Epiphany’s James Hayes steps down after 38 years
By Sabina Mollot
On Friday, June 17, James Hayes, the principal of the Epiphany School for the past 38 years, had intended to treat his last day on the job like any other — by standing out front and greeting the students as they came in.
But this time, when he opened the door, there was a crowd of nearly 200 people outside — students, parents, alumni and neighbors. Before he was fully aware what was going on, the flash mob of fans then broke into song, belting out “I’d Do Anything” from the Broadway show “Oliver.”
They ended with, “We’d do anything for you, Jim, anything. For you mean everything to us.”
According to a parent, assembling the surprise serenade was necessary if the school wanted to give him any kind of sendoff, since he hadn’t wanted a party.
Nonetheless, Hayes seemed to appreciate the gesture, as students and alumni from decades ago lined up for photos with him in front of the school building on East 22nd Street.
One well-wisher was actor Misha Shatravka, who recalled getting expelled by Hayes. The expulsion, the self-admitted former trouble maker recalled, was “the best thing in my entire life. I became a different person. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t get kicked out.”
He acknowledged having deserved the ouster. “I never did my homework. I was flunking my classes. I was a class clown. I slid down the stairs on my backpack,” said Shatravka. He added, “I’m so grateful to Mr. Hayes.” Another life changing moment was when, at 20, he got into a motorcycle accident in front of the school, and ended up in a coma. Three years later, Shatravka’s in good health, but now instead of being bad, he plays bad guys on TV and in commercials. “I play drug dealers and criminals now. Russian mafia,” he said with a smile.
Shatravka’s mother, Waterside resident Catherine Fitzpatrick, said she’s also grateful to Hayes for putting the fear of God into her then-wayward son. Recalling how Hayes would personally take him down to detention each day until he “finally expelled him, that sent him on a life of correcting his ways,” Fitzpatrick said.
She added, “If some kid didn’t have his socks on straight, he would say, ‘Pull up your socks.’ He was that figure of authority you need. My daughter also went here. I’m a single mom, so I’m glad they had this school.”
Another visitor was Liz Caro, who actually had traveled from Hawaii to do so. Caro, a parent and Epiphany graduate who said Hayes had become a friend, said, “I wouldn’t miss giving him the salute. He’s not just a principal. There aren’t many men or women like Jim in the education system that can do what he can do. You could come up to him with any question. He is the true meaning of hospitality in a school system.”
Yet another guest, Epiphany alumna Agnes Teng, whose children attend the school today, said she remembered how Hayes was the principal during her days as a student. The last time she’d checked though, he was just one of two faculty members she recognized from 35 years ago. “He was at the door to greet us every morning,” said Teng, a Kips Bay resident. “His demeanor is approachable, but serious. He’s done great things for the school.”
One improvement Hayes is credited with is making the school profitable and expanding it at a time when so many Catholic schools are being closed.
Hayes had started a foundation, which is run by parent volunteers and benefits the school with additions like smartboards and teachers’ assistants.
Hayes will actually be continuing to work with the foundation in the future as its president, despite his leaving as principal being referred to as a retirement.
“He’s been wanting to retire for years but they wouldn’t let him,” noted a school mom and volunteer, Cathy Caulfield. “The Archdiocese doesn’t want him to. He’s a victim of his own success.”
Caulfield said it was the school’s reputation that led her own two children there — even before they were born.
“My husband said, ‘We’re getting married and sending our kids to Epiphany School,’” she said.
Caulfield’s husband Bruce then quipped, “We were just dating.” But the prediction proved accurate. The couple, who live in Tudor City, ended up getting married and joining the Epiphany Church. Seats at the school were at a premium, explained Cathy, and being parishioners gave their family an edge. Their kids are now second and third graders at Epiphany.
“We love the parish,” Cathy added, and on Hayes, she remarked, “It’s the end of an era.”
Bruce added, “The man knows how to build community.”
Still, the Caulfields, like other parents at the school on Friday, also had words of praise for the incoming principal, who’s currently the assistant principal, Stuyvesant Town resident Kate McHugh.
McHugh, who was at the school’s other location on East 28th Street while the morning gathering was happening, later said she was glad that Hayes was staying on to help fundraise “and also to provide guidance and advice when we need it.”
McHugh will have two children attending the school in September. She began her career at Epiphany as a science teacher 15 years ago and switched to an administrative role seven years ago. The new vice principal at the 22nd Street campus (for the lower grades) is Mary Jane Higgins, also a Stuy Town resident.
Meanwhile, back at the sidewalk gathering, between shaking hands and giving hugs, Hayes, a West Side resident, at a couple of moments appeared close to tearing up.
Asked for his thoughts on the turnout, he said, “It’s overwhelming; it really is. I’m the one who should be thanking them.”
He added that he was looking forward to helping fundraise over the next few years, but otherwise, “I’ll let the new guys do their thing,” he said.
“It’s been a pleasure serving you,” he told the crowd at one point. “And now it’s time for school.”
Epiphany, which was established in 1888, currently has 560 students enrolled with tuition ranging from $8,100-$9,000 a year.
In recent years, many more of the students have been coming from the Kips Bay and Murray Hill neighborhoods as well as Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village and Gramercy. In the fall, the school will be introducing a program for two-year-olds.