Some people who retire after lengthy careers in education simply want to find a quiet place to relax and enjoy some down time. Others want to be alone with their favorite hobby, whether it be gardening, reading, playing golf, or cooking.

Others might just want to take a long nap.

But for Cindy Hay?

It should come as no surprise to those who have worked under the principal at Thomas Elementary School that she’s doing none of the above. Two days after the 2021-22 school year ends and her 23-year career in the Abilene ISD comes to a close, she’ll be on a plane to Hawaii with 16 other people: her husband, Scott, and their four children and spouses and seven grandchildren. Seventeen people in all will be making the flight to Hawaii and the Aulani Disney Resort.

“We’re taking everyone there for six days, and then Scott and I are staying two more days after that to hang out and relax,” said Hay, who is retiring this year after eight years as the Thomas principal.

It’s the end of a career that saw her start as a sixth-grade math teacher at Madison, then assistant principal at Clack Middle School, and finally settling in as the principal at Thomas prior to the start of the 2014-15 school year.

In those eight years, she’s become a beloved principal and mentor to her staff and a trusted campus leader for the Thomas community. She’s not afraid to take out the trash, help in the cafeteria, move chairs, or do whatever task might be needed at the time.

“As the leader, I want to show my staff and students that nothing is too big or too small for the leader,” she said. “The more visible I am, the better example I’ll be. My dad had a part-time job in the custodian at the church we attended, and I would go with him on Saturdays and help clean the bathrooms and take out the trash. That’s just the way I was raised, and I’ve continued to do that as the principal.”

That hands-on leadership style was evident to everyone when she began at Thomas, including to Nikki Kittley, who served as the Thomas counselor during Hay’s tenure before retiring after the 2020-21 school year.

“I first met Cindy when she was interviewing for the Thomas principal position,” Kittley said. “As she spoke, I knew that she was exactly what Thomas needed. She far exceeded my expectations. Watching her serve and lead is awe-inspiring. She has a servant’s heart and searches out ways to help and support. She’s a listener … the kind that stops and gives you her complete attention. I never once felt like she wasn’t available when I needed something. She wants every person whether student, staff member, parent, caregiver, or visitor to feel cared for and supported. When there is a need, she provides. She bakes cookies and makes hot sauce for every staff meeting. I have seen her pay for students’ medical bills, tutor kids in her office, cover teachers’ classes, mop floors, give parents rides, buy Christmas presents, take meals to families, give anonymous donations, and pray with and for those who need it. She is the epitome of a Christian leader, and my life has been blessed from the moment we met.”

It’s that style that has made the Thomas community more of a family than a school campus.

“I came to Thomas as a teacher the same year she did as our principal,” said Instructional Coordinator, Kimberly Ferguson. “From the beginning, I was impressed with her fast pace, incredible memory, and organizational skills. More importantly, her heart for people is what stood out. Watching her take a genuine interest in students, their families, and the staff was another example of why she’s loved by so many. I was lucky enough to be hired as the Instructional Coordinator in 2019 and that’s when I got a front-row seat to what makes her such a great leader. She moves seamlessly throughout the campus putting out fires, loving on students, correcting them when necessary, and encouraging staff, all the while meeting the daily demands and deadlines that come with the job. In her eight years at Thomas, she has created a family culture with strong instructional leadership but never sacrificed her faith or convictions.”

It’s that faith that has led Hay through her life and has carried over into how she leads Thomas.

“We’ve become a family here because we’re at work more during the school year than we’re at home,” Hay said. “We live life together, and we live it through the joys and sorrows and those relationships just continue to build. We pray together before each faculty meeting and share joys and concerns. I’m proud of the family atmosphere that we’ve built here at Thomas.”

It’s that kind of passion that has engendered great loyalty among her staff.

“When I think of Cindy Hay, the first thing that comes to mind is strength … strength in character, strength in leadership, and strength in her faith and morals,” said Thomas campus secretary Holly Joyce. “And even physical strength. She is tiny but fierce!  She is the best kind of leader because she is a servant first. She loves God, her family, and us! I will miss her and her leadership. I always hate when she isn’t on campus because when Cindy was at the helm – no matter what came at us – we knew it was going to be okay.”

Leaving her staff, her students, and the Thomas community won’t be easy, Hay said, mainly because she won’t have the chance to make an impact on those groups in retirement.

“I hope my seven grandkids (two in Nacogdoches, two in Granbury, and three in Abilene) can fill in where I’ll miss the students,” she said. “I get hugs in the morning when I’m in the cafeteria, or they might have something to tell me. I’ll miss that interaction. I’ve seen students from Clack or Madison that I’ve interacted with in later years, and it’s great to see them become productive young men and women. I’ll look forward to seeing these kids at Thomas now do the same.”

It’s that drive to help students succeed that has kept Hay’s fire burning for 23 years.

“I’ve loved every job I’ve had in the AISD, and that’s because of the people,” she said. “Leaving all of that behind is what will be difficult on the last day. When I first got to Thomas, we had a family come in with a little girl. The dad looked at me and said, ‘Oh, no; you’re Mrs. Hay.’ I said I was and asked him to remind me of his name, which he did. And then he said, ‘Mrs. Hay, my daughter is nothing like me.’ He was one of the most difficult students I had at Madison. But he was married with two kids and his daughter was at Thomas for three or four years and was amazing. It was neat to reconnect with that young man and see how he’d turned his life around.

“I had another parent that has kids here now that visited my office more than a few times as a student at Clack,” Hay continued. “But her kids are amazing and well-mannered and doing great. It blesses my heart to see those kids become parents and now they have kids in the district.”

It’s in those moments where she sees former students who have turned their lives around when Hay’s career choice is re-affirmed.

“I’ve always tried to treat the students like I would my own kids,” she said. “We do a lot of conflict resolution in my office, and sometimes all I have to do is turn on my ‘mom voice’ and that does the trick. But I try to share my values with them as well about not lying, getting along with others, and saying kind words. I believe this is the mission God has given me in my life, and for the last eight years that mission has been the kids and the staff at Thomas.”

So where will Hay be in August when she would normally be preparing for another school year? Well, for someone who is high-energy and finds it hard to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time, it should come as no surprise that she’ll be on the go.

“Nikki Kittley and I are going to fly to Maine for a few days in August,” Hay said. “I’ve been to 47 states, and the last three I haven’t visited – Main, Vermont, and New Hampshire – we’re going to visit on this trip. I’m sure I’ll reflect on what a wonderful experience it has been for 23 years, including eight at Thomas. But I’m looking forward to going to see some places I’ve never seen.”