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Chelen's entire career spent in Monessen

| Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

Dr. Cynthia Chelen's heart will always belong to Monessen.

Not only does she still live in the home where she was raised, her career has never taken her out of her hometown.

From a kindergarten student to Monessen High School graduate, then a Monessen teacher, principal and superintendent, Chelen is a true Greyhound.

"To spend 40 years in one district, from one end of the spectrum to another, is very unique," said Chelen. "I'm very proud of that."

As she prepares for her last day as Monessen School District superintendent on Thursday, Chelen, 61, is preparing for a bittersweet farewell.

"It's not going to be easy, but I knew the time was right for me personally," she said. "But, I know I will never stop caring about this district."

Following the devastating death last year of her mother, with whom she shared her home, Chelen said she started thinking about retiring.

"When I was going through the house on the weekends, it got bad for me when I came back on Monday," she said. "I did not feel, because of my emotions, that I could give this district 100 percent.

"I knew that now I was ready."

Early years

Chelen's love for her community was instilled in her at a young age by her parents, the late Carl and Mary Chelen. Her father worked at the Pages mill and her mother was a homemaker.

She has great memories growing up in Monessen.

"It's almost like a clich?, because it was a wonderful life," she said. "Back then, it was just easy to be a kid."

She has three siblings, her older sister Sheila Pehote, of Reinholds, Pa., Carla Palm of York, Pa., and a brother, Dr. Carl Chelen, of Florence, S.C.

Both of her sisters are nurses and her brother is a pediatric critical care physician at McLeod Pediatric Subspecialists in Florence.

There is seven years between Chelen and her sister Carla.

"My sister Sheila and I would help take care of Carla and Carl," she said. "We just loved that."

She remembers playing with her siblings and the neighborhood kids until dark.

"There were always games in the neighborhood going on like Release the Belgian or German kickball. We rode our bikes on the hills. It was fun," she said. "We had a typical, middle-class family life."

She graduated from Monessen High School in 1968.

During those years, when the mills and industry were thriving in the Valley, the district population was much higher than it is now.

"There were 3,500 students in the district at that time and we had over 200 kids in my graduating class," she said.

Climbing the ladder

Chelen didn't set out to become a teacher.

She initially enrolled at West Virginia University as a math major, with a goal of becoming an engineer.

Her stint at WVU was short, however.

"Being a hometown girl, I didn't like being away," she said. "So, I transferred to California State Teachers College. Then, I had to make up my mind if I went there that I was going to be a teacher. But that was OK because I always enjoyed working with kids."

After graduating from college in 1972, she landed her first teaching job in the Monessen School District. She worked as an elementary teacher from 1973 to 1992.

"I was fortunate I was able to live here. I wasn't forced to leave and go find work. It was still here for me," she said.

Early in her teaching career, she got her emergency medical technician/paramedic certification.

She spent every Friday and Saturday night for many years working the 4 to midnight shift on an ambulance crew.

She retired with 30 years of service with the ambulance service when she became a middle school principal.

Chelen went back to Cal U and got her master's degree in 1976, and her principal's certification in 1987.

She said she was encouraged to get her principal credentials from her boss at the time, retired Monessen elementary school Principal Marilyn Pivarnik.

"She really supported me," Chelen said of Pivarnik.

Her career took a different direction when Gene Malarbi became superintendent. Chelen said he asked her to study the feasibility of starting a seventh- and eighth-grade middle school.

In 1993, she was named principal of the newly formed middle school, a position she held until 1999.

Following the opening of the new Monessen High School/Middle School on State Road in 1995, sixth grade was merged into the middle school program.

Chelen continued to climb the ladder both in her education and career.

She attended the University of Pittsburgh where she received her superintendent credentials in 2001, curriculum and supervision certificate in 2002 and doctorate in education in 2003.

In 2004, she was named superintendent.

Looking back

As she prepares to retire, Chelen has watched much change in the district and in her hometown.

What has remained, she says, is the loyalty and pride Monessen natives hold for their community.

"I think that's what makes Monessen so special. Even though the community itself has gotten smaller over the years, it still has that special community feel," she said.

She said that pride is evident among the staff in the school district.

"When you look at the seniority list of our staff, it's amazing how many people are still here and some of them started before me," she said. "Now, people change jobs every two to five years and move on."

Among her many memorable moments over the years, Chelen said she takes most pride in watching her former students become teachers.

"Some of the kids I taught are teachers in the district," she said. "I'm very proud of that."

Over the years she has always watched how technology has changed the way teachers operate and classrooms function.

But, she said, the basic fundamentals of learning never go out of style.

"A lot of things in education basically come back every 30 years. All of the individualized instruction and grouping all came back," she said. "All the new people didn't understand it. I was surprised they didn't know how to do that. Learning centers came back. The technology has changed the programs, but underneath they are basically the same."

She said the future of struggling, small districts like Monessen is uncertain due to constant budget cuts and talks of regionalization on the state level.

Out of the classroom

When asked about her personal life, Chelen laughs.

"What personal life• I'm married to the job," she said.

She said she plans on staying active in the many civic and service organizations she belongs to, including the Epiphany of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church ladies guild and church choir, Catholic Daughters of the Americas, Monessen Court 776, Catholic Business and Professional Women, Monessen-Rostraver Rotary Club, Monessen Emergency Management Team, United Way of Mon Valley board of directors and the Mon Valley Emergency Medical Service board of directors.

Chelen has been chairwoman for Mon Valley EMS for many years.

Among her hobbies are reading, shopping, swimming and going to the beach.

She also loves spending time with her siblings, her nine nieces and nephews and three great-nieces and nephews.

Chelen said both of her sisters would like for her to move near them, but she hasn't decided what her plans will be just yet.

Her colleagues are hosting a retirement party in her honor on Jan. 6 at St. Spyridon Hellenic Center.

"I hope I don't cry. I know I will though," she said.

Chelen says she'll miss the everyday camaraderie of working with the staff and students.

As she prepares to say goodbye to a life spent in the Monessen School District, Chelen has these parting words:

"Keep the pride. I've always said we're the best-kept secret in the Mon Valley. We have good students, good staff and a great school."

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