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Lake Village principal retires after three years at helm

After 14 years in all, Mary Belle Tonos saying goodbye to St. Mary School

Published: April 22, 2015   
Mary Belle Tonos teaches fourth- and fifth-grade language arts in addition to serving as principal at St. Mary School in Lake Village. Upon her retirement this year, the school is also closing in May.

In second grade, little Mary Belle decided she was going to be a teacher. 

“I always loved school and learning. As a teacher you can impart all those things on a child’s life,” said Mary Belle Tonos, 72, principal at St. Mary School in Lake Village. “You know they say you have a teacher who taught you everything you need to know? That was my second-grade teacher.”

And maybe the kindergarten through fifth-grade students might look back and think of Tonos that same way as she prepares for retirement at the end of this school year. Tonos, who also teaches fourth- and fifth-grade language arts and attends Our Lady of the Lake Church, has served as principal since 2011.

“No, no,” Tonos laughed at whether not she thought she’d ever be principal. “Father called me because they didn’t have a principal. I was retired and had not planned to come back. I was supposed to be the interim principal until they found someone else, and I’m still here.”

“If you show the children you love them and are patient with them, they respond to that.” Mary Belle Tonos, retiring principal of St. Mary School in Lake Village

Though it wasn’t her goal, Tonos said the experience has strengthened her faith.

“I have loved being principal of this school; it’s been very rewarding for me to watch them grow and learn and become little individuals on their own,” Tonos said of the students. “I think that every day you have to realize you are an example of your faith for all people you come in contact with … when people rely on you to make the right decisions you realize you can’t make those decisions without God’s help.”

While growing up in Merigold, Miss., Tonos was not on the path to one day teach in a Catholic school. In fact, she was raised a Baptist and didn’t convert until she was 21.

“My husband (Joe) was a very devoted Catholic,” Tonos said. “I found what I had been looking for a long time” in the Catholic Church.

Tonos earned a bachelor’s degree in English and library science from Blue Mountain College in Mississippi. She worked as a librarian in Leland, Miss. She and her husband retired in the late 1990s in Little Rock. But instead of relaxing into retirement, St. Mary’s needed a religion teacher.

“All six of my children attended Catholic schools K through 12. My oldest son is a priest for the diocese in Jackson, Miss. When they needed someone here, I just felt like that was what God was calling me to do,” she said.

She taught religion for 10 years in all the grades at St. Mary.

“I liked really teaching them how to read the Bible stories and to dig into those with some depth and apply that to their lives,” Tonos said. “It opens their eyes to what we believe in the Catholic Church.”

As principal, Tonos is present with the students — in the classroom, at lunch, recess and just to lend a listening ear.

“If you show the children you love them and are patient with them, they respond to that,” Tonos said.

This kind of attitude has allowed Tonos to build a rapport with not only the students, but the faculty and parents.

“Being open to listening and trying to keep everything on an even keel and make the parents feel welcome in the school and making the children feel comfortable” is what she has strived to do, Tonos said.

While retired — again — Tonos said she and her husband will enjoy spending more time with their children and 13 grandchildren.

“My husband and I will have some time to spend together without me being totally focused on the school; it’s just time,” Tonus said. “We love gardening so we’ll be doing a lot of that. Just relax a little bit.”

Tonos said she wants every student to remember to put God first, that she loves them and she’ll cherish the memories.

“Every now and then there will be thank you notes on my desk that say, ‘You’ve made a difference in my life’ or … ‘I love you Mrs. Tonos.’ And all of those little things make all of this worthwhile,” she said.

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