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2024 Faith That Works Award Recipient: Tony Bird

Name: Tony Bird

Parish: Most Blessed Sacrament, Oshkosh

Position: Principal at Little Chute High School and Little Chute Career Pathways Academy

Little Chute principal’s example ‘speaks the message that Jesus shared’

By Jeff Kurowski | On Mission

LITTLE CHUTE — Some Catholics can point to a special moment in their lives when they became fully engaged in their faith. Tony Bird isn’t one of them. Instead, he said his faith has been affirmed by a series of encounters over time.

“My wife (Kristin Bird) saw the pope (St. John Paul II) at World Youth Day in Europe. That was the moment for her. Mine isn’t like that,” said Bird. 

“Mine is more like, in the darkest times of my life, God has put people in my life to help me see the way,” he continued. “He did it with my wife, Bishop Dan (Felton, bishop of Duluth, Minn.) and, when I was having struggles in college, he introduced me to an amazing family, a college friend and his three brothers from the Antigo area. I’ve been so blessed. If somebody asked me to stand up in front of church and tell my story, a big component would be the people God brought into my life.”

In turn, Bird, principal at Little Chute High School and Little Chute Career Pathways Academy, said he encourages students to surround themselves with good people. 

“You’re the average of the five people you spend your time with. The people around you are so impactful in a positive or negative way,” he said. “I try to live by that. I want people around me where we are going to make each other better. I talk to the kids about that.”

Working at a public school, Bird can’t pray with students or staff, but his Catholic faith does guide him in his daily interactions, he said. 

When it comes to living out your faith by instilling values, Bird said he doesn’t see it as a public or private school approach.

“We have incredible people working in schools,” he said. “We are all working to be the best versions of ourselves. That’s what we are trying to get out of today’s kids.”

Sam Appleton, associate principal at Little Chute High School, nominated Bird for the Faith That Works Award.

“Tony speaks the message that Jesus shared without pushing his faith on students,” wrote Appleton in his nomination. “He uses his faith to navigate tough situations and to give advice. He demonstrates care for all students as if they were his own. Tony treats each person as though they are created in the image and likeness of God. He gives others respect and honor and embraces people’s hearts.”

Bird said his faith journey does include some curves. 

He was born in Appleton and baptized Lutheran. His mother remarried during his youth. Bird’s stepfather was Methodist, so he began attending religious education classes at a Methodist church in Neenah.

“I remember arguing with my parents about it,” he said. “I told them, ‘Having me memorize the Bible is not faith. Taking a test on the books of the Bible, that’s not learning my faith.’ They were sick of arguing with me, so they were fine with me no longer going.”

Following graduation from Hortonville High School, Bird attended the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he met Kristin. 

He started going to Catholic Mass with her.

“It was so overwhelming,” he said. “I will never forget when I went on vacation with her family. We were in the middle of Indiana, going to this Catholic church. I broke out into a cold sweat. It was so intimidating for me, the standing, the kneeling. I felt so out of place. I didn’t know anything.”

Bird said when he decided to become Catholic, he entered the church in a “nontraditional way.” He developed a friendship with then Fr. Dan Felton, who was pastor at St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Oshkosh at the time.

“My RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) was Fr. Felton, walking with me step by step,” he said. 

“He shared some books and literature with me. He and I grew really close. We had some deep conversations,” Bird continued. “That’s exactly what I needed. He knew that. Seeing the faith of my wife and her family, I was way in over my head. I needed somebody who I could be natural with in something that was intimidating to me. I had my first Communion and was confirmed in a small private ceremony. It was an amazing experience.”

Bird’s passion for working with people and building relationships led him to pursue a career in education. 

His first classroom position was as a social studies teacher at then St. Mary Central High School (now St. Mary Catholic) in Neenah. He then moved on to an 11-year stint at Oshkosh North High School, first as a teacher, then as dean of students and, later, as assistant principal. 

He now has seven and a-half years in administration in Little Chute.

Bird points to his predecessor, Dan Valentyn, longtime Little Chute High School principal, as another person of influence placed by God to guide him.

“Dan has been an incredible mentor to me,” said Bird. “He was so gracious. I was nervous coming into this small community with high expectations. I was mentored by a great Catholic man. We still get together multiple times per year.”

The Birds have three children, Vinny, 19; Elizabeth, 17; and Isaac, 14. The family are members of Most Blessed Sacrament in Oshkosh, where he serves as an usher and greeter. He and Kristin are also a FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study) couple, working with couples preparing for marriage. 

The Birds have also helped lead engaged couple retreats and workshops for married couples throughout the Diocese of Green Bay.

Bird also lives out his faith through assisting Kristin, who is executive director of Burning Hearts Disciples, a nonprofit that provides support and consulting to help Catholics grow in relationship with Christ. He serves as a board member for the organization.

In addition to the people he meets, Bird said that he also sees God at work in nature.

“The greatest retreats that I go on are my hunting and fishing trips,” he said. “There’s nothing better than seeing the sun come up in my fishing boat or in a tree stand.”

Bird said he embraces what each day brings at his job at Little Chute High School and Little Chute Career Pathways Academy, which is a public charter school for grades 9 to 12.

“I absolutely love it that I’ve never had two of the same days. There’s something refreshing about that,” he said.

Bird added that when students look back at their school experience, they likely won’t remember the words he shared with them, but “kids will always remember the way you made them feel.”

Award recipients to be recognized

The 2024 “Faith That Works” award recipients will be featured in On Mission magazine throughout the year. The awards honor those who integrate their Catholic faith into their workplaces, parishes and communities. Award recipients are selected by an independent panel of judges from submitted nominees. A “Faith That Works” Mass and luncheon with Bishop David Ricken will be held in November.

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