Students, alumni, retired teachers and others stood in the cold mist Monday morning at the foot of the steps of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School to hear the gratitude of a long-time teacher and coach who will not return next year.

Joe Hertel, who has been at the private Catholic school for 33 years, learned on March 16 his contract will not be renewed for the next academic year.

Monday was the first day of classes for TMP since he and his wife, Cindy, made the announcement on her Facebook account. TMP was on spring break last week.

There apparently had been discussion among students of a protest for Monday, with students sitting out all classes except for Hertel’s. Rather than students suffer consequences of missing classes, Hertel decided to address students before the start of the school day today.

Hertel said TMP administration has refused to tell him why his contract was not renewed. TMP has not commented on the decision, citing personnel confidentiality.

The crowd of students parted as Hertel made his way to the steps in front of the school.

“I want to thank you guys for coming this morning. This is incredibly humbling,” he began.

Hertel, who teaches English, called the students his heroes, citing several works he taught to illustrate — the novels “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the play “A Man for All Seasons,” which depicts the final years of the school’s namesake, St. Thomas More.

He said a quote from the play captured the day perfectly, and read it to the crowd.

"If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and we'd live like animals and angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, pride, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, justice and thought, and we have to choose to be human at all, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes."

“Today you guys are the heroes,” he said. “You’ve chosen to stand up for something way bigger than yourselves, for truth, for justice, for critical thinking.”

Hertel’s contract continues through the academic year, and he said the support from his students will get him through that time.

“In the whole scheme of God's plan, this setback is little. It's little. I refuse to let it define me and I don't want it to define the rest of you guys' school year,” he said.

“We've got a lot of learning to do yet. A lot of research to do,” he said, getting some laughter from the students.

“There are a lot of contests and competitions to be won and besides we've got to get back to the system, baby, the system,” he said, referring to a phrase he uses with his students that symbolizes his method of teaching outside the textbooks. The students chanted it with him twice.

After thanking the students and supporters again, he greeted each student with hugs and handshakes as they walked into the main building, then did the same for the alumni, retired teachers and friends who also were in the crowd.