In the office of Deerfield School Principal Verlin Gilbert, a sprawling philodendron plant covers a table on the north end of the room before stretching along the room's west wall to grace a filing cabinet, a desk and yet another set of filing drawers.
The plant says a lot about Gilbert's many years as Deerfield principal, a position he will relinquish when he retires this summer.
By virtue of its length, the philodendron seems to have been in the office forever. In a real way, Gilbert has been at Deerfield forever. He's been the school's only principal since it opened 24 years ago.
Gilbert said he actually was named principal of the school in 1967, which was before the school itself had been named. Gilbert had been with the district since 1956, serving as a Lawrence junior high school teacher, a Cordley School teacher, acting principal at Schwegler School and finally principal at Cordley School before moving to Deerfield.
Gilbert said several months of preparation preceded the opening of Deerfield.
"During the summer of 1968, there was quite an extensive workshop with the staff members," he recalled.
NEVERTHELESS, he said, things weren't quite ready when Deerfield's doors opened on Sept. 3, 1968: Not all the school furniture had been put together. Many rooms were lacking the amenities of carpeting and blackboards.
"It was kind of like moving into an unfinished house," Gilbert said.
Hillcrest teacher Daphne Payne, who taught at Deerfield the first seven years it was open, remembers that first day.
"I remember trying to teach with the men laying the carpeting and putting up the chalkboards, but we were able to adjust," Payne said.
Lucile Stalcup, who also began teaching at Deerfield the day it opened, said, "We did a lot of improvising, and because Verlin was such a good administrator, in spite of everything, it went smoothly."
Back in those early days, Gilbert said, Deerfield School, located at 101 Lawrence Ave., truly lived up to its name. For one thing, he said, deer were spotted in the vicinity of the school on numerous occasions.
Also, he said, "They just built the school right out in the middle of an alfalfa field. There was literally nothing out here."
For several months, a temporary road from Peterson Road to the school's back door was the principal means of access to Deerfield. Then, in November 1968, Lawrence Avenue was completed and provided access to the front door of the school.
THE PHILODENDRON in Gilbert's office symbolizes Gilbert's principalship in another way. Just as the plant has not resigned itself to occupying a small, comfortable niche in the office, Gilbert, too, has proved he's willing to leave familiar territory and try new educational strategies.
"He's the kind of principal who feels comfortable with allowing his staff to be creative and do innovative things," said Tom Christie, who has taught at Deerfield for 15 years. "He's very supportive of trying to find the best program that teachers can use to reach children better."
Cathy Ebmeier, Deerfield librarian, pointed to Gilbert's adaptation to computers, which became a classroom tool late in Gilbert's 36 years as an educator.
"He's been very supportive in terms of getting a mini computer lab started in the library and in the fifth- and sixth-grade wing of the school," Ebmeier said. "He has been willing to move with educational progress, which doesn't always happen with someone who's been in education as long as he has."
Deerfield has been unique from its inception with its "open spaces" format, which now allows three teachers at each grade level to conduct their classes together in one large area.
"IN ISOLATED classrooms, a teacher has very little opportunity to interact with another teacher, other than at the end of the school day or the beginning of the school day," Gilbert said. "Here, there's an opportunity for teachers to share information professionally and to visit with each other about students and their strengths and weaknesses. You get more than one perspective.
"Most professionals do not work in isolation, but in self-contained classrooms, as a teacher, you do."
Deerfield also is different from many others in that its fifth- and sixth-graders rotate among teachers of specialized subject areas such as math, science and social studies. Those teachers also work together in open spaces.
Gilbert said that setup speaks to current educational philosophy.
"I think there's a lot more movement right now toward making sure you have integration of subject areas," Gilbert said. "Kids need to understand that the subjects are all interrelated."
Gilbert also has provided Deerfield a somewhat unique atmosphere by decorating the school with a wide assortment of plants. A towering fern and a huge hibiscus are among the many plants found in the library.
"I guess you'd like to hope that they soften the interior. School needs to be user friendly, and plants certainly can add a lot to that," Gilbert said. "To me, the library has taken on a different image."
SEVERAL Deerfield staffers have helped make the school a greener place as well.
"I guess the feeling caught on and they brought the plants in," Gilbert said. "I think there's a lot to be said about the care of plants. You really need to apply that same care to the children and staff and parents you work with."
Payne said Gilbert did just that during her seven years of teaching at Deerfield.
"I liked his gentle manner as far as talking and discussing different ideas with teachers," Payne said. "He was really concerned about you as a faculty member and was pleased to meet the family of the faculty. He was genuinely interested in people."
Stalcup said Gilbert's concern for the children was always evident.
"They always came first,'' she said, ``and he was a friend and a helpmate to all boys and girls."
Aidan Loveland, a sixth-grader at Deerfield, said, "He never gets mad at anyone. He handles things really well."
Aidan said she's heard that even when students get into trouble, "He just talks to them and straightens things out, and he never overreacts. Everyone likes him."
Gilbert, 61, said he's seen the fruits of his labor in former students who are now adults.
"I'VE BEEN here long enough now that some of the children who attended school here are enrolling their children," Gilbert said. "That's been happening for the past few years."
Some of those former students have come to help Gilbert's family. David Vaughn, who graduated from Deerfield in 1980 and from Kansas University in 1991, recently helped Gilbert's daughter Sharna purchase a house through his job as loan originator at Columbia Savings Assn.
Vaughn recalled an incident in junior high school that illustrated to him Gilbert's concern for his students, past and present.
"He was looking at our grades in junior high school and still keeping track of us. He told me, `I took a look at your grades, and I see that you're still hanging in there,'" Vaughn said. "I thought that was impressive. You don't feel like you were just part of the flock."
Over the years, the school's flock grew considerably. While about 335 students were at Deerfield in 1968-69, approximately 525 students attend the school now. A 19,992-square-foot addition made to the north side of the building in 1987 allowed the school to provide three classrooms per grade-level instead of two.
GILBERT SAID that while he would like to stick around to see future changes at the school, his philodendron tells him it might be time to take a break.
"I always said that when it went clear around the room, it was probably time for me to hang my hat up," Gilbert said. "Probably if it were stretched out, it would go around the room."
Gilbert said he now should be able to spend more time with his wife, Suzanne, his children, Sharna, Dana and Darren, and his grandchildren, Tyler and Alex.
While a person gets to know a building fairly well after 24 years, Gilbert said it's not the physical structure of the building that he'll miss so much.
"The physical facility is important, but if people come into this building and there are no children here, especially if they're trying to get a feel for Deerfield and for open space, I say, `You need to come back when the kids are here,'" Gilbert said. "Really what makes it is children, staff and parents. It's the sounds and voices of the people that really make it, and I think what I'm going to miss will be that."
And if he could do it all over again, Gilbert said he wouldn't change much of anything.
"I told somebody the other day that if I were going out to write a job description, looking for something that I wanted to do, I don't think I could have found anything that I would love more."