By Linda Davis
PIEDMONT -- Say goodbye to the man with the hat.
A character of many hats, from the jaunty one on his head to teacher, principal, law instructor, coach and union president.
Piedmont High's Principal Rich Kitchens will close the door on his lengthy career with Piedmont Unified -- more than 30 years -- and open a new one to the world of retirement. He will be feted at a farewell reception from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at Piedmont Center for the Arts, 801 Magnolia Ave., Piedmont. Kitchens will be missed by faculty, students and administrators alike.
"I know that there are many students who would list him as their favorite teacher," said Superintendent Connie Hubbard. "Many parents do not know of his legacy as the most popular, best teacher at PHS for many years.
"He wrote the text that is used in civics now and was voted JFK Law School alumni honors."
Kitchens, of Concord, became principal when Randy Booker became an assistant superintendent about two years ago. But his first love has always been the students and teaching.
"Being a principal was a little daunting, to be honest," said the 61-year-old Kitchens. "All of a sudden there are hundreds of emails about issues that arise. Plenty to do."
The high school received massive media attention last October under Kitchens' watch for the alleged "fantasy slut league," in which jocks are said to have tallied points for intimate encounters with girls.
"The slut league was ugly and troubling. We had things happen that dragged us down," he said.
But Kitchens persevered. With a strong work ethic, he always got to school at the crack of dawn to organize his day, sometimes 16 hours long.
"There is nothing like teaching," he said. "I never had a bad day. Some days were disappointing on balance, but I really loved what I do. It was a passion for me."
Kitchens grew up in El Cerrito. His grandparents were teachers. His mother told him in junior high he should be a coach and a social studies teacher. He took her advice.
He got his bachelor's degree from UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s, "a place where no grades were given. There were smart, creative people. It was pretty exciting," Kitchens said.
He got his teaching credential from San Francisco State University, a master's degree from Cal State East Bay and a juris doctorate degree in the 1990s from JFK University in Orinda, where in April he was one of eight recipients of the university's 2013 Alumni of the Year Awards.
He had worked in some small school districts such as Fall River Mills when he got hired for Piedmont in 1979.
"I started one day before school started," he recalled. "My car was in the shop, and I had to take the Greyhound bus down. I had no car for the first month."
During his tenure he was a baseball and basketball coach and taught education law at Golden Gate and JFK universities while shepherding thousands of students at Piedmont High in civics and social studies. He published a textbook on constitutional law for high school students.
Students have changed in some ways over the years, and in some ways not, said the educator. With the digital age, it's harder to keep students focused.
"The attention span has shortened. Trying to keep a class engaged for 75 or 90 minutes is increasingly difficult. People want instant sensationalism and instant feedback."
On the flip side, "Kids are kinder and gentler to one another now, respectful and thoughtful," he said.
When he's retired, Kitchens will have the time to go back to teaching law classes and enjoy his grandchildren. He will also have more time to cook up batches of his "secret" hot chipotle sauce.
"It's legendary mostly in my own mind. I give it away to friends," said the man known for his quick wit and humor.
"Rich epitomizes the persona of the teacher that views the profession as a vocation," Hubbard said. "His biggest reluctance going into administration was the distance from being engaged with students every day in a classroom setting."
School board Vice President Andrea Swenson echoed Hubbard's sentiments.
"Rich has been such a presence for so many years the PHS campus will seem a lesser place without him," she said. "We will all miss his wry humor and quick smile ... and his hat."
The man with the hat will be on a plane for Berlin and Prague right after his send-off, turning the page on a rewarding career.