COLORADO SPRINGS. Throughout his life, faith and family were the two most important things in the life of Andy Middlemist. Beginning in the early 1970s, family for Middlemist grew to include the St. Mary’s High School community, where he served for 31 years. On Oct. 20, the St. Mary’s family and Colorado Springs community said goodbye to Middlemist at a memorial Mass held at Divine Redeemer Church. Middlemist died Aug. 18 at age 82 in Arizona.
Middlemist arrived in Colorado Springs in August, 1971, to work at St. Mary’s High School as the business manager, business teacher, head basketball coach and assistant coach for both football and baseball. He had been working in similar capacities with the Conejos School District in the San Luis Valley, alongside the Benedictine sisters who had taught in the district for 40 years. Middlemist’s wife, Genia, said the family’s move to the Springs came after an upheaval in the Conejos district that resulted in all of the Benedictine nuns resigning. Sister Leann Cogan, who had been superintendent of the Conejos School District, recommended Middlemist to her biological sister, Sister Kathleen Cogan, who was serving on the St. Mary’s school board.
“Andy talked with Father David Costello over the phone and was hired without meeting anyone at St. Mary’s in person,” Genia said. “Andy had resigned without having another job and had five children at home, but God was guiding us. Andy got the job at St. Mary’s. Our house in Antonito sold to the first person who looked at it. And then the nuns allowed us to stay rent free in a cabin at the Benet Hill Monastery in Black Forest for five months until our house in Colorado Springs was built.”
In 1975, Middlemist became the first lay principal at St. Mary’s High School, after serving one year as assistant principal. It would be a position that he held off and on for the next 27 years. Middlemist would see St. Mary’s through some of its most turbulent times. He was principal when the Diocese of Colorado Springs decided to close St. Mary’s after the class of 1987 graduated, the class that included the Middlemist’s youngest son, Sean. When a group of St. Mary’s parents found a way to keep the school open as an independent Catholic school, Middlemist was back, filling the role of scheduler, a position he first took over in the fall of 1974.
Middlemist’s daughter Sandi said that her father’s presence encouraged many teachers and parents to continue supporting the newly-independent school.
“I really believe that many wouldn’t have stayed if my dad hadn’t stayed,” Sandi said. “His knowledge in running the school gave them confidence.”
St. Mary’s alumni Tony Ducros ’72 attested to the impact that Middlemist had in his life. Ducros had been recruited to play basketball for St. Mary’s during his junior year. When that coach left at the end of the school year, he contemplated dropping out of school to join the military. Middlemist convinced him to stay.
“At the time I thought it was a bad decision to stay at St. Mary’s because I hadn’t liked it there the year before,” Ducros said. “But looking back it was one of the best decisions of my life. I had no idea what was coming. I didn’t know that this guy who always had a smile on his face would come in and change everything. It was a blessing from God. I felt obligated to do better in everything because of Andy.”
“I was one of four or five black kids at St. Mary’s at that time and we all came from impoverished backgrounds,” Ducros said. “I had to work after school each day, but Andy never made us feel like we were poor. I had no support system until Andy came to St. Mary’s. He was the only male role model that I had in my life, and throughout college I would come back to St. Mary’s to visit with him.”
The gains that Middlemist achieved as head coach of the men’s basketball team during the 1971-72 season can only be described as miraculous, Ducros said. The 1970-1971 team had finished with a record of 5-12, but just a year later they were tied for first place in the Will Rogers League.
“We only lost one home game my senior year,” Ducros said. “It’s hard for a team to come together in one year, but Andy did that. Not only did we have a winning season, but he got me to want more out of life.”
It was Middlemist who encouraged Ducros to get involved in extracurriculars, like the Spanish Club, and began talking to him about college and building up the young man’s self esteem. Ducros went on to study at Regis University in Denver, where he felt comfortable talking to the professors and other adults on campus due to Middlemist’s encouragement, he said.
“I was able to play four years of college ball because Andy taught me how to be a better athlete in every aspect of the game,” Ducros said. “And he taught me the skill of communicating with older adults.
Four of the Middlemist’s five children are St. Mary’s graduates: Sandi in 1980, Scott in 1981, Steve in 1982, and Sean in 1987. Their oldest, Shari, graduated from Benet Hill Academy in 1978. Middlemist’s granddaughter Andrea graduated from St. Mary’s in 2002 — the last year that Middlemist served as St. Mary’s prinicpal.
While it has been 15 years since Middlemist regularly walked the halls of St. Mary’s, the connection he made with students was real and lasting. Genia said he remembered all of his students’ names and in recent years had reconnected with many via social media. When the family and St. Mary’s announced Middlemist’s passing on Facebook, former students began posting memories of the beloved principal who had helped shape their lives. Yet his humble spirit prevented him from recognizing how much he meant to the community.
“My dad had no idea of the impact he had on people,” Sandi said. “When I was at St. Mary’s, we adopted the theme ‘We are family,’ and that’s what St. Mary’s was to my dad — family.”
(Amy G. Partain is director of communications for St. Mary’s High School.)