“I’m a Highlander,” said Watkins. “My original goal was to work for the district 50 years.”
Hailing from Carmel, New York, Watkins is one of five sons raised by a strong woman. “My mother raised five boys and told us ‘You need to get a job or go to college or you’re going into the service’ -- and you didn’t argue with my mom. When a guidance counselor told me, ‘I could get you in at SUNY New Paltz for education, teaching,’ I said, ‘OK.’ It just seems like it was meant to be,” said Watkins.
Watkins enrolled at SUNY New Paltz and began student teaching in 1968. His engagement was so successful that the administration asked him if he’d like to be the new sixth-grade teacher.
“I’ve never, ever done a resumé in my life,” he said.
Watkins taught at the middle school for 34 years. When sixth grade general education branched off into specialization, he became a math and science teacher, eventually settling squarely in the math department.
“What I liked about teaching sixth graders is that they had that elementary flavor to them -- but they could still appreciate a good joke,” said Watkins.
His passion for teaching was matched by an appreciation of athletics. An inveterate athlete and sports fan, Watkins began coaching modified basketball in 1969. He branched out, coaching basketball at all levels, one year of JV football, boys’ soccer and girls’ softball. He is perhaps most well-known for coaching girls’ soccer for 19 years -- a position which earned him Varsity845’s Girls’ Soccer Coach of the Year Award in 1991.
After retiring from teaching, Watkins was once again asked to stick with Highland, this time as Director of the Athletics Department.
“I knew the coaches, I knew the people. I just seemed like a good fit,” said Watkins.
In leading the Highland Huskies, Watkins was responsible for the Athletic Department budget, scheduling games, outfitting teams properly and safely, coordinating teams’ transportation and hiring coaches.
“I think one of the things that I appreciated a lot more in my position was just what an outstanding job our coaches do. These people don’t go into coaching unless they’re passionate about it, and they really care about the kids. Too many times, [others] focus on the winning and the losing, but our coaches have to meet many challenges. They have to try to be fair and objective. They do a great job for our kids,” said Watkins.
Highland’s student athletes also received high marks from Watkins.
“Our student athletes are amazing. I coached girls’ soccer for 19 years and, on away trips, I can just turn around on the bus and they’re sprawled out doing their homework, reading their books. It’s amazing how they were able to balance their schedules. We have a lot of students who are honor roll students, or scholar athletes, who get involved in our sports program,” said Watkins.
Assuming the role of a departmental director was not without its challenges, at times, Watkins found it difficult to act as a disciplinarian.
“I always believe kids and students deserve a second chance. It was hard for me to dish out punishments. Kids make mistakes, and that’s what we’re supposed to do as educators: explain it to them and give them another try,” he said.
Above all, Watkins wanted his athletes to enjoy themselves. His three goals as a coach were: “Win as many games as we could...; be better at the end of the season than we are now; and third, have fun. If it’s not fun, there’s no sense in playing,” he said.
Broadening the district’s spectrum of athletic offerings extended the opportunity to more students. During Watkins’ tenure, Highland added wrestling, girls and boys bowling, girls and boys swimming, lacrosse and reinstated boys’ tennis.
“One of the reasons that I pushed to add bowling and swimming is that’s a different kind of athlete. We don’t have that many people involved in it, but it is a sport and it gives kids options,” said Watkins.
In recent years, Highland, a Class B School, sent eight wrestlers and its bowling team to state tournaments. Watkins has seen the girls’ soccer team twice advance to the MHAL Final Four. Highland has netted numerous Section 9 Titles, in football once, and in girls’ basketball twice.
New to retirement, Watkins remains active: golfing, performing home maintenance and spending more time with his family. Watkins has four children: daughter Jan and son Terrence, from a previous marriage; and daughters Jonna and Amanda with wife Corinne.
Watkins is thankful for his many years with the district and the numerous true friends he made along the way.
“Sometimes people say, ‘I wish I had done [x] with my life. This is what I was supposed to do as far as I’m concerned. Somewhere along the line, I was guided through correctly by some good people,” said Watkins.
For those who will miss him in Highland’s halls, Watkins says he’ll still be near and will attend Highland’s games with his younger daughters from time to time.
“My passion is education and being around kids and helping kids, so we’ll see. Would I go back into coaching? I don’t know. I’m not sure the district’s seen the end of me though,” he said.
No matter what the future holds, his students, friends and colleagues wish Watkins well.
“He was 100 percent committed, always there to give advice and always really supportive of his coaches,” said Highland JV baseball and modified football coach John Manganiello. “He was also my sixth-grade math teacher. I loved him as a teacher -- he was so funny. He has a great sense of humor.”
He’s easily one of the funniest guys to work with,” said Highland Varsity baseball coach Andre Spinelli. “If you were having a hard day, he could cut the tension in the air with a joke. He’s such a tremendous personality and really loved by a lot of people. He has a really good heart.”
“He definitely bridged the gap for us as students and athletes and told us what we needed to do to get what we wanted. He’s at every game of every sport, all three seasons,” said Highland High School senior Keri Robinson.
“I wish him nothing but the best, because he just gave so much. He definitely mentored me,” said Marlboro Athletic Director Jonnah O’Donnell.
“It was a pleasure working with Pete,” said Highland Superintendent Deborah Haab. “In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve found him to be a very strong advocate for all students, not only the student athletes. It’s a remarkable number of years for someone to work for one district and to serve the kids in as many capacities as he did... He’s certainly touched a lot of students’ lives in his career here -- and we’ll definitely miss his sense of humor. I wish him well in his retirement.”