Meet Louise Phipps

“The purpose of life is to matter – to count, to stand for something, to have it make some difference that we lived at all,” is inscribed on an award that Louise Phipps received from the staff and student body at Mar Vista High School.

She shared, leaning forward in her chair, her manicured nails sparkling with silver glitter nail polish, that throughout her career in education and since retiring she has invested herself in making a positive difference.

Louise is active in the San Diego community. She just completed two years chairing the Operating Board for St. Paul’s Senior Services, is a member of the Executive Committee and recently became a member of the East County Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) Advisory Committee.

The youngest of five children, Louise grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father had a seventh-grade education and provided for his family by working in the printing department of a local newspaper.

“My family was poor,” Louise disclosed. “I lived in inner city Pittsburgh in a primarily African-American neighborhood. It was the only house my parents could afford. It was a tough area. One side was a Jewish neighborhood, then an Italian neighborhood and so on. To me, it was the way things were. I realized later what a huge gift it was. To get to Carnegie Library, which was about 11 blocks down the street, I walked through the world.”

Being immersed in a variety of cultures enriched her life. Though monetarily she and her family didn’t have a lot, Louise says she never felt poor.

“We were very loved,” she declared. “We ate. When there was a strike, and my father wasn’t earning any money, we ate. Maybe my parents didn’t, but my siblings and I always did. As a kid, you don’t think about those things.”

Louise was the first in her family to attend college. She enrolled at Penn State University with a double major – English, and history.

“My mother was 50 plus at the time, and money for college was a problem, so she said, ‘I have to get a job,’” Louise recalls. “That was easier said than done for women then. My mom decided to become a secretary because, at the time, that’s one of the jobs women did. The place that hired her was the Salvation Army. Ultimately she became the assistant to the divisional commander; my mother was pretty impressive.”

Louise often visited her mother at work. It gave her the opportunity to witness the impact of the Salvation Army.

“They do the very challenging work, dealing with the homeless, the addicted, those who have been marginalized,” Louise affirmed. “They are on the firing lines.”

Louise graduated from Penn State and became a teacher in Penn Hills. During that period she earned a master’s degree in secondary education, also from Penn State. Marriage to a naval officer took her to Florida, Texas, and finally California; she taught along the way. In San Diego, she began as an instructional aide in the Sweetwater Union High School District. In less than a year, when a teaching position became available, she accepted it. After experience as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist and a site coordinator of categorical programs, her principal suggested that she should consider becoming a principal.

Louise has always been strong, a characteristic she credits especially to the influence of her mother.

“I thought he was crazy,” Louise admitted, “but as fate would have it, because of negotiating I did on behalf of the district with Sacramento, I was offered an assistant principalship at Sweetwater High School in National City and accepted it.”

She quickly discovered that she liked being an assistant principal and spent three years learning about site administration. It also was during this time that Louise remarried; she calls that The Great Love Story. Next, Louise was promoted to principal at Southwest Junior High near San Ysidro. She was there for four years before becoming the principal at Sweetwater High School where she stayed for eight years, a time she considers the most rewarding of her professional life.

“When I became a high school principal it was unusual for a woman; it was more a man’s world,” Louise observed. “I was the first female principal in the history of Sweetwater High School.

Louise has always been strong, a characteristic she credits especially to the influence of her mother. Eager to learn more, Louise continued her education. While at Sweetwater High, she earned her Ed.D. in education administration.

“When I finished the doctoral program, I decided if I ever considered going back to school, I’d take two Excedrin and lay down until the idea passed,” Louise jokes. “Writing a dissertation is a humbling experience. I remember getting the first chapter back, and I couldn’t see anything because of all the red corrections.”

In 1998, Louise was asked to be at Mar Vista High School, considered a very challenging assignment. Because of that, she was told she could select a new administrative team.

“Mar Vista was the most challenging environment in which I had ever worked,” Louise proclaimed. “It took the whole team working with the staff to turn things around. Building confidence in the staff and creating a team approach took time.”

To help the process, we tried something a little different; we implemented Stephen Covey’s program, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

“Eventually the Covey Organization piloted the materials they were developing specifically for teenagers at Mar Vista,” Louise divulged. “One thing we wanted the students to learn is that between stimulus and response, there is a brief period of time where what you decide to do can change your life forever. Think about the things in your life, that if you had given yourself just a little space and time to think, would have turned out differently.”

Louise was working 12-14 hour days, but she knew she was making a difference. She insists she got back more than she gave.

She always remembers Jeff’s repeated suggestion to her before he died, “Be busy and be sure the things you do are meaningful.”

On October 1, 2004, Louise lost her husband to pancreatic cancer and her life changed forever. She is eternally grateful to family and treasured friends who stood by her in those dark days. It’s also the period of time when she learned personally about the power and value of hospice care.

She always remembers Jeff’s repeated suggestion to her before he died, “Be busy and be sure the things you do are meaningful.”

Louise focused her energy on Mar Vista High School and her granddaughter, Destiny. Under her leadership, Mar Vista High made marked improvements. The number of students who took Advanced Placement tests increased from 118 in 1998 to 537 in 2006. The school’s academic performance index rose significantly. It became a school that beat the odds.

In 2007, Louise was named California Secondary Administrator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators. With roughly 2,400 public middle and high schools in the state, the award is considered a mark of professional prestige.

“That award was near the end of my career,” Louise beamed. “It proved you can continue to be better and better. I have received many other recognitions, but this one is especially meaningful.”

In 2009, after nearly four decades of working in the Sweetwater School District, Louise retired from the job she loved so dearly.

During the time Louise worked in the South Bay, she was incredibly active. She was president of the National City Chamber of Commerce and president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of National City. She got involved with UCSD and the development of the Principals Executive Program, which helped principals learn how to interface with the business community. She joined the Kiwanis Club in National City shortly after they started allowing women and became president.

“It will change lives for sure, no question about it. I am honored to be a part of St. Paul’s Senior Services and St. Paul’s PACE.”

She currently volunteers at the Alpine Community Center, where she is also board president. Faith is important to Louise. She serves as the senior warden at Christ the King Episcopal Church where she worships. The East County Salvation Army Board also benefits from Louise’s volunteerism. It wasn’t a commitment she sought, but she says when asked to be on the board she couldn’t say no. The Salvation Army is where her mom worked to help put her through college.

Louise transferred her Kiwanis membership to Alpine, the second largest Kiwanis Club in the California, Hawaii, Nevada Region of Kiwanis International with roughly 135 members. She is the Kiwanis Key Club advisor for the Granite Hills High School Key Club, which has grown to a very large and active club and provides countless service hours in the Alpine area.

She is also a member of the marketing committee for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Diego State University. Louise says she meets the most fascinating people through her community involvement. Louise doesn’t just help promote the program; she takes advantage of the classes.

“Too many people retire and don’t remember to keep learning,” Louise shrugged. “Imagine having the time after a very busy career to learn about things that interested you, but there just wasn’t enough time. The classes are never longer than six weeks and two hours at a time, include excellent instructors, and there are no grades!”

Osher Classes are also offered at St. Paul’s Plaza, an aging-in-place, resort-style senior living community, one of the many operated by St. Paul’s Senior Services.

“Here I am in California, no family other than my 20-year-old granddaughter,” Louise clarifies. “I wouldn’t pick up and move back to Pittsburgh. The reality is, as you grow older you may need assistance. I would go to St. Paul’s because I have personally witnessed the care and compassion with which people are treated. That’s one of the things I love about St. Paul’s. I know the kind of care you get.”

During a planning meeting before St. Paul’s opened their PACE center in El Cajon, Louise remembers hearing first-hand the difference the managed medical plan for low-income seniors makes when a St. Paul’s PACE participant spoke about how her life had changed. The woman talked about how she felt cared for, and no longer alone.

“There’s that old adage,” Louise believes. “Once you know somebody’s story you are no longer strangers, you are connected in some way … forever.”

When St. Paul’s PACE center opened in El Cajon, Louise was thrilled. She says St. Paul’s PACE is a perfect example of the phenomenal work St. Paul’s does. Providing medical care, therapy, nutrition, socialization, home-care, and more, St. Paul’s PACE helps seniors 55 and older, who would otherwise need nursing home level care, remain living at home.

“When you hear about the wrap-around services that St. Paul’s PACE provides, it is a tremendous service that St. Paul’s offers,” Louise preaches. “It will change lives for sure, no question about it. I am honored to be a part of St. Paul’s Senior Services and St. Paul’s PACE.”