Fallen Principal Finds New Life

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by Walt Conte

Walt Conte was the former principal of a major high school in Northeast Ohio who had been convicted of attempting to secretly tape high school senior cheerleaders while they changed clothes at a beach party held at his home.

When I was first approached to bear witness for the Lord, my initial reaction was a resounding no! There is not a waking hour when I do not think about what has transpired... I had betrayed those who loved and trusted and cared for me. I had destroyed my career, my reputation, and I thought, my future. Now, with a lot of help, I was rebuilding my life and finding a new future, different from any that I had ever imagined. To have my name on the front of a publication would drag me back through a past that I was attempting to put behind me. For the rest of my life I knew I?d have to live with that past but I certainly did not want to have the event rehashed in a public forum.

Then, when I prayed as to what should be done, the answer came back - to not tell of the miracles that put my life back together would be a new betrayal. This time the betrayal would be of the Lord Jesus Christ who forgave me and allowed a sense of peace to come over my life, a peace unlike anything I have ever know. After further discussing this writing with my wife, we decided that I could not refuse.

The words, that night at the beach party, that collapsed my existence were, ?Mr. Conte, a pervert...who will believe it? Everybody loves him.? said by one of the cheerleaders to another when they thought I was out of hearing range. I knew my life was over. After the arrest the next morning, I received notice that I was to be fired as principal. All of the television channels, radio, and newspapers carried the story as their main feature for the next several days. I was afraid to leave the house, even to go to the store. My poor wife, through no fault of her own, was made to suffer the same embarrassment. In despair I prayed, not to be delivered from the responsibility of what I had done but for a way to carry on, the strength to carry on.

During the next days, our phone never stopped ringing. In some ways this was the first miracle I encountered from the Lord because, with the exception of the news media, the calls were from friends, administrators, relatives, former students, parents of students at the high school, teachers and former teachers, all asking how could they help. Possibly, the relating of one student?s call summarizes the tenure of the conversations: Rocky was a student I had worked with for four years, struggling to get him through the high school, counseling him frequently, disciplining him often and crying with his parents when he would go astray. Rocky?s words were, ?Mr Conte, you were there for me, now I want to be there for you. You need a job. I?m going to get you a job.? He had a good job in construction and felt he had connections with his various bosses. I sobbed like a child after I hung up, not just for the fact of what he offered but more for the reminder of what I had destroyed ? a special, often saving, relationship with many students and I would never have the opportunity of working with them again.

I sought secular therapy right away after being arrested. I wanted to know how I came to betray all that I had held sacred for almost 30 years as an educator. The intensive therapy helped me understand the roots of what I had done but did not offer, or so I thought, a future for me. In the next weeks I decided to end my life. It seemed like the logical way of sparing the people I loved from the embarrassment of the media coverage of a trial and lawsuits. I also thought my family would then be taken care of by insurance and a pension that otherwise would not be available. There would be enough money for my son to finish the next two years of college. I was convinced that if I truly cared for their welfare, they would be better off without me. In retrospect, I was not too logical, but who said suicide was logical?

In the suicide attempt, I encountered what has come to be known as ?a near death experience (NDE).? The story of the NDE is too long for this writing but it changed my life. I encountered the Light. I was told that our duty on earth is to love and care for others, that all else does not matter. I was also told that life is not ours to take, that God has a plan for each of us but that we have free will and many of us do not fulfill that plan. In a life review I was shown what I considered insignificant acts of kindness. In reality, small acts of caring mattered more than the standing ovations I received at graduation ceremonies or the many material possessions accumulated. I was reminded of the Lord?s words that we cannot store earthly treasures in heaven and that they count for naught. Rather, it is our deeds of love and caring that matter.

 

From then on my life was different.

I knew there would be many difficult times ahead but now I knew for a certainty that there was life beyond this earthly existence and that each of us has a plan to fulfill if we will open ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ. For nonbelievers this will seem like fantasy but I now experience a peace that truly does pass all understanding. One wonderful coincidence after another began to occur as I opened myself to the Lord. Former educators whom I had helped in the past gave me money - unsolicited - as certain financial crises were encountered. A main line Protestant church hired me as the church secretary/manager. This is a major miracle, to my mind, since many of the major churches I have been connected with over the years were hypocritical. They welcomed the ?good? people while rejecting the sinners as undesirables. Writer J. Ellsworth Kalas says it well, ?The root problem for good people is not simply that they have a holier-than-thou attitude, it is that they are possessed by a holier-than-God attitude. They condemn in judgment those whom God does not, and they refuse to give room to the grace of God, not only for others but also for themselves. For others, because they don?t believe they deserve it; for themselves, because they don?t believe they need it.? (Parables from the Back Side, p.66) For a main line church to take me in, to allow me to work and worship with them, to give me a holy home, is a miracle. The pastor received letters from other ministers complimenting him on what the church had done yet admitting that their churches would not have had the courage to open their doors to me. Unfortunately, many of our religious institutions have become ?museums for saints instead of hospitals where sinners can heal.?

When I was incarcerated, I worried that I would not survive, that my wife would never hold up, yet through God?s love we both found new strength. While in jail I was able, with Jesus Christ?s help, to literally save several lives, to bear witness for the Lord and to gain a new sense of worth. Many of the prisoners became my friends, friendships that continue to this day. With the help of several churches, we are attempting to start a program for former inmates to provide shelter and work for the first 60 days after their release, the most crucial time in their attempt to reorient themselves to society.

The love I encountered from so many people, especially my wife (her saving love and coming to the Lord is another story), added to this new sense of peace and well being. I had been taught by my father that only the weak seek help, only the weak get therapy, only the weak need other people. He was wrong. We are not islands unto ourselves. We need others. We need community. Most of all, we need Jesus Christ in our lives constantly. I find that I must renew my relationship with God every day and I must never take that relationship for granted, not for a single moment.

I still have great difficulty forgiving myself for the betrayal of those who trusted me, believed in me and loved me. A thousand times I have wished I could go back and ?fix? what happened, before it happened, especially knowing what I now know through my experiences with the Lord.

But the past cannot be changed. The real saving hope is that in spite of our sins we can be forgiven and that we can build a new life centered on love. Once a person truly understands each piece of that previous sentence, he will find a whole new world opens as he puts his life into the hands of the Lord.

This may be laughable to those who don?t know love but I have been truly blessed by God. ?What!?? you say, ?Here is a man who had had his reputation completely destroyed, has been publicly humiliated, his job and security gone, thousands of dollars in lawsuits pending against him, bankruptcy looming, the years of training and credentials for work in the field of education all taken from him and ?he is truly blessed by God?? YES!!

My marriage is stronger and better than ever. My family is closer and more loving than ever before. My friends have supported me and loved me. This is what really matters in life and it is there and is stronger than before. I am learning to put myself each day in the Lord?s Hands and to trust and to love and to care. To paraphrase from the apostle Paul, ?If you gain the world but do not have love, you have gained nothing.? C