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St. Mary’s new leadership

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune New St. Mary’s School President Ryan Bernard, left, and outgoing President Frank Phillips on campus at St. Mary's School in Medford.
Medford school taps Ryan Bernard, vice principal, to lead

There may be an age difference between St. Mary’s School Vice Principal Ryan F. Bernard and President Frank Phillips, but they have commonalities: a love and devotion for the Catholic institution and spouses who are physicians.

Their wives’ professions are what brought them to the Rogue Valley. Bernard’s wife worked in fetal maternal medicine in Portland before coming south for Asante. After graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island, Phillips moved with his wife, an obstetrician/gynecologist, to Medford.

Even though the two men moved at different times — Phillips in 1989 and Bernard in the mid-2000s — they actually met one another at St. Mary’s School, where Phillips had first served as a librarian.

“I knew that there was no place else I would rather teach,” Bernard said.

The school announced in a news release last week that Bernard would succeed Phillips as president, effective July 1.

The 63-year-old Phillips, meanwhile, will step into the role of president emeritus. He cites his tenure of 17 years in the top job and his age as reasons to step down.

“It feels right. I’m going out at the top of my game, it feels like,” Phillips said.

The president’s job, Phillips noted, is to oversee the strategic direction of St. Mary’s School, as opposed to day-to-day operations, which are left up to principals. The institution, which dates back to 1865, teaches 520 students, with 60 instructors and 20 support staff.

A press release applauded Bernard as playing a crucial role in getting new buildings on campus, building an international program for students and developing a modular curriculum and calendar. Bernard was also described in the release as a “dynamic teacher” and “personable leader.”

“His dedication is evident in his relationships with his co-workers and students. This blend of professional chops and personal investment makes Ryan the natural next leader of St. Mary's School,” Board of Trustees Chair Adam Peterson said in a statement.

Emma Johnston, a 10th-grader at St. Mary’s School, has known Bernard as an adviser and teacher.

“I think he’s going to be great. He’s a really personable person, so he’s going to get along with everyone,” she said.

Johnston gets along with Bernard quite well. Their conversations range from what’s in the course catalog to current events going on in the world.

“He’s very friendly and open to a lot of stuff, but he’s also strict and creates a very good working environment for his students,” Johnston said. “He has a very good balance between having fun and doing work.”

Bernard talked about the pitch he made to trustees during his job interview for president. He told members that changes at St. Mary’s under Phillips’ leadership involved everyone on campus having an “all in” mentality.

“People breathing blue,” Bernard said, referencing the school’s colors. “The way that we continue on this really significant upward trajectory is to engender that same sort of sense of loyalty and devotion and willingness to put school above self.”

St. Mary’s School must always be looking for new opportunities, the incoming president said, otherwise “people are probably passing you up.” Changes under Bernard’s leadership could include getting more students to participate in college counseling, increasing fundraising efforts and expanding campus.

“I see that as being a really important part of my job ... to tell the story of this amazing school and to highlight why it’s so essential to the health of this valley,” Bernard said.

The Carrico “STEM” Center, the Naumes Center for Fine Arts & Athletics and the St. Mary's Chapel — those are all things that would not have been possible without “Frank’s vision,” the school’s spokeswoman, Erin Maxson Kiene, said during a tour of campus Monday.

But that vision is so much more than bricks and mortar, Phillips explained in an interview covering his tenure from librarian in 1989 to his appointment as president in 2005.

Aside from turning around “stagnant” enrollment and increasing it to over 500 students, St. Mary’s School has an international presence, thanks to connections Phillips made that year with a Chinese university, which sent a professor to teach at St. Mary’s.

“One thing led to another, and soon friends of the university president wanted to send their children here, so we started a boarding program,” Phillips said.

Now, the school boasts 60 international students, who live in a dorm room on the Medford campus. The program enrolls children of “very influential” people from China.

St. Mary’s capped its boarding program in Medford, Phillips said, leading the institution to open six campuses in China when international student demand grew.

St. Mary’s School is unique among private schools in the state for this kind of international program.

“It flies under the radar here locally,” Phillips said. “I don’t think people are aware of it.”

The international program at St. Mary’s is among many things the departing president is proud of.

“This valley is very insulated — it’s a little bowl surrounded by mountains and the students don’t get out of it,” Phillips said. “So it’s a tremendous opportunity kids might get in New York or Los Angeles, but they don’t get it in Oregon.”

Aside from everything, the departing president boasts that the Vatican signed off on letting go of its lease on the Medford property and letting the school have it in 2015.

“We now own this campus,” Phillips said. “Even though that’s not as obvious an accomplishment as seeing a bunch of international students walking around or shiny new buildings, the school owning its property is probably the biggest improvement. I’m glad to be able to hand it off to Ryan.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.