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Principal leaves a loving legacy

Kevin Spitler thinks his good friend, Sister Jeanne Eberle, would have made a great lawyer.

"The big law firms would love her," said Spitler, a well-known local attorney. "Her billable hours would be in the stratosphere."

In other words, Eberle, the principal of St. Mark's Elementary School in North Buffalo, may be the hardest-working educator around. And after 34 years at the helm of one of Buffalo's most successful academic programs, she's stepping down. A Mass in her honor will be offered at 9:15 a.m. today at St. Mark's, 399 Woodward Ave.

The Sisters of St. Joseph nun leaves with a legacy that has touched thousands of kids. It was her love of the individual child that got her up each morning and, more often than not, kept her working late at night.

"She wanted every opportunity for her pupils to shine," said Frank Cecala, an English teacher at the school. "Her calling was to reach all children, and she did it in a unique and remarkable way."

Even now, 12 years after he joined St. Mark's, Cecala marvels at Eberle's insistence on sending handwritten Christmas cards to each of the school's 400 students and her practice of adding personal notes to their report cards.

"She believes everybody has a gift and you simply have to find a way to get it out," said Nancy Roberts, a former teacher at the school. "She also believes learning should be fun and wrapped in love."

Over the years, St. Mark's has gained a reputation as one of the most successful elementary and middle schools in the region.

And yet, despite standardized test scores that rival the best private and public schools around, Eberle will tell you that developing a relationship with kids is even more important than teaching them how to take a test.

Ask any of her close friends and chances are good you'll hear a story about an at-risk child who came to St. Mark's as an underachiever and left destined for success.

"I asked her at graduation this week, 'Who did you save this year?' " said Mary Elaine Spitler, a research scientist in the University at Buffalo's early education department. "One of Sister Jeanne's special characteristics is her ability to see the potential in every kid."

And those are the children she often talks about when asked about a legacy that stretches back 50 years. Eberle loves to tell the story of the second-grader who came to St. Mark's after getting expelled from another Catholic school.

Despite the urgings of others, she stuck by him, and today, he's a student in UB's medical school.

"I just want to be remembered for taking a special interest in kids," Eberle said. "The important thing is to develop a relationship with them by showing them love and compassion and giving them a reason to like school."

Leaving St. Mark's will be difficult. Health problems are forcing her to retire.

What will she miss most?

"I told one of our eighth-graders the other day, 'Do you think I like you?' " she said with a huge smile.

"I don't know," he answered.

A few days later, that same kid gave her a hug she'll never forget.

"I'll miss the hugs," she said.

And no doubt, so will the kids at St. Mark's.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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