MEHS Principal Bernie Gurule (KCAW/Katherine Rose)

When Mt. Edgecumbe High School Seniors graduated on May 5, they weren’t alone in saying their farewells to the school. After 17 years as the school’s principal, Bernie Gurule is retiring. Listen here:

Mt. Edgecumbe High School Principal Bernie Gurule is standing at the edge of the school building looking out toward the parking lot. It’s Friday (4-29-22), the sun is out, and Gurule stands shaded under the awning, appreciating the mountains in the distance. He sips on his cup of hot tea, waves at some students, and fist bumps others as they walk from their dormitories to class.

“Good morning girls,” he says to a couple of students walking by. “Brooke, nice to see you brought your shades today. Looking cool, looking cool!”

Students are approaching the very end of the school year, and Gurule is checking in with them about their last task before the sweet relief of summer break — exams.

“Tyson, how are we doing today?” Bernie asks a passing student.
Good,” Tyson reponds.
“Atta boy,” Gurule replies. “What finals do you have today?”
“Chemistry,” Tyson says, and Gurule wishes him good luck, telling him to “knock it out!”

For the last 17 years, at 9:30 every morning, this was the highlight of Gurule’s job.

“This is a part of the day I enjoy the most, just seeing the kids coming in and and having an opportunity to touch base with them,” he says.

After about 15 minutes greeting students, Gurule heads back to the front office for the morning announcements (highlights of which included details about an upcoming picnic, and a ‘joke of the day’), then he spends a few minutes discussing plans for an award ceremony with a student.

Gurule has a busy day ahead and it’s only 10 a.m. Typically, much of his role as administrator is spent in classrooms, observing teachers and students and giving feedback. But today he’s gearing for all kinds of ceremonies and end-of-year celebrations. The last few weeks of high school are always a whirlwind– finals, prom, graduation. It’s like any other day near the end of a school year. But it’s one of the last times Gurule will go through this familiar routine.

Originally from Los Lunas New Mexico, he spent over a decade in education there, most of it teaching social studies and coaching, before moving to the front office as an athletic director. Then he moved to Lake and Peninsula School District in Western Alaska, then to Sitka to be the principal at Blatchley Middle School. After several years there, he moved one island over to Mt. Edgecumbe. Of his 42 years in education he’s been here the longest. That’s because to Gurule, and so many, Mt. Edgecumbe is special. 

“We’re family. And we and we treat each other like family, we care about each other,” Gurule says. “And I think that’s an important thing.” 

Gurule remembers one moment early in his tenure when he realized that students felt that way too. 

I was in the library in the morning, kind of like greeting kids kind of like I did this morning,” Gurule says. “And there was a student who was kind of draped over a chair almost in a sleeping position. And one of the upperclassmen you know, just politely but professionally said, Hey, you’re not in the dorms right now. You’re at school. You’re at school.”

“That little thing right there showed me so much,” Gurule says.

Each fall, students travel from small communities and villages across Alaska to attend the state-operated boarding school. That means parents can’t always be as involved as they are in other school districts. 

“That was unusual to me,” Gurule says. “A really important part of being a school administrator is the community involvement, the community interactions. And we’re doing it from a distance…that’s a challenge.”

“Parents are giving up a lot,” he continues. “Their kids are not at home, they’re not in the village with them. They’re here at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. We appreciate the trust that the parents have in us. We take it very seriously.” 

And distance took on a whole new meaning in the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States. Practically overnight, the state directed MEHS to send students home.

“We had to put the students on the buses to go to the airport to go home. And it happened so quickly, it happened so suddenly,” Gurule says. “That was a really sad day here at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, for the kids especially. They didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to some of their friends.”

“That was a tough one,” Gurule says. “That was one of the toughest.” 

Students lost a lot that year– many of the traditional end of year events didn’t happen for seniors of 2020, who graduated from their homes across the state in a ceremony held over Zoom.

“But right on the back of that is when we continued with in person education the next fall,” Gurule says. “We weren’t sure that was going to happen…But when it did, wow. That felt great.”  

Principal Gurule addresses the MEHS Class of 2022 at its graduation on May 5 (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)
For the next year and a half, Mt. Edgecumbe had a strict mitigation policy. It was only this spring that the masks came off, just in time for prom and graduation, on May 5, for which Gurule was an honored speaker. As she introduced him, Valedictorian Mia Anderson said the class of 2022 chose Gurule not only because it's his last year, but, "because of the inspiration, leadership, wisdom, kindness and guidance he always exudes." 

Gurule is retiring from Mt. Edgecumbe, but not from education. He’s moving back to New Mexico to be near family, and says he still has “one or two schools left in him.” And as far as his legacy at Mt. Edgecumbe is concerned, even with nearly two decades of school leadership, he says it’s always been bigger than him. 

“I guess I could go on about the things that are special about this place. But I think you get the picture,” he says. “I think you get the picture. It’s not individuals. It’s not me here for 17 years. It’s not anybody here for any certain amount of time.”

“It was strong before I got here. It’s going to be strong way after I’m gone,” Gurule says. “And I like that. I like that.”