For more than three decades Debbie Pierce has been an institution at Paradise Canyon Elementary School. As office manager, she's the first person to greet students and parents when they walk into the door of the school's front office. She is a keeper of schedules, solver of problems and friend to all.
"If you need to know something about the school, where something is or the history behind it, Debbie's the person," attested Principal Debra Cradduck. "This is her school."
But next month, after 35 years of service to the La Cañada Unified School District and 33 years at Paradise Canyon, Pierce will say goodbye to the Knight Way campus she's come to think of as home and the hundreds of "family" members who work and learn there. Her last day before retirement will be Oct. 20.
It will be quite a transition for the 63-year-old La Cañada resident, whose acquaintance with the campus began when her children were students (her oldest twin sons are now 47), but in a recent interview she acknowledged the subject had been on her mind for the past year or so.
"I just felt this was the time," she said, indicating her preference that her replacement be spared the frantic beginning of the school year and have time to settle into the demanding role. "You just never know what life's going to hand you — it's too short."
Pierce's original plan was to retire after husband Mike, who'd left his own job at Union Pacific in 2012. But shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with lung cancer and would live just one year longer. Paradise Canyon staff and administrators rallied around her during that time and gave her the support she needed to keep going.
"These people helped me get through the loss of my husband. They supported me — it was awesome," she said. "Paradise Canyon is a family. That's what I'm going to miss."
Pierce first joined the school in 1984, working as a kindergarten aide and later a special education aide. She was the health clerk in the early 2000s, when then-principal Donna Robinson brought her on as an assistant.
"She knew every kid and every little thing they'd do," Robinson, now retired, said by phone. "She's diligent. She's hardworking and wants everyone else to be hardworking. (But) she has a heart of gold."
Cradduck, who came on as principal in 2009, praised Pierce's ability to build connections with students and their families and her sharp instinct for identifying when a child might need a friendly chat or a bit of extra attention.
Then there's the juggling.
"One of the first memories I have of Debbie is we were starting school and it was right before the back-to-school-picnic," Cradduck recalled. "Debbie was out in the lunch shelter power spraying the sidewalks. She just picks up and does whatever's needed."
Over the course of a single interview, Pierce was interrupted with multiple requests for information, questions about emails or whether a parent had returned a call. She signed for a UPS package and stopped once to locate a set of keys.
"You're doing 10 things at any one time," she said of the job. "Parents are there, teachers are there. It's crazy. You get interrupted 50 times a day and you don't hardly get to finish anything. But the day goes by fast — it's fun."
Robinson recalled Pierce maintaining a file on the neighborhood dogs, so if a stray followed someone to school, she'd know who to call to come pick it up. That level of conscientiousness and caring helped earn her three PTA Founders Day awards.
For now, Pierce's retirement plans include visiting her three children and seven grandchildren, and traveling with sister Tammy and Labrador retriever Cali. But her voice becomes hesitant when she contemplates her departure.
"I've worked with these people for a long time — it's going to be real hard to leave," she said.