Gene Horrigan will leave his job as principal of Shepaug Valley High School on Aug. 26, saying goodbye to a faculty and student body that have been at the center of his professional life for 21 years.

"The dynamics of a high school environment are such that there is a tremendous interaction with people and ideas," said Horrigan, an alumnus of Joel Barlow High School in Redding.

"The interaction is so exciting, and the generation of ideas that comes from that interaction is so intense -- from that perspective, my Shepaug experience will be hard to replace."

Horrigan's legacy will be of change and growth that gave Shepaug a reputation as one of the premier public high schools in the state. In 1998, the school was honored as a Blue Ribbon School by then-Gov. John Rowland.

The required senior project, developed under Horrigan's initiative, is being studied by New England Association of Schools and Colleges for inclusion in its requirements for accreditation of high schools. It is emulated by many high schools across the state, said Shepaug English instructor Douglas Winkel.

"He's been a great leader, helping to shape education and introducing new ideas and new programs," said Winkel, who directs theater productions at the school. "He was a mentor in encouraging me to try new teaching techniques and getting the best from my students."

Horrigan is modest in discussing his leadership at Shepaug.

"I didn't bring a vision here," he said. "Together we developed a vision over the early years, one based on the question of What do we want to ensure each student is able to do in the world after he or she walks through the graduation ceremony?'"‰"

While Horrigan may not take direct credit for the vision, he brought in leading thinkers on education in his early years. Ted Sizer, the head of Brown University's education department at the time, came to the school.

Douglas Heath, who had done a leading study on what it takes to be an effective adult and how to best develop those qualities in students, was also brought in.

"What drives the education at Shepaug is high academic expectations and helping each student achieve competency in important life skills," said Matt Perachi, the school's athletic director. "Gene was the driving force that brought that about."

Horrigan came to Shepaug from Irondequoit High School in Rochester, N.Y., where he was principal, overseeing a faculty of 140 teachers and five assistant principals.

"I knew after that that large schools have a culture and momentum that makes it very difficult to ask the big questions of education, and to then get people to answer those questions and then implement them," he said.

"Shepaug was a small school with a reputation of being a good school. I thought maybe I could deal with those big questions of education in a thoughtful and deliberate way here. I have been able to do that," Horrigan said.

Shepaug High School's faculty members also credit Horrigan with bringing a fuller arts program to the school. They also say he understood the value of athletics in a high school education and attended every sporting event.

He took the senior class on its first out-of-state trip and has gone on every senior class trip since. He advocated having graduation ceremonies outdoors. He initiated the World Affairs Forum and introduced block scheduling, which created 84-minute classes for delving fully into learning activities.

"I have tremendous respect for Gene," said Irene Allan, who sat on the Region 12 Board of Education for 12 years, three as chairman. "Gene Horrigan is regarded as one of the finest principals in the state. He deeply cares about the students at Shepaug and is supportive of his staff. He works toward making Shepaug the best it can be."

"There's nothing wrong with change," Allan said, "but he will be a tough act to follow."

Horrigan's retirement plans are to spend time with his five adult children and their families, including a grandchild on the way. He and his wife plan to travel, write and "continue learning," with a commitment to finding answers to social issues, most immediately, health care.

Contact Susan Tuz

at stuz@newstimes.com

or 860-355-7322.