Mike Kirk honored with “Making a Difference Now” Award

Mike Kirk walks the halls of Vashon schools most weeks as the school district’s substitute principal, an emeritus qualification he enjoys after a career teaching and leading in Vashon’s schools.

A slight man with a natural authority, he circulates among groups of kids and individual students, noticing their expressions, their movements, who is distressed, who is excited, reading the energy in the building that day.

He is the rare person who can greet and chat, and also allow for a silent minute to pass to let a student know that he is someone who will let them talk.

Listening and being present for others is a skill honed over a lifetime, both as an educator and on thousands of calls as a volunteer firefighter and EMT. Mike Kirk has dedicated his life to being present for his fellow islanders.

The Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation has honored Mike Kirk with this year’s Making a Difference Now Award, in recognition of his nearly 60 years of island life in service to others.

As a teenager, Kirk spent a school term in seminary at Saint Edward’s preparing for the priesthood, only to realize that his true calling, at the time, was a regular teenage existence of sports, girls and classes at Blanchet High School near Green Lake in Seattle.

He developed an ease around a wide variety of people, first working at his dad’s luncheonette and later leading tours at the Rainier Brewery. He thought he might not go to college, but at the last minute followed his parents’ suggestion to check out the Jesuit Seattle University, where he ended up studying history and earning a teaching credential.

Kirk’s island story began in 1966 when he interviewed with superintendent Dr. Jerry Hester at the school district office — the building that became Sound Food in the 1970s and which today houses Vashon Estate Sales. The affable young Mr. Kirk was offered a position teaching seventh and eighth-grade English and history at Burton Elementary School, and so Vashon is where he and his wife Patti settled.

On the playground that first fall, during recess, Kirk saw a vehicle come around the corner, siren blaring — an old refurbished pick-up truck rigged to be a fire responder.

“Very likely, Mr. Tingley was burning off his field again and things got out of hand,” said Kirk. So volunteers jumped in their trucks and carried water.

There were more house fires back then, and it was labor-intensive to fight a fire, so volunteers were crucial to islanders’ safety.

Mike admired Patti’s father, a battalion chief in Seattle — and aware that summers for a teacher were wide open, he decided to attend firefighting training in January 1967. Learning and developing were always goals. EMT training started to become the norm nationwide, so they all trained for lifesaving.

Monday night drills got going. The Kirks moved to Burton. Kirk egged on his neighbor, Bob Stougard to join up.

The volunteer crew included a Baptist minister, an Episcopalian priest, and a Wesleyan minister. The best dispatchers were the senior ladies, including Grandma Harrington, who knew every family and every house. There was no GPS, so they would ride on the tailboard of the fire trucks, tossing paper sacks of flour to mark the way down winding back roads and long driveways.

After a while, the injured started to show up at Kirk’s door: “Mike, my kid ate rat poison.” “Mike, I think I’m having a heart attack.” It was rewarding work.

Meanwhile, after 12 years of teaching, Kirk had earned a master’s degree in history and an administrator credential in his off hours — presumably studying on the back of a fire truck. When the principal’s job opened at Vashon Elementary in 1978, he took the job. He traded places with the Burton Elementary principal in 1982 and became principal at McMurray Middle School in 1987, where he served until his retirement in 2004.

Throughout the years, Kirk says the best things they did in every school were projects dreamed up by local parents and teachers. All the theories being developed about education — the experimental open classrooms, and the top-down initiatives — were distractions. But whenever people with skin in the game became engaged in a project on behalf of kids, educational magic happened: Exploratory Week, Vashon Artists in Schools, the Labyrinth, and middle school soccer — all local initiatives that continue to this day.

Mike Kirk will stand on the stage at Vashon Community Scholarships’ Class of 2024 annual ceremony in May, to receive this honor and to award the Making a Difference Now Scholarship to a graduating senior who is making a similar positive impact on those around them. This scholarship is awarded from the organization’s general fund, and the public is invited to donate in honor of Mike Kirk.

Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to sending the island’s high school graduates off with community support for higher education and professional training. Its 38-year tradition is unique to Vashon: for every single applicant, a scholarship recognizes their island story, their skills and accomplishments, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Patti Kirk served decades on the board of the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation, so both Mike and Patti have a deep connection to the project.

Mike’s advice for the Class of 2024 applies to islanders of all ages: “You have talents and interests. Find opportunities to involve yourself in these things for the benefit of others.” In the Jesuit tradition, the more you learn, the more you can serve.

Donations can be made online at VashonScholarships.org/Donations or by mail to Vashon Community Scholarships, PO Box 1413, Vashon, WA 98070.

Jane Slade is a parent and member of the board of the Vashon Community Scholarship Foundation, a non-profit that has awarded scholarships to high school graduates since 1986.

Beachcomber photo courtesy Vashon Heritage Museum

Beachcomber photo courtesy Vashon Heritage Museum

Beachcomber photo courtesy Vashon Heritage Museum

Beachcomber photo courtesy Vashon Heritage Museum