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Fond memories remain for former Woodinville School principal

  • Written by Shannon Michael Features Writer

John ValentaHe may be almost 98 years old, but that doesn’t stop John Valenta from recalling his time in the 1940s when he was the principal at what is now the Old Woodinville School.

I visited John and his wife of 74 years, Dorothy (or Dot as he likes to call her), the younger of the two at age 95, at their retirement community in Redmond last week to find out what life was like in Woodinville and at the school way back then.

But first I wanted to know a little about each of them. John was born in 1916 and grew up near Edgewood, in Pierce County, one of six children of parents who had come from Czechoslovakia. He grew up speaking both Czech and English, working on the farm and watching everyone around him working with their hands.

His father was a machinist, but it was a talented football player who played in college who was a friend of one of his older brothers who encouraged John to go to college after he graduated high school. The friend had become a teacher and principal.

"I thought I’d like to be like him," John said. He was the first in his family to consider going to college.

He went to Western Washington University after graduating from high school in 1934. It’s where he met Dot, who grew up in Arlington in Snohomish County, and was studying to become a teacher after she’d graduated high school in 1936. They met at a dance.

"She was one hell of a good dancer when I saw her there," he said with a chuckle.

They’ve been dancing together ever since, not even letting a recent fall by Dot slow them down when it made use of a walker necessary. "I sit in the wheelchair and he pushes me around on the dance floor," she said.

They were inseparable at Western, to the point that John realized he’d never finish school unless he took his studies more seriously. He made the decision to leave Dot and Western to go to Pacific Lutheran University to finish his degree. Meanwhile, Dot finished her teaching degree, too. In the late 1930s, a teaching certificate only took three years to earn.

They married in 1940 and spent some time teaching in Algona and Coalfield before Dot gave birth to the first of their three sons in 1942. By then the country was involved in World War II, and they knew John could be called to action. He got a notice that his enrollment would be deferred, so then John needed a job. Luckily, there was a notice for a position of principal at the Woodinville School, which he got.  

The family moved into the "teacherage" next door to the school. "It was a little house that went with the job," Dot explained. "You got free rent to stay in the house while working at the school."

John worked for a year at the school before being called up to serve in the war.

"I was in counter- intelligence for the C.I.A., but I stayed in the United States and didn’t do anything," John said. "I was to mix with people wherever there was a crowd and observe people, particularly if there were military guys there."

John’s ability to speak Czech was of value for counter-intelligence, he explained.

He served for about three years. "It was the craziest assignment!" he said.

When the war ended, he returned to Woodinville where his job had been kept for him. Dot had moved back to Arlington to be near family and found a job as a teacher while John was serving, but now the family could return to the teacherage. John worked as the Woodinville School principal for three years after the war.

"While he was gone in the service, the school hired a relief principal who was a woman. She moved into the teacherage, and she didn’t want to give up her job or move out when John came back for his job," Dot recalled.

"The school board had to tell her John was entitled to his job after returning from the service, that he’d been promised his job back when he returned, so they made her move out," Dot said. They lived there for three more years while John was principal in Woodinville.

Their twin boys, Fred and Frank, were born in 1947 while they were living in Woodinville. Both are 66 now and are retired teachers.

While their time at Woodinville School was only four years total, there’s quite a bit the Valentas remember about the school and the community in the 1940s.

The town of Woodinville was such a rural community at the time, John explained, with many people being farmers. They didn’t think they had anything in common with an educated man like himself, but John felt it was important to relate to the families of the children of which he was in charge. "I would start asking them about their farm and their cows or horses, had they been hunting or fishing, and I became a human being to them," John said.

There were eight grades in the Woodinville School, starting with first grade. John can’t quite recall the number of students or teachers at the school, understandable considering it’s been over 70 years since he served there. But, he does recall the town continuing to grow in population and the classrooms becoming overflowing.

"I would spend a lot of time out on the playground when I was there. I’d have the kitchen make me a sandwich before lunch recess so I could enjoy being out there with the kids," John fondly remembered.

Besides the usual core classes, the older boys had a shop class and the girls had a home economics class.

John successfully recommended the seventh and eighth graders be separated from the younger students and be sent on to Bothell Junior High, what now sits vacant as the W.A. Anderson School awaiting conversion into a McMenamins, thus making Woodinville School just for elementary students. That relieved the overcrowding at the school.

The couple’s love of dancing never waned even when in Woodinville. "We would go dancing at the local grange or even in the old schoolhouse building that stood next door to the Woodinville School," Dot recalled.

John was offered prominent positions in education across the country, but turned down many offers so he could remain close to the children throughout his career. He did serve as president of the Association of Washington School Principals for several years during his career.

After Woodinville, John moved on to a new principal position at West Mercer Elementary on Mercer Island, where he worked until retiring in 1973 after 32 years of service to youth. After leaving Woodinville and the teacherage, he moved the family to Kirkland because it was too expensive to live on a principal’s salary on Mercer Island. 

They adopted their daughter, Virginia, in 1961 when she was 5 years old, about the same time as they bought 20 acres and a home on Hollywood Hill, past The Farm. They lived there for 27 years until the late 1980s. After selling, they traveled to Europe.

John and Dot’s bodies may have slowed down and some of the dates they recall may be off a bit, but they still share a love of life, dancing and each other – and fond memories of their time spent in Woodinville.

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Photo by Shannon Michael . John Valenta was the principal of the old Woodinville School for four years in the 1940s. Now almost 98 years old and living in a retirement community in Redmond,he’s shown here with a painting of the 20-acre property he and his wife, Dot, owned for 27 years on Hollywood Hill.

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