Indian Prairie Unit District 204 Superintendent Kathy Birkett spent a career proving herself to people who doubted her as she rose through the educational ranks.
When she stepped up from high school gym teacher to elementary school assistant principal and principal, to founding principal of Neuqua Valley High School to assistant superintendent, and eventually to the top post as superintendent in 2009, former school board President Mark Metzger said Birkett always encountered parents who worried about someone with her credentials stepping into the new role.
But Thursday afternoon, as Birkett prepared for her last day with the district on Friday, she celebrated her 35-year career with people who understand and appreciate all she has accomplished.
"That right there is Kathy Birkett," school board President Lori Price said, pointing at the district's leader during a retirement ceremony Thursday at Neuqua. "Kathy Birkett is awesome and we are going to miss her."
Birkett said the day was bittersweet as she prepares to leave a district where she has poured her "heart and soul" for 35 years. But she did so with several proud accomplishments.
Leading two schools -- Neuqua and earlier in her career Steck Elementary -- when they first opened, helping the district weather the tough financial times of the recent recession, and seeing students achieve state championships and musical accolades are all among top memories, she said.
But as she told Waubonsie Valley High School seniors during a speech Wednesday night: "I have not worked a day in my life. It has not felt like work. It's really been a passion."
Birkett's name certainly will carry on in District 204. The school board on Monday unanimously voted to rename the Neuqua Valley freshman building, now known as the Gold Campus, as the "Kathryn J. Birkett Freshman Center."
"That's very kind and it fits well because freshman year in high school is so important," Birkett said.
"It fits me."
Metzger said Birkett spent each of her 35 years with the district "completely wowing" anyone she worked with and far surpassing expectations of her doubters.
Of all the superintendents across the state and country he's come in contact with, he said Birkett reigns supreme.
"You are by far the best at this job than I've ever seen anybody do," Metzger told Birkett on Thursday.
Birkett, 57, of Geneva, said her retirement will begin with taking the summer off before she begins consulting in the fall. She plans to attend some sporting events, concerts and plays in the district in the future and to stay involved in several volunteer capacities in and around the Naperville and Aurora communities.
She recently was named to the board of North Central College in Naperville, and she is on the board of the Naper Settlement and the YMCA of Greater Chicago.
She's involved with a Rotary club in Naperville, too.
After Birkett finishes her final day as superintendent, Karen Sullivan, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources, will step into the role.
Sullivan was chosen to lead the district after a nationwide search that drew a pool of roughly 60 applicants.