Dr. Jack Van Newkirk
Dr. Jack Van Newkirk (York Dispatch file)

Just 17 years old and pregnant, Anne House could have given up on her dream of going to college.

But Jack Van Newkirk, then the superintendent of the York City School District, told House not to let the unexpected in life get in the way of her plans.

Now 41, House said she can't remember Van Newkirk's exact words. But, she said, she remembers the way he made her feel.

"I remember him telling me that I have a great future ahead of me," said House, who has an associate's degree in business management and has nearly finished a bachelor's degree in psychology. "He had a way of making people feel like they were important."

That's just one of many stories that poured out of York alumni as word of Van Newkirk's death spread around the community Monday.

Van Newkirk died Sunday, his wife, Carolyn, said.

He was 77. Van Newkirk spent 20 years as the district's top administrator before retiring in 2001.

"Once a teacher, always a teacher," Carolyn Van Newkirk said of her husband.

Passionate educator: The district's current superintendent, Eric Holmes, remembered Van Newkirk as a passionate educator.

"He loved his students and the school district, and he always wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of others," Holmes said, before observing a moment of silence in Van Newkirk's honor at a school board meeting Monday.

Holmes said Van Newkirk was also a master of balancing the district's budget.

"Every year, we had to make do with what we had. He did that like no other," Holmes said. "He was able to make it work."

Van Newkirk "always had a smile on his face," said Ethan Knaub, a York City student who graduated in 2001.

Knaub, 31, said he remembers a superintendent who was approachable, involved and well-respected by students.

"I really can't think of anyone that had anything negative to say against him," Knaub said.

Encouragement: To Chantel Tremitiere, Van Newkirk was more than the district's superintendent. He was also her neighbor.

Van Newkirk was never short on words of encouragement, she said. In fact, she credits him with helping her achieve a professional basketball career in the WNBA.

"He would always tell me, 'You're going to make it,'" she said. "He always listened no matter what, no matter what he was doing. No matter where he was, he always listened."

Van Newkirk's influence was not limited to his students. When he served as president of the district's school board during the 1980s, Doug Smallwood held only a high school diploma.

Smallwood, whose own kids were preparing to graduate from high school at the time, said conversations with Van Newkirk motivated him to set an example.

"Dr. Van - that's what we called him - he encouraged me to go back to school," Smallwood said.

Today, Smallwood holds associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees.

"That probably wouldn't have happened had I not spent the time that I did with Dr. Van," he said.

- Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.