Principal Rakoczy led with humility, dignity and love

Monday, July 30, 2018 - Updated: 8:32 am

By Paula A. Smith Correspondent

Janet Salley Rakoczy, a teacher and principal in Catholic schools for 46 years, died of pneumonia Feb. 12 at age 66. She was honored in May with a posthumous Golden Apple Award.

The award was presented by Bishop David Zubik and accepted by her husband, Al. The honor recognizes outstanding teaching and leadership contributions of educators serving in Catholic schools. A $6,000 grant is provided with the award through the generosity of the Donahue Family Foundation.

Cindy Baldrige, principal of SS. Peter and Paul School in Beaver, who was Janet’s friend and colleague for 20 years, nominated her for the award. In her letter to the award committee, Baldrige described Janet’s love for generations of young students and the virtues of humility and dignity that defined her.

Baldrige related Janet’s ongoing participation on school committees, mentoring new principals, supporting teachers and her pursuit for changes to improve schools. “She wanted every child to be able to receive a Catholic education,” Baldrige said.

“You have led by example,” said Baldridge, reading from the letter to attendees at the May 29 dinner. “You have walked in the steps of Jesus and you have inspired us to follow.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Janet taught at St. Sylvester School in Brentwood for 17 years.

She earned master’s degrees in education and school administration from Carlow University and served as principal at St. Catherine of Siena School in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood for seven years, and at St. John Bosco Academy (formerly Brookline Regional Catholic) in the city’s Brookline neighborhood for 22 years.

Throughout her career, Janet demonstrated excellence in teaching, professionalism and leadership with faith, devotion and a strong commitment to the values of Catholic education.

Once, when her husband suggested she apply for a principal’s position in a nearby public school, she said, “I work for sanctifying grace.”

Father James Bachner, administrator of the Brookline and Beechview parishes, said Janet was sharp, definitely lived her faith and was an inspiration to many people.

“She will be remembered for her dedication to the school,” he said. “It was all about serving God and God’s children.”

Janet’s faith in God and desire to pass it on to students was admired by a friend and colleague of 26 years, Sister Delia McNeirney, former principal of St. Rosalia School in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood. They met when Janet became principal of St. Catherine of Siena and Sister Delia was named principal at St. Rosalia.

Sister Delia considered Janet not only an excellent example of a Catholic educator because of her participation in school liturgies as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and cantor, but because of her ability to draw out the best in her students and recognize their uniqueness.

Parents noticed Janet’s dedication to the students. She was the principal when Sue Meador’s daughter, Emily, was attending fifth through eighth grades at St. John Bosco. Janet would do anything for the kids, Meador said. She laughed about the day students taped Janet to a wall during Catholic Schools Week.

Besides having a sense of humor, it was Janet’s quiet way of listening that Rosemary Wyke, Janet’s cousin and a second-grade teacher at St. John Bosco, remembers about her.

Students knew “Miss Salley” would hear them out, said Amy Majetic, a kindergarten teacher at the school for 20 years. Janet advocated for those struggling academically, emotionally or with behavior problems, she said.

Janet’s leadership also focused on enhancing teaching methods, supplementing resources and updating classroom equipment. As technology became available, she introduced Smart Boards in every classroom, implemented computer classes, provided Google Chromebooks for students and held training sessions for faculty.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a close friend who worked with Janet at St. Catherine of Siena and St. John Bosco for 30 years, remembers her willingness to do anything to comfort and help others. She recalled fundraisers for a family whose home burned down in Carnegie and collecting toothbrushes for the poor in Guatemala.

“I think she loved to help people,” O’Connell said.

Janet’s younger sister, Judy Larose, who was a teacher of 38 years, attributes Janet’s love of people and generosity to their parents, Joan and Regis Salley.

Along with their younger sister, JoAnn Seddon, the family lived in a duplex with their maternal grandparents in Greenfield and worshiped at St. Rosalia every Sunday. All three daughters attended the parish grade and high school, and were taught by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“Service is who we are,” Larose said. “She really had a servant’s heart.

“She never put herself first. She always put others ahead of her,” she added.

When Janet’s best friend, Jackie Rakoczy, a music teacher at the former St. Basil School in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood, became ill, she was there for her. Jackie died in 1990, leaving her husband, Al, and two children, Megan and Tim, who were taught by Janet at St. Sylvester. Because of Al’s work schedule, she helped care for Tim, 11, after school.

“She really became a second mother to both my children,” Al said.

Janet and Al became close, fell in love, were engaged on Dec. 25, 2001, and married at St. Rosalia on Dec. 26, 2002.

Every spring, Al and Janet traveled to watch the Pirates train at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida, and attended other sporting events and family reunions.

One of Janet’s greatest joys was when Tim and his wife told her they planned to name their daughter “Salley June” after her when she was born.

“I never thought I’d be a grandma,” Janet had said. Salley was born March 19.

Despite her illness, Janet continued to maintain her daily responsibilities at school, with a little nudge from Al when it was time to go home.

“She never asked for anything,” he said. “She was willing to give all of herself to anyone and didn’t ask for anything in return.”

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