WILMINGTON – Shirley Bounds has been the head of St. Elizabeth High School since 2004, but last month she found herself in a classroom, teaching Spanish.
For Bounds, that brought her back to where she was when she started at St. Elizabeth, an apropos scenario as she closes the curtain on her career in education at St. Elizabeth. She will retire next month from the Wilmington school that has become her home over the last 44 years, one she has served as a teacher, coach and administrator.
Bounds, who celebrated her 68th birthday on May 17, came to St. Elizabeth from St. Mary/St. Patrick School in Wilmington. She got the call a few weeks before classes began, and the invitation included a small surprise request.
“They called me in August and said, ‘Can you come in and be a Spanish and French teacher, and by the way, can you also coach volleyball and basketball?’ I said, ‘Sure, I can do that,’” she recalled recently in her second-floor office. “It was good for me at the time. I had a job, my parents were happy. It was a good entry, and over the years I’ve never regretted that entry.”
Over time, her role expanded under the tutelage of the late Benedictine Sister Mary Ellen Hussey, who was principal from 1977 until her death in 2004. Bounds was Sister Mary Ellen’s assistant, then associate. She was named principal by St. Elizabeth’s pastor, Father Charles Dillingham, in 2004.
Bounds is grateful for what the school did for her. She was a non-Catholic – she joined the church about 30 years ago – and a product of local public schools, graduating from Dickinson High School. At the time, St. Elizabeth was much more of a neighborhood school, with a student population that was almost exclusively Catholic.
“I’ve seen an evolution here that I’m really proud of, and I’m proud to have been a part of it,” she said. “I tell my story as a stranger in a strange land, and I know people have heard me say this before. I came here as a fairly new college graduate. Little teaching experience other than my student teaching in a language. I lived in the suburbs. I went to public schools for 12 years, and at the time I was Lutheran. And so here I came to this really amazing community where students still went home to lunch. They lived right here. I found my way here and just had such guidance and mentoring from the sisters and my colleagues and was able to expand my role.”
PART OF THE ST. E’S FAMILY
Bounds grew up in the Pike Creek area. Her family moved to Delaware from New York for her father’s job with the Dupont Co. Her mother was a nurse and worked at area hospitals and eventually at a doctor’s office.
At Dickinson, Bounds said she had passionate teachers who inspired her to enter education, and she hopes she has inspired a student or two along the way to follow in her footsteps.
She hadn’t intended to become an administrator, and she taught regularly until around 1997. As a principal, she encourages her teachers to be themselves and to be independent thinkers, “like I was able to be. (Sister) Mary Ellen never said ‘no’ to me.”
A few years ago, the school had a marketing campaign whose tagline was “invent yourself.” The campaign featured students, but Bounds said she felt she was able to invent herself as a teacher thanks to the Benedictine Sisters who staffed the schools for decades.
The sisters were a great source of support, she recalled. They lived in a convent just across the street from the parish, and Bounds took advantage of their hospitality.
“All those late nights, or after a game or something, I could run over there and have dinner if I wanted. They were very amenable to that,” she said.
The school has evolved during her decades there. A number of local students still attend, but St. Elizabeth has become more diverse in recent years. That diversity has taken many forms – ethnic, religious and other.
“I think some of that has to do with nourishing that Benedictine hospitality, welcoming all. And it has to do not only with ethnic diversity. It has to do with what schools offer, and where niches are made. I think our niche is, yes, city. We’re small and pay personal attention. Many schools claim family, and I’m not saying we have better family than other schools at all, it’s just I think we do it really well here,” she said.
St. Elizabeth also offers a college-preparatory education with the Catholic school reputation for “discipline and order and high expectation. I think we have all of those here.”
Father Norman Carroll, pastor of St. Elizabeth, said Bounds always operates with the students at the center of her thoughts. How they will benefit is the main concern. She also tries to ensure that the school is at the forefront of education.
“Her passion for innovation and ‘the next big thing’ has always put St. Elizabeth out there as an environment for educating the next generation,” he said. “Always with attention to the smallest of details, she has provided and set a standard for the Benedictine welcome at St. Elizabeth School.”
TIME WITH LOVED ONES
The confidence and pride she sees in the St. Elizabeth community helped her decide that now was the right time to step down. She has seen the school grow in many ways, and she said it is stable.
“It’s really a gem,” she said, giving credit to everyone in the school community. “Students feel that they can risk it here, and I want them to feel that, and I think that whoever my successor is will have that same vision. You have to have that vision – this is who we want to be, and you have to have your stakeholders buy in. I have great parents, alumni and the students are amazing, and the faculty.”
Father Carroll said Bounds has left an imprint on the school community through her work and her faith, calling her “a woman of faith and deep reflection.”
“Over the years, her growth in faith and visible dedication has inspired decades of St. E graduates and their parents and our own faculty,” he added.
Telling her faculty that she was leaving was the hardest part, Bounds said. But she wants to be able to do some things while she is able. Her daughter, Laura, who graduated from the high school in 2000, lives in Crofton, Md., with her husband and four children. They are a Navy family, and having them on the East Coast is a rarity.
Bounds remembers her parents taking her and her sister on trips, and she wants to be able to do that with her grandchildren. She remembers Williamsburg, Va., coming up in a recent conversation, “and I thought, yeah, I could do that. I could take my granddaughter and grandson now to Williamsburg. They’re just at that point. And I haven’t done those things.
“I look forward to taking them places that I remember being important in my education. My sister and I used to complain, ‘Oh, we’re going camping and we’re going to all those battlefields.’ I just feel like I would like to do that. I think back now, and it was good. It probably informed what I did here.”
Bounds’ mother is 92 and lives in Wilmington. She would like to spend some time with her. She has a back porch that “looks very inviting.” She and her husband, Ronald, like to travel to Maine but have had to arrange their trips around two work schedules. That should be less of an issue.
And, as an avid sports fan, the former coach plans on attending more events. She is keeping her eye on St. Elizabeth’s plans to redevelop Canby Park into a recreation complex for the various school teams and the community. She won’t be a stranger, she promises.
“I hope to be around, but not in the way,” she said.