife, Sandy, who teaches social studies at Ponderosa High School. They are parents to sons Austin and Dylan and daughter Maddie. Both sons were multiple-time state wrestling champions at Ponderosa and earned scholarships to NCAA Division I universities.
So what’s next? He doesn’t know yet.
“I’m excited to go to the next chapter,” Gabel said. “But that next chapter hasn’t been defined yet. I want to make sure whatever I do, it has purpose. That’s most important for me and it might take me some time to find it.”