21 September 2023

Mr Fitz's farewell: Dapto High marks the emotional end of an era as beloved principal retires after 19 years

| Keeli Royle
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Retiring Dapto High Principal Andrew FitzSimons with wife Liz Cuninghame, daughter Vida and son Reuben.

Retiring Dapto High Principal Andrew FitzSimons with wife Liz Cuninghame, daughter Vida and son Ruben. Photo: Keeli Royle.

He’s been the heart and soul of Dapto High for the past two decades, but Andrew FitzSimons is finally hanging up his hat and calling time on his incredible career as principal and paving the way for the next generation.

It was an emotional day at Dapto as more than 1000 kids, teachers and parents gathered to farewell and thank Andrew and celebrate his countless contributions to a school that he loved so much.

“My life has peaked,” Andrew said. “I’ll never have a job quite like this again.”

“I’m leaving proud of what I’ve done but sad that it’s come to an end.”

While retirement had been on his radar for a while, he wasn’t sure that he was ready to let go until he was sure the school’s future would be in safe hands.

“It was a strange process, I’m nearly 72 so it’s been in my head and I’ve been the oldest principal on the patch for quite some time,” he said.

“I was actually on the panel to choose the new principal of Nowra High School, I was representing the Secondary Principals Council, we interviewed all these fantastic young men and women and I thought, actually all these wonderful people wanting to have a go, I could pass the baton with confidence.”

Andrew FitzSimons farewell at Dapto High.

Andrew FitzSimons has been praised by students and colleagues for his incredible contribution. Photo: Keeli Royle.

The sudden decision came as a surprise to his wife Liz.

“I was actually shocked, which is saying something because he’s talked about retirement for a while,” Liz said. “He suddenly rang and said he had big news when he was up at the principals’ conference and was like ‘I’m retiring next term.’

His children Vida and Ruben FitzSimons said this next adventure would show a whole new side of their dad.

“I think it will be exciting for him to figure out what he puts his focus towards next, he’s certainly not going to be sitting around with idle mind or hands,” Ruben said.

READ ALSO Teachers, school and a dad recognised for excellence in public education system

“It’s a vocation not a job, and he is ‘Andrew FitzSimons – Principal of Dapto High’, it’s hard for the 19 years to be able to separate those two things,” Vida said. “So it will be really interesting for him in this next phase of his life, figuring out honestly who he is without being the principal of Dapto High.”

But his family weren’t convinced the separation would be so simple, with Andrew’s enthusiasm for his school weaving through every part of his life, even while he was away.

“Every family holiday we’d see a park bench or a good water fountain and Dad would have us finding the manufacturer’s label to see if it could be good for Dapto High,” Vida said.

Kids standing in shape of 'Go Dapto!' on back oval.

More than 1000 students helped create this memorial photo for their outgoing principal. Photo: Tavian Matic/SkyMatic Drone Photography.

Andrew has always had a deep passion for his position, but his journey to becoming one of the most influential educators in the Illawarra was a long time in the making.

He learned from an early age the value of public education and there was always a side of him that wanted to lead.

“When I was in Year 7 I had a journal and I used to write down the names of the teachers I would employ in my school,” Andrew said.

But it wasn’t easy.

“It was 14 years between my first unsuccessful interview for principal and my only successful interview,” he said. “And there were moments during those 14 years that I thought those buggers are never going to be smart enough to choose me, but eventually a panel did and something clicked into place.”

And things continued to click as he connected with both kids and colleagues.

“We will never forget his spirit, he would always inspire us and excite us on days we weren’t feeling the best,” school captain Rea Murray said.

READ ALSO High school students given a leg up into early childhood education

“He’s a very passionate man and he has done a lot for this school,” Year 10 student Erin Simpson said. “He’s always got a solution to everything and he’s someone that doesn’t like to punish but he likes to praise more.”

Student support officer Thomas Pearson said Andrew was the best principal he’s ever encountered in the nine schools he has worked at.

“He genuinely loves the students, he genuinely cares about the staff, he cares about the community and their wellbeing,” Thomas said.

“He’ll ask the kids if they’ve had anything for breakfast, if they haven’t he’ll send them to me to feed them, if someone doesn’t have a jumper to wear he’ll make sure they have something for when it’s cold, he’s gone above and beyond to make sure they can get their white cards, he’s had students’ taxis paid for so they can attend counselling appointments.”

Andrew FitzSimons addressing Dapto High kids during an assembly.

Students and teachers performed speeches and songs to honour Andrew FitzSimons at a special assembly. Photo: Keeli Royle.

Deputy Principal Darcy Moore said Andrew always made sure the school was at the forefront of any innovations in the education system.

“If you think about the period from 2004 when he was first appointed through to 2023, the changes in society as well as the changes in education practice have been so massive, and even now he goes to conferences and brings back new ideas,” Darcy said.

“He’s absolutely indefatigable and if I had to use one word to describe Mr FitzSimons I would describe him as that, indefatigable.”

Next term a new principal will take over, and despite the massive shoes to fill, Andrew isn’t rushing to offer advice.

“When I arrived in 2004, I remember sitting there and office staff started to bring me stuff to sign and I thought ‘Andrew it’s working okay, don’t stuff it up, take your time, have a look around and get to know the place.’

“I don’t know our new principal well but everything I know about him is positive and I’m really concentrating on passing the baton,” Andrew added.

But don’t expect him to fade into the background.

“I’m hoping to keep working in public education, I chair our local landcare group, earth repair is on my list, I’m hoping to work with newly appointed principals as a mentor,” Andrew said.

“I said to my peers, if there’s a way I can assist, I will.”

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