“The legends” assembled to honor their leader Wednesday morning.

About 18 retired teachers and staff of Lincoln Elementary School were among those at an assembly to see Principal Elaine Rohleder honored as the National Distinguished Principal for District 5 of the Kansas Association of Elementary School Principals.

Shawn Roberts, principal at Scott City Elementary and governor of District 5, presented the award to Rohleder, who will retire after 24 years as Lincoln principal and 31 years as an educator.

The award recognizes administrators who go beyond the day-to-day demand to create an exceptional educational environment, Roberts said. Honorees are nominated by their peers. The Kansas Elementary Principal of the Year will be selected from the national distinguished principals.

Roberts named some of the programs Rohleder implemented as principal at Lincoln, including a robotics club, morning news, special choir, STEM camp and playground enhancements.

But it was the students and staff Rohleder credited for the award. She spoke directly to the 241 students sitting on the floor before her.

“I have been so lucky over the last 31 years to work with students like you and staff like all those here, as some of you said, ‘the legends’ of Lincoln Elementary School,” she said, referring to a comment a student made as they filed into the gymnasium. “And then the present legends are here right now, who are your teachers right now.

“You guys are outstanding and awesome and you make my job fun, and you make my job easy, and I love coming to work every day because of you,” she said.

“I’ve been lucky to work with teachers and administrators who have helped me become a better principal,” she said.

Hays USD 489 Superintendent John Thissen said he hadn’t planned on speaking, but was moved to do so after hearing Rohleder speak. He said in the two years he’s been with the district, he’s recognized Rohleder for her intelligence and organization but it will be how she puts her heart into the job that he will miss after she retires.

“She has the most beautiful heart of working with not just the children, but also her staff,” he said.

Debbie Ross, who retired two years ago after 24 years as Lincoln secretary, agreed.

“She cares so much for the kids. The kids are No. 1,” she said.

Jan Parks, who taught first and second grade at Lincoln for 24 years, said the staff was like family.

“When people would come to Lincoln, they could tell when they walked in the door that this was a tightly knit school. She was very much a part of that,” Parks said.

Parks was on a teacher’s committee that interviewed Rohleder as a candidate for principal, and the teachers unanimously voted for her, Parks said.

“You could just tell by the interview what type of person that she was going to be, that she was going to be a strong leader and a very good leader to the staff and be open for suggestions,” she said.

Jolene Hoover, who worked in Lincoln’s food services for more than 36 years and retired as its director, said Rohleder was a hard worker.

“She’s down there every lunch hour with the kids. She wipes off the tables. She’s not afraid to get in there and work,” Hoover said.

Rohleder said receiving the award was bittersweet. The decision to retire was a difficult one, she said.

“I’ve had three jobs,” she said. She was a principal and fifth-grade teacher in Missouri before she and her husband returned to Hays. “I’ve loved every single one of them. Each one was hard to leave,” she said.

Lincoln, she said, is Hays’ best-kept secret.

“We’re small, everybody knows each other and we take care of each other. It’s just a big family,” she said.

As for the future, Rohleder said she will join the “family business” — Rohleder Veterinary Service — after she leaves Lincoln, with her husband and son.

She’s confident of Lincoln’s future, too. Fifth-grade teacher Kerri Lacy will take over as principal.

“She knows the students, she knows the families, she knows the programs that we’ve implemented and the new programs that we just started to implement. So it will be a nice, smooth transition,” she said.

“I feel really good about leaving Lincoln in her hands.”