Long before Ken Siderius came out of retirement to pitch in as principal of Edgerton Elementary, he had made his mark on Kalispell and its schools — and the broader Flathead Valley — in countless ways.
On Thursday night, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce honored him for those contributions by naming him this year’s Great Chief. A record crowd was on hand at the Chamber’s 105th annual banquet to hear of Siderius’ accomplishments.
Siderius, the Chamber’s 38th Great Chief, is a home-grown hero in just about every way.
He comes from a long line of a family grounded in the Flathead in more ways than just farmland in the Lower Valley area.
“Growing up on a farm has taught him to respect the land and our environment,” Cathryn McDevitt wrote in support of Siderius’ nomination. “As an avid sportsman, he has been a champion for policies that protect and preserve what is truly special about this area.”
In his long career as an educator, he spotted yet more treasures that he protected, preserved and encouraged — children.
As a teacher, coach, athletic director, director of personnel, elementary principal and superintendent in Kalispell schools throughout the years — and a stint in Alaska — he earned a reputation for catching kids doing the right thing and keeping no record of their wrongs.
He was instrumental in creating the Laser alternative school in 1975.
“These students have gone on to all kinds of careers, local positions, colleges, etc.,” Laser High School Director Kevin Calnan wrote, “all because a man we call ‘Sider’ cared to dream.”
After 34 years in education, Siderius retired the first time in 1991, but returned in 1996 to fill in for Edgerton Principal Karen Morrison. When her illness proved fatal, he stayed on.
He learned the names of his 550 students by visiting every class every day, and got to know most of their parents by greeting them as they picked up their children after class.
“I particularly remember the special relationship he developed with David, a second-grader who had recently moved here from Bogota, Colombia,” B.J. Carlson wrote in her nomination. “To watch the excitement in David’s eyes when Mr. ‘S’ arrived for their time together was, in a word, heartwarming.”
“He fulfilled his responsibilities by always keeping the focus on the students who depended upon his judgment,” McDevitt said. “Ken is the ultimate people person.”
That played out in the Special Education department, where “he had a rare ability to acquire funds and [to build] accurate and accountable budgets,” wrote Patrick Lee, who taught special education under Siderius’ administration.
He sought and won funding for a wood shop and greenhouse, a gas station and garage for vocational training, and an elevator to get disabled students to the second floor of Flathead High School.
“Kalispell was on the cutting edge of providing these types of classes thanks to his ability to identify and secure grants,” Lee said. When grant funding ran out, “Ken convinced the school board of the necessity to maintain these classes.”
Siderius carried his administrative gift to many other arenas, but combined it with his people skills to great effect while working with the Flathead Land Trust.
He joined its board of directors in 2003, became president in 2004 “and has been volunteering tirelessly on our behalf ever since,” the Land Trust staff wrote in their nomination.
Weaver Slough, Church Slough, farmland conservation easements and a 700-acre easement along the Flathead River came about because of his work.
“When projects seem unachievable,” former Land Trust board member Bill Dakin wrote, “Ken would speak softly of this valley, this home for generations of his forbears, and of the obligation we have to preserve some of its beauty and bounty for generations to come.”
That seems to be the bottom line for Siderius — the people.
“Ken is part of this community and knows its people and their values firsthand,” the Land Trust staff wrote.
“He interacts with people first and foremost as a fellow community member, as a person who grew up here, raised his children here — as someone who has invested most of his life and resources in this valley. He brings integrity and common sense to any relationship and we could not ask for a better ambassador.”
The mark he left on his students and teaching staff is the mark he has left on the land he loves.
“He is a man of action, of unwavering optimism and a dedication to standing up for what is right,” the staff wrote.
“He makes all of us want to follow in his footsteps.”
Reporter Nancy Kimball can be reached at 758-4483 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org