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May 29, 2014 10:18 PM

Lorang's Legacy

Sioux Falls, SD

His goal was to become a priest, but instead, he became a leader for Catholic education in Sioux Falls. For 36 years, Tom Lorang has carried out his vision for how students should learn in the classroom as they form their faith. Now, the long-time superintendent of the Sioux Falls Catholic School System has his sights set on retirement.

Though he spent a year in the seminary, Lorang never did don a clerical uniform of black and white. However, he has had no trouble being recognized for his impact on Catholic education.

At a recent tribute, students gathered in a gymnasium. They stood in long rows, with each row of students in a different color t-shirt. The whole scene resembled a rainbow. That is how they wanted Lorang to think of his career.

"Red represents all the hearts you have touched," one student said. 

"Yellow is for the light that kept turning on in your head that you shared with others," another said. 

They went through all the colors and attributed them to some part of Lorang's career.

This whole rainbow thing may be puzzling, to some, but we will explain later on in this story. First, let us focus on why Lorang is important to this part of Sioux Falls' history. 

Lorang has been sharing his unique philosophy with the Sioux Falls Catholic schools for more than three decades. He has transformed schools once run by nuns into a national leader in academics, extracurricular activities and faith. Schools all over the country have studied what has been done at his hands in an effort to emulate his model. What many now take for granted, Lorang will tell you, actually involved a bit of a journey.

"I came in, probably young and dumb. I didn't know the challenges we had. I had been in public schools all my life," Lorang said.

After 12 years as a guidance counselor and coach in the Yankton public school system, he began to listen to, what he describes as, a small voice in his head. He said it was guiding him toward his next big role in the Sioux Falls Catholic system in 1978.

"I didn't necessarily know that God was doing that and I was just bumping along like any young man does. When I got the position and I was there.  I thought, 'Wow, God's hand is all over this,'" Lorang said.

In 1979, he became the first O'Gorman High School principal who was not a priest. At the time, parents had a hard time believing a man, who was not of the cloth, could be responsible for their children's faith. 

"We came in, a number of us, as lay people, succeeding the religious priests and sisters, for centuries that carry Catholic education -- quite successfully.  Then a number of us came in, and there was a pretty good question mark in terms of what the future of Catholic education was," Lorang said.

Rather than listen to the naysayers, Lorang said he and his team focused on their mission. 

"Develop a culture of where everybody comes into it with an expectation that we're about something larger than ourselves. That we truly can achieve a lot and we're here to support each other. A lot of things can happen," Lorang said.

That is true. Lorang's leadership has helped create a multi-million dollar unified system with 2,700 students filling up a high school, a junior high and six elementary schools. He has also overseen the construction of a new performing arts center at O'Gorman High School, which bears his name. Yet, ever the humble servant, Lorang will not take credit. Instead, he gives praise to his colleagues who have worked alongside of him.

"The thing that makes me happiest is just all the relationships people have," Lorang said.

It is easy to see why students celebrate their relationship with him. As the group went through the colors of the rainbow, they left indigo for last.  As many know, indigo is the second-to-last color in the formation. They chose to finish with indigo because they said the shade gives the rainbow its balance, depth and unity. 

"Dr. Lorang, you are our indigo," they said. 

"I can't say a lot because of my emotions. Thank you. Thank you. Indigo is always going to be special," Lorang said, as he stepped up to a podium to thank the students.

The rainbow is a metaphor for what Lorang has brought to the Catholic school system. 

Lorang officially retires on June 30. There is an open house reception for him on Sunday at the Tom and Penny Lorang Theatre, O'Gorman Performing Arts Center. It starts at 2 p.m.

As he looks back over his career, he admits he is not sure what is next. As he has said, he has never retired before.  One thing is certain, though. God's plan never included Lorang in a priest's collar. He was always meant to be the man who would make the world anything but black and white.

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