Former Franklin High assistant principal Bill Athanas is making a gift to his former school

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas talks with the current principal David Levesque in the hallway of the high school on April 9. Athanas saw the sign, worn and tired, outside Franklin High School and decided to update it.

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas talks with the current principal David Levesque in the hallway of the high school on April 9. Athanas saw the sign, worn and tired, outside Franklin High School and decided to update it. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas and teacher Jule Finley outside the current Franklin High School sign on Monday, April 9, 2024. Athanas saw the sign, worn and tired, outside Franklin High School and decided to update it.

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas and teacher Jule Finley outside the current Franklin High School sign on Monday, April 9, 2024. Athanas saw the sign, worn and tired, outside Franklin High School and decided to update it. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas hugs teacher Jule Finley outside the current Franklin High School sign last week.

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas hugs teacher Jule Finley outside the current Franklin High School sign last week.

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas talks with the current principal David Levesque in his office on Monday, April 9.

Former Franklin assistant principal Bill Athanas talks with the current principal David Levesque in his office on Monday, April 9. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor staff

Published: 04-15-2024 2:32 PM

Modified: 04-16-2024 12:09 PM


Bill Athanas saw the sign outside Laconia High School and flashed back to the hallways of Franklin High.

He remembered walking past the plain Franklin High sign – white letters on a black background, flanked by two small brick pillars – and greeting students inside during their short journey to their next class. To Athanas, that was precious time, the perfect landscape to unveil perhaps the best public relations strategy of all time.

As the assistant principal at Franklin High, he showed the students he cared. He knew students’ names. All of them, legend has it. He knew who hit a jump shot late in the game to lead the school’s girls’ basketball team to victory the night before.

Though he has since retired, loyalty to the school and the satisfaction that he felt by potentially making a difference in students’ lives convinced Athanas of what he needed to do. He signed up, so to speak. He had a spare $35,000 lying around and chose to buy a new electronic sign for the front of Franklin High. The digital sign is due in a few months and says a lot about the former school official.

“I had the money and decided that Franklin will have the best sign ever,” Athanas said.

The community wrapped its arms around the school official whose affability convinced even rebellious, tough high school kids to actually say “good morning” to him and mean it.

He was the assistant principal at Franklin High for 21 years, from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s.

Through those years, Franklin High was often mocked, labeled as a poor school in which teachers passed through in revolving-door fashion. Notepads were scarce and pipes leaked.

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“I heard so much crap about Franklin High all through the ages,” Athanas said.

He began to cry and paused.

“I would not have stayed here so long in the first place, but the parents and kids were so nice,” Athanas continued. “If you’re going to build a rapport with kids, you need to show a sense of humor and be able to read the situation, and I did it because of that store I grew up with.”

“That store” was his parents’ mom-and-pop shop in Cambridge, Mass. where Athanas was a delivery boy and was paid nothing for it. His father grew up poor and worked multiple jobs. His mother was a homemaker and worked at the store, and Athanas says he learned about work ethic from them.

He went to high school in Cambridge, and played varsity basketball. He was tall (6-foot-7 as an adult, 6-5 as a senior citizen) and says he was a “90-pound weakling.”

Then he “got cocky” and quit the team. “Not proud of that honor,” Athanas said.

He settled here in his administrative job in Franklin and said it almost never happened. Timing is everything.

Athanas had suffered a heart-breaking divorce and had just finished teaching for a decade at Franklin. Burnt out and sad, his children convinced him to search elsewhere for a job and begin fresh.

Athanas was essentially packed and ready for a new life when the Franklin High assistant principal retired. Athanas chose to rent a car – his car was a jalopy – and drive to Franklin for the interview. After his time at Franklin, Athanas capped off his career with 21 years spent as an assistant principal at Inter-Lakes High School.

Franklin curriculum coordinator Jule Finley, a 30-year veteran at Franklin High, overlapped Athanas’s career. She saw the substance.

“There will always be a piece of his heart in Franklin,” Finley said. “He knew each kid and the population was higher years back. He made it his mission to know each kid in this building and he went to their activities. His goal was that he had a connection with everything.”

Apreel Nye, a marketing professional in Arizona, was a student at Franklin High from 1992 to ‘96. No one, she said, could match Athanas when it came to relating to a student, listening to a student, or convincing a student that their welfare really meant something to him.

“He was by far the greatest,” Nye said. “If I had to pick someone I’d say he was like Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ He was stern, but he was helping people and he was cool and collected.”

Once, Nye and her friends tried to skip school, sneaking out a side door in the cafeteria to a car in the parking lot. Athanas had regularly heard Nye and her friends there, engaging in long, loud conversations, and when the cafeteria was strangely quiet that day, his instincts told him to check the parking lot.

“He was everywhere and he was so tall and it would be like, ‘boom,’ he was there,” Nye said. “I was backing up and he was standing behind me. I told him I dropped something and was moving the car to look for it. He told us to go to his office.”

Athanas took his loyalty to new heights. He loved to hunt and garden, but he spent a lot of his leisure time following Franklin sports teams around. He’d never miss a basketball game – or any game, for that matter – and he never – ever – left early. Franklin down by 20 points in the final quarter of a road game 30 minutes from home? Athanas always waited for the final buzzer.

“I see the parents and they said that it’s so nice, that it was important for me to be there,” Athanas said. “If I left early, the players would say, ‘Mr. Athanas, why did you abandon us.’ ”

He never did. The school honor roll is named the William Athanas National Honor Society. Refer to the Franklin sports teams as the Tornadoes prompts a knee-jerk response from Athanas.

“It’s the Golden Tornadoes,” he’ll tell them.

Athanas isn’t clear on the timetable for the new sign or how big it will be. That hardly matters, though.

“I miss walking the halls and being somebody,” Athanas said. “It means seeing a boy at school and saying, ‘I like that shirt,’ or telling a girl that she played a whale of a game the night before. Then it made me feel that the kids really cared about me.”