South Hadley mourns loss of ‘extraordinary educator’ Hank Skala 

  • Hank Skala, the principal at Plains Elementary School in South Hadley, is shown in 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Hank Skala, the principal at Plains Elementary School in South Hadley, greets Donna Theroux and her two grand children Tuesday, June 4, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2022

SOUTH HADLEY — When Danielle Cooke’s son Jack was preparing to begin kindergarten at Plains Elementary School in 2017, Cooke had “one hundred requests to make and one zillion worries to calm.” She was, as she put it, “that parent.”

After Cooke sent a concerned email to Principal Henry “Hank” Skala, though, he called her almost immediately, asking questions about Jack and reassuring Cooke by pointing out that other kids from Jack’s preschool would be in the same class.

“He must have had a list of plenty of other parents he was doing that with, too,” Cooke, now a member of the town’s School Committee, recalled during a recent phone interview.

“I can’t imagine how he structured his day to fit all that in … He knew every single name of every single student he had, I think.”

Cooke and others were sharing their fond memories of the beloved Skala, who died the evening of April 1. He was 67, and had been on leave since February when he had fallen “quite ill,” according to Assistant Superintendent Mark McLaughlin.

McLaughlin shared the news with families in the school, which educates the town’s youngest students in kindergarten and first grade. McLaughlin described Skala, who was known to refer to students as his “tiger cubs,” as a “mentor to many and a friend to all.”

“Hank loved his tiger cubs and the teachers and staff who love them too,” McLaughlin wrote in an email to families. “We recognize that many students in the district are Hank’s former tiger cubs and may feel his passing very deeply.”

District leadership canceled school at Plains Elementary on Monday the Monday after Skala’s death, and had counselors on hand for any who wanted to come to the school and deal with the loss.

In a social media post, Skala’s younger brother, Mark, said that the family was “heartbroken and in shock” at Skala’s death. He said his brother was the ninth of 15 children, and that everyone thought of him as the quiet one. But that wasn’t true, he said.

“He just wasn’t the loudest,” Mark Skala wrote. “He could talk your ear off. He had a very dry sense of humor, adored his family, cherished his role as an educator and administrator and never passed on a baked good!”

Skala is survived by his wife, Marianne, and their children.

Skala, of East Longmeadow, was named as the principal of Plains Elementary in 2016. He had previously worked as a principal in the Athol-Royalston district, in East Granby, Connecticut, and in the Gateway Regional School District.

During his interview for the principal job at Plains Elementary, Skala told the School Committee that he loved young children and felt most gratified when children thought of him as a “father figure.” He also spoke of his dedication to the job, showing up in different roles in the schools where he had worked.

“I have been known to work in the cafeteria, we don’t necessarily want the department of health to know that,” Skala said, according to the Gazette’s coverage of the interview. “I haven’t driven a bus but I am on the buses.”

Sadness at Skala’s death filled social media over the weekend, where many shared stories about the beloved administrator. The Plains School PTA, for example, described him as the “greatest principal” whose excitement and unwavering support of the school community was infectious.

“We are so grateful to have worked with you and shared so many great memories,” the group wrote. “You will forever be in our hearts and we will continue to act with kindness in your memory.”

The Michael E. Smith Endowment for Excellence in Education, which supports educational initiatives in town, funded a mural that was unveiled late last month at the elementary school. The group has dedicated it to Skala, a plaque stating that his “leadership, excellence, and smile embodies the spirit of Plains School.”

In a phone interview on April 4, McLaughlin, the assistant superintendent, said he has had the opportunity to work with a lot of principals during his career. None, he said, were as consistent as Skala. Amid the talk of how great of a person Skala was — McLaughlin called him a “truly outstanding man” — he wanted to be sure people knew what a smart, talented educator he was, too.

“Hank knew his stuff, and he did not live in the past in terms of education,” McLaughlin said. “He was smart and well-informed and knew about best practices and was not a ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ type … He was genuinely an extraordinary educator. Period.”

He said Skala’s death came suddenly, however; the school had hired an interim principal, but had made it clear to Skala that the position was his if his health improved and he was able to return. McLaughlin said that Skala’s wife and children showed up to Plains Elementary on Monday following his death, touring the mural dedicated to him and gathering with staff.

“I would say they stayed about an hour and it was really nice to see. There was a lot of laughter and it just was kind of the sort of thing you can imagine Hank just loving to see,” he said. “A lot of tears.”