It has been a decade since Anthony "A.J." Ferguson attended East Hills International Studies Academy.
Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Date of birth: July 19, 1939
Place of birth: Pittsburgh
In the news: He is retiring after serving as principal of East Hills International Studies Academy for 24 years.
Quote: "I've made kids better citizens. I made kids think more. I made kids act differently."
Education: Schenley High School, graduated in 1957; University of Pittsburgh, bachelor's degree, 1966, master's degree, 1971
Family: Wife, Patricia; two sons, Richard R.J. Nicklos, 37, and Eric Scott Nicklos, 33, both in New Jersey
But stationed in Iraq, in between his Army duties of digging up and rebuilding roads using heavy earth-moving equipment, Ferguson just had to write a thank-you to his elementary school principal, Richard Nicklos.
Nicklos, a 39-year employee of Pittsburgh Public Schools, is retiring after 24 years as principal of the French magnet school, the longest tenure in one building of any city principal retiring this year.
Today is his last day with the teachers, and at 5 p.m. tomorrow, the Parent-Teacher-Student Organization will host a picnic honoring Nicklos. His last day in the district will be June 30.
"Thank you for being there for me and the other students that have crossed your path throughout your career," Ferguson, 21, e-mailed his mom, Wanda of Homewood, to forward to Nicklos.
Words such as Ferguson's aren't unusual from former students or their parents.
Nicklos was even a guest at the recent surprise 50th birthday party for Cynthia Adams of East Liberty, who was a student during Nicklos' early days of teaching at Lemington Elementary School. She has great-nieces who attend East Hills academy.
"He was one of the teachers in my life who made me want to learn," said Adams, who went on to earn a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
Nicklos, 65, grew up in Bloomfield and attended Woolslair Elementary and Arsenal Junior High and graduated from Schenley High School in 1957.
After visiting his dad in Philadelphia for a year and a half, he joined the Air Force in 1959, serving as a medic in Indiana and in Turkey. He later earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Pitt.
He was encouraged to go into education by his brother, Robert Nicklos, a former Brashear High School principal who is now retired, and his sister-in-law, Lee Nicklos, who was a teacher and later director of human resources for the city school district.
He said he realized "at some point, I'd be able to make a difference in the kid's life. I might not see that difference right now, but 10 years later I probably will."
He began his teaching career in 1966 at Lemington Elementary School, where he taught for four years. He served as principal of Manchester Elementary for 11 years.
In 1981, he was asked to become principal of East Hills academy .
He didn't want to go.
"I saw no reason to just be uprooted. They saw something in me I didn't see in myself," Nicklos said.
Nicklos also was used to schools with walls separating classrooms. East Hills was built as an open-space school with "pods" of three classrooms not separated by walls. Instead, spaces are defined by rows of file cabinets.
"I had never been a fan of that," Nicklos said. "After I was here for a couple of months, it kinda started growing on me."
In the 1980s, East Hills was so popular that parents waited in line for days to assure their children a spot, a system later replaced by a lottery.
For many years, East Hills was racially balanced, 50-50, and had 500 to 600 students. As the district's population overall declined and neighborhood and other schools competed for students, the enrollment at East Hills dropped -- this year to about 270. About 80 percent are black.
Nicklos saw his role as serving every student in his school.
"Every day, I came. Every day, I worked. I did the best I could. These are the kids I have. These are the kids I have to make achievers," he said.
Nicklos used his office only for private conversations. More often, he sat at his desk in the main hall, or walked up and down the ramps to check on students. He knows each child's name.
"I love Mr. Nicklos," said Sheila Schreiber of Squirrel Hill, whose two children just completed sixth and ninth grades at East Hills.
"You walk in the school. There he is. The kids know him. The parents know him. ... You could call early in the morning, and he would answer the phone. He was there to talk to us when needed."
While classes began at 9 a.m., Nicklos typically arrived at the school at 6 a.m. -- several teachers would arrive within the hour -- and stayed until the last teacher left, about 5:30 or 6 p.m.
At one point, district officials considered moving Nicklos to Reizenstein Middle School, but parents protested and got to keep their principal.
Nicklos said his approach with parents is to assure them that he is "really working for the best interest of your youngster" and that "any mistakes I make would have to be mistakes of the intellect and not the heart."
He said once a teacher came, he or she often stayed, even for decades.
One substitute teacher, Adrienne Cooper of East Hills, was a parent volunteer about a decade ago and now is working on her teaching certificate because of Nicklos' encouragement.
"If you have a problem, you can go to him. The children can go to him," she said.
Post-Gazette education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955. Correction/Clarification: (Published 6/21/05) Newsmaker -- In a story on the retirement of East Hills Elementary School Principal Richard Nicklos, the current schools of the children of Sheila Schreiber of Squirrel Hill was misstated. The two children attended East Hills, but went to other schools for middle and high school.