October 21, 2021

Cortland school secretary receives Lighthouse Award

Young a beacon

Michael McCleary/contributing photographer

Paulette Young, left, is greeted by colleagues and friends Tuesday after receiving the Lighthouse Award, the highest honor given to Cortland High School staff.

Paulette Young turned away from the stage and headed back to her seat as the applause dwindled.

She had just won the Support Staff Award, a recognition for her 31 years as a staff member at the school. As she got to her seat, Cortland special education teacher Amy Parker gave Young a look. She didn’t think anything of it: the next award, the Lighthouse Award, was given to a teacher, a guidance counselor, an administrator. Not a secretary, she thought.

She settled in her seat, but then she heard her name called again. She covered her face.

“That one just blew me away,” Young said.

Young, a staff member for 31 years at Cortland High School, was the recipient Tuesday of the Lighthouse Award — the highest staff award given by Cortland High School. Young, who spent 13 years as a secretary in the athletic department, then another 18 in the same position in the guidance office, ran fundraisers, managed hundreds of student records and established herself as a key figure at the school.

“She’s like the hub,” Lee said. “She’s like the center of all the action that goes on in the school.”

Young started working at Cortland High School in September 1988, coming from Tompkins Cortland Community College, where she worked as a typist in the registrar’s office. Athletics was a popular meeting spot among faculty and staff, so some noticed the difference between her and the last person to hold the position: She didn’t make coffee.

But about three months into her job, then-Athletics Director Mason Morenus had forgotten to order certificates for the end of sports seasons awards ceremonies. Young took a half-sheet of paper, a blue calligraphy pen and wrote out the names of all the students. Coaches asked if she could decorate game balls whenever a player reached a milestone.

“A lot of my work is out in the athletic cases,” Young said, laughing.

Her reputation became so strong, Morenus placed a “Certificates R Us” sign above the door of the Athletics office.

Young and Morenus joked often — they shot table tennis balls at each other and golf balls would sometimes end up in Young’s lap as he hurled them around the office.

Young said Morenus “taught (her) a lot about grace.” She remembered coaches, teachers and parents would storm into his office — some were jerks, she said — and he’d just nod along.

“Mrs. Young, 10 years down the road, no one’s going to know,” Young remembered he’d say. “Nobody’s going to remember.”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Young said Wednesday.

She said she carried that through to her work in guidance in 2001. She’s become in charge of all things student records: grades, transcripts, enrollment certifications, enrollment information, graduation verification, reports and whatever else comes along. In 18 years, she oversaw two changeovers in the school’s database.

Though the term “GPA” makes her twitch, she joked, she worked with students and teachers whenever they had issues.

“She does everything,” special education teacher Stacy Rice said. “She fixes all things for us.”

Young formed strong relationships with faculty outside the school. She was the director of the Southern Valley Chorus, which performed at Cortland High School. Former Cortland High School English teacher Bill Lee often agreed to be the master of ceremonies.

They had a number of themes: “phantom of the barber shop” and another where the chorus wore pink lamé vests. So, in front of a crowd of people, he wore tiny wings, underwear spotted with hearts and carried a bow. The theme: “the disgruntled Cupid,” Young said.

“(Paulette) had a way to kind of manipulate people I guess,” Lee joked. “She was the type of person that you wouldn’t mind doing something funny like that or crazy like that — because it’s Paulette.”

As Young walked back toward the stage Tuesday, the memories of the teachers of the past, she said, flashed into her head. She saw all of them — the people given the Lighthouse award before her, the people she looked up to. Now, she retires in December.

She walked up the stairs, and took in the applause.

“To see these people and see that I have the same award as they did,” Young said. “It was surreal.”