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Joel says ‘pivot points’ brought him to Lincoln and keep him here

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The Joels and Tim Brusnahan

Linda Joel and her husband, LPS Superintendent Steve Joel, and daughter Jessica (at right) stand alongside Program Chair Tim Brusnahan at Monday's Executive Club luncheon.

Almost 50 years ago, he arrived in Nebraska for his first year of college, not knowing if he intended to stay or if things this far from the East Coast would be to his liking. Now, with retirement pending at the end of June, he’s not leaving. Dr. Steve Joel would consider that a pivot point.

Since Joel took over as the Lincoln Public Schools superintendent in 2010, he’s been making annual, and sometimes twice a year, visits with the Lincoln Executive Club. On Monday, the day after Mother’s Day, he made his final and celebrated visit to the club luncheon at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Lincoln in the Haymarket district with his wife of 45 years, Linda. Incidentally, she is also from New York and a transplant to Nebraska.

Joel regaled the crowded room at the hotel with what only slightly remains of his Long Island, New York accent by telling stories and, of course, lessons he’s learned and shared over his remarkable career in the Midwest. By the way, all was accomplished with his contagious sense of humor.

Let’s start with the phone call from his soon-to-be college alma mater. The story goes, in the summer of 1972, he was hanging out at home with his high school friends that he planned on following to a local community college in Long Island. Until his dad answered the prescient phone call.

“I’m in the backyard with my buddies, and my father comes to the back door and says, ‘Hey, you dummy, phone call from some Dope College.’ True story, I can’t make that up,” Joel recalled of the recruitment call. “So my dad adds, ‘Sounds like your kind of college.’ I got on the phone, and it’s the football coach at Doane College. Literally, a week later, my mother and father drop me off at midnight in Crete, Nebraska. And it’s like, today, you file child abuse charges. It’s that kind of move.”

Joel said that his entrance to college was less than gratifying. He said he was miserable and had a hard time fitting in and was ready to leave. But when a group of seniors took him under their wing and showed him what “snipe hunting” was all about, his attitude made a 180.

“That changed my life. I said, ‘You know what, maybe I’ll give this a year and see what it yields,’” Joel said before turning to a lesson. “I will tell you as you look at your journey through life, in each of our lives there are about seven to 10 of those pivot points that hit us when we never expect it. We just don’t. You can’t plan for them.”

Joel asked how many in the room would have accomplished what they have today without deviating from what they had initially set out to do, without questioning the things that occur during their life journey.

“It’s because we have people that step into our lives, or we have events that change how we think about life and our journey is altered,” he said. “You can’t run from challenges. You have to lean into those challenges. You see, in my world and in my business as superintendent, I’ve always looked at those challenges as opportunities to stand up for what I believe, without hesitation or question.”

And without hesitation or question, Joel leaned into something new that his wife Linda had brought up to him recently, rather innocuously, as they head toward retirement and their fine laid plans.

“A couple weekends ago, she proudly announced to me out of the blue, ‘I’ve entered your name into the husband portal,’” Joel related with a big grin, in reference to the collegiate athletic transfer portal. “So, I’m in the husband portal now, and I don’t know what that means.”

Despite the humor and nevertheless, Joel shared that his retirement plans include staying in Lincoln, changing his workout times from 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., and some travel, which this summer includes New York, then back home to Nebraska.

“We’re super excited about just continuing to be a part of the community,” Joel said about what he and Linda’s plans are. “I’ve got a TeamMate that’s going to be a junior, and we’re going to stay involved with being part of the community and community activities. In my opinion, this is the greatest city in the country. There’s so much good going on here, and we just want to continue to enjoy the benefits of this city. Lincoln is a different place.”

In referencing the difference in Lincoln, Joel reflected upon what he considers another pivot point for him: Watching and experiencing how well the city responded to help LPS recover from the fire at the main office, which destroyed the building near 58th and O Streets in 2011, a year into Joel’s tenure.

“We lost everything in the fire. We didn’t have a pencil,” Joel said. “But then the people of Lincoln were wonderful. I said, ‘Holy cow, is this what community does?’ We ended up with way more than what we needed because people responded.”

He also said that how the LPS faculty and staff responded to the COVID-19 pandemic exemplified what he considered a pivot point because of what it required.

“At the end of the day, I will tell you, I believe in Lincoln, Nebraska,” he said. “The support for education is better here than any place else, and we see it time and time again.”

The author, Tim Brusnahan, is program chair for the Lincoln Executive Club and employed my Marco.

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