Cary High’s principal leaves for central office

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2013 

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— The halls of Cary High School will be a different place when the doors open again at the end of summer. The school’s beloved jokester of a principal, Doug Thilman, accepted a new job last week as the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.

In a school already known for tradition, Thilman, 42, added a few of his own during six school years at the helm.

“He would have roaming pep rallies. The band would walk through the halls and play the fight song, and he would wear the bass drum and beat on it,” said assistant principal Steven Hayes. “He wasn’t a very good drum player, either, but he liked to beat on the drum.”

That accessible, fun-loving approach to the job defined Thilman’s career at Cary High School. Once he let the baseball team shave his head. And he appeared one year in an inflatable sumo wrestler suit for the usually buttoned-up occasion of Senior Night.

A well-placed Thilman joke, said Gaby Ngangola, could defuse the stress of speeches and public events.

“He knows what to say at the right time,” said Ngangola, the outgoing senior class president. Like many recent graduates, he also had Thilman as principal at West Cary Middle School.

A native of Indiana, Thilman first worked in Wake County as a teacher at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School, and he later was an assistant principal at Millbrook High School. He was modest and almost self-effacing as he looked back on his career at Cary High.

“It probably took me about a day to learn that this is a place that is special and unique because of the history and tradition. My job was just to not mess that up, but more importantly to make sure it stays in the forefront,” he said.

Cary High became the state’s first public high school in 1907 and moved to its current location in 1960, educating generations of Caryites along the way. Its best-known tradition may be the painting of a nearby water tower each year in honor of the graduating class.

Doug Thilman arrived early most mornings, before the rush of kids, to plan for the day. Next he’d head for one of his usual spots – the bus lot, or the front doors, or the car pool lane – to greet students. And then began the daily chaos of high school.

With “2,300 kids, 200 adults on 36 acres – you never know what’s going to come up,” Thilman said. “That’s really one of the joys of being a principal.”

He took a “holistic” approach to students’ problems, accounting for situations at home or in other parts of school as he tried to resolve fights or academic troubles. To do that, he earned students’ trust through his showmanship, his jokes and his earnest interest.

“The relationships are what makes the place what it is,” Thilman said.

Of course, he also enforced his rules, often patrolling the grounds in his trademark golf cart. He was lenient but no pushover, others said

“He followed Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy,” Hayes said. “Your biggest obstacles, your biggest critics, perhaps, are the people that you bring in and are close to you.”

Thilman says he’ll miss working with his students in his new job, but he’s looking forward to a career move, and he’ll continue to practice those people skills as he manages teachers and staff. In his new role, he’ll oversee recruitment and hiring for the entire Wake County Public School System and its roughly 18,000 employees

Back on Walnut Street, Thilman’s stories may just join the many legends that have accrued for a half-century at the modern Cary High School campus. Maybe the principal will be remembered for his fulfilled promise to kiss a pig after a successful fundraiser, or for leading his staff on scooters into an assembly as a prank. Or just for being Doug Thilman.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or

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