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Janitor to principal, Elder's Otten retires

Posted at 12:00 PM, May 17, 2016

CINCINNATI -- Tom Otten has flipped his final pancake for his students at Elder High School.

Otten — who has led Elder as principal for almost 20 years — will retire at the end of this school year after spending 55 years working at Elder and serving a cumulative total of 130,000 pancakes at his monthly Principal’s Pancake Breakfasts since 1997.

An Elder alumnus from the class of 1964, Otten began working at the school in a data entry position as a high school student. While attending Thomas More College, he earned money for school working as an evening janitor at Elder. After graduation, he continued working at the West Price Hill all-boys Catholic high school as a math teacher.

After three years teaching, he was tapped to serve as assistant principal, business manager and dean of students. He earned a master’s degree in school administration from Xavier University in 1972. Otten held the assistant principal role until becoming principal in 1997.

“As the dean of students, I had a lot of fun with that and I thought it couldn’t get better — until I became principal,” Otten said. “I loved it and I still do. I look forward to coming to work every day. It’s energy-giving.”

Roger Auer, a 1972 Elder graduate who works at the school as a campus minister, has known Otten as both student and employee.

“He taught us math in a very non-threatening way and created a nice atmosphere in the classroom. He has always shown a respect for the students,” Auer said. “He never passes the buck on anything and he has set a tone of honesty in the administration. I feel like he’s always smiling and always complimenting your efforts and he values the contributions of everyone.”

Tom Otten began working at Elder High School, his alma mater, in a data entry position as a student. While attending Thomas More College, he earned money for school working as an evening janitor there.

Otten, who is 70, and his wife, Bonnie, have been married for 48 years. The couple met when he was working at Elder for the summer during college and dropped off school paperwork for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, where Bonnie had a summer job. He asked her out several times, but she was always busy, so he gave up. Then when she needed a date to a dance, she thought of him and the rest is history, Bonnie said.

The couple have five children, four of whom live in the Cincinnati area. Their two sons graduated from Elder and their three daughters went to Seton, also in West Price Hill. With a dozen grandchildren — and number 13 on the way — retirement will be filled with family time.

“Family has always been the number one thing in life he treasures. He is at his happiest when family is over,” Bonnie said. “Even the little ones, they just idolize their ‘Pops’.”

Otten’s dedication to his family has spilled over into his experience at Elder. Kurt Ruffing, Elder’s assistant principal who will step into the role of principal in the fall, said Otten is a family man who is quick to approve time off whenever faculty or staff members have needed time to be with their families.

The monthly $1 pancake breakfast Otten launched when he became principal in 1997 was created to try to cultivate a family atmosphere at the school among students and staff, Ruffing said.

His final pancake breakfast as principal last week marked the 170th time Otten has arrived at school at 4:30 a.m. to begin mixing pancake batter. Ruffing always arrived at 6 a.m. to assist, and he said he appreciates that time in the kitchen the two of them spent talking about their lives and families. 

“We don’t have a whole lot of (staff) turnover here and Tom is a big part of that,” Ruffing said. “I know I have big shoes to fill. He is well-respected, not only in the Elder community, but in the (West) Price Hill community and the Cincinnati community and probably everywhere else, as well.”

Outside of Elder, Otten has been a large part of the surrounding West Price Hill community, where he grew up attending Elder football games and festivals as a child. He is a charter board member of Price Hill Will and a member of the Safety Community Action Team. He has served with various other civic and professional organizations and was named principal of the year in 2009 by the National Catholic Education Association.

After retirement, Otten intends to maintain his work with the Cincinnati Police Department District 3 resource committee and Safety CAT, as well as volunteering at Elder when he’s needed. However, he said he has no intention of coming to school to “bother the new principal.”

But Ruffing said: “I have him on speed dial, and I told him he is not getting too far away.”