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After decades of guiding students, St. Paul Central High School principal bids farewell

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Oulia Yang (right) and her two sons get a picture with Mary Mackbee
Oulia Yang (right) and her two sons get a picture with St. Paul Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee during a retirement celebration for Mackbee on Saturday outside the school. Yang worked for Mackbee for 10 years ending in 2015, mostly as a school counselor.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Mary Mackbee's many fans call her a mom-like institution. 

Oulia Yang worked for the St. Paul Central High School principal for 10 years, ending in 2015, mostly as a school counselor.

"She loves us as if we are her own children," Yang said Saturday at a celebration for Mackbee on her retirement after 26 years as principal at Central and a half-century with the St. Paul district.

"She is not only just our boss, but she is teaching us kind of everyday life as well, mentoring us," Yang said after getting a picture with Mackbee.

Yang said Mackbee will leave a big hole at Central. "She's an amazing, incredible person."

A sign at St. Paul Central congratulates Principal Mary Mackbee
A sign at St. Paul Central High School congratulates Principal Mary Mackbee during a retirement celebration for Mackbee on Saturday.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

A lot of people at Saturday's community gathering wanted pictures with Mackbee, 74, in her red Central High sweater.

Stepping aside from receiving well wishes for a moment, Mackbee said all those years of working with teenagers and the drama and angst surrounding them never really got to her.

"You know, there were days when you questioned whether or not I needed to be working this long into my age, but no," Mackbee said.  "I think I'm a problem solver, so that part of the job I liked."

Kardel Arnett will graduate from St. Paul Central High School on Tuesday
Kardel Arnett, 18, will graduate from St. Paul Central High School on Tuesday. He stopped by a retirement celebration for Principal Mary Mackbee at the school on Saturday. Arnett said Mackbee was always there for students who needed her help.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Kardel Arnett, 18, will graduate from Central on Tuesday. He said Mackbee was always there for students who needed her help.

"If they need help with, like, lunch, she helps them. If they need help with books, like paying them off," he said. "She helps them if they just need someone to talk to."

No matter what problem a student might need help with, he said, "she's (just) kind of there." 

Dawn Pauls' two sons attended Central. She and her husband Jeff were among the Mary Mackbee fans at Saturday's celebration outside the St. Paul school.

Dawn Pauls said Mackbee is calm and peaceful, and that it's hard for her to image how she managed to be so composed given her challenging job. 

"She commands a room and walks in and you just feel like everything's going to be all right," Pauls said.

Jeff and Dawn Pauls congratulate St. Paul Central Principal Mary Mackbee
Jeff and Dawn Pauls congratulate St. Paul Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee (center) during a retirement celebration for Mackbee on Saturday outside the school.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Retired Central High social studies teacher Dave Greener said Mackbee got along with staff.

"She was approachable," Greener said. "I don't know (if) in all places, whether or not you can go and see the boss just about whenever you want to."

But Greener said that at Central, with Mackbee at the helm, the staff could do just that.

Mackbee's replacement has not yet been named. She says she'll stick around for several weeks to help with the transition. Mackbee said her advice to whoever moves into the principal's office she's leaving after more than a quarter-century is to save up their energy.

"Sleep a lot because you're going to need your energy during the day and in some nights," Mackbee said. "It's a big school, a lot of activities, a lot of opportunities to be involved with kids' activities (and the) community."