HURRICANE — What do you give a teacher that’s dedicated the last 38 years of his four decade career to just one school? Who, for the last 20 years, has taken thousands of children on hikes around the region and instilled a sense of appreciation for the natural wonders of the area?
Those questions were top of mind for Hurricane Elementary Principal Matthew Lowe as he prepared for the retirement of Dan “Mr. Z” Zaleski: a fifth grade teacher whose commitment to the school and its students have made him a household name in his own hometown.
Lowe decided the best gift would be to put Zaleski’s name on the map – literally.
Working with Councilmember David Hirschi, Lowe petitioned city officials to rename the Hurricane Cinder Knoll Trailhead in his colleague’s honor. On May 5, the city council unanimously adopted a resolution to do just that, and Zaleski and his family were formally recognized at the next council meeting two weeks later.
Reading from the resolution, Hirschi said, “Hurricane City desires to recognize Dan Zaleski for his 40 years of service teaching elementary education. Hurricane City recognizes that Mr. Zaleski has taken thousands of students on hikes – instilling in them his love for the Hurricane Valley … Mr. Zaleski has taught our youth that many of the geographic characteristics taught in school are found in our own backyards.”
The “Dan Zaleski Trailhead,” formerly called the Hurricane or East Cinder Knoll trail, passes through a part of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area directly above the intersection at 600 North and 700 West.
After stepping through a gate near the intersection, hikers proceed up a chain of extinct volcanic cones that rise a few hundred feet above the surrounding landscape. Sweeping views in all directions show off the canyons, mesas, river systems and more that students learn to identify throughout the year.
News of Zaleski’s recognition was celebrated throughout the community and on social media. Former students, colleagues and long-time friends sharing their favorite memories of “Mr. Z” and the impression he made in their lives.
Austin Ashcraft, who just finished his junior year at Hurricane High, said he has only good memories of his time as Zaleski’s pupil and the trail dedication was fitting for the seasoned educator.
“If anyone deserves it, he does,” Ashcraft said. “I still run the cinder knoll trail to this day as a cross country runner, and I can see the places where we took pictures and talked about our environment. It seemed like we were always doing great projects and having a good time – one of my favorite classes in my entire life.”
Ashcraft’s youngest brother was one of Zaleski’s final students this year, adding the family to a surprisingly long list of Hurricane Elementary alumni with siblings or parents that also went through Zaleski’s classroom.
By his best estimate, more than 1,300 students have passed through Zaleski’s classes, including three of his own children and four grandchildren.
Zaleski actually started his career in Milford, but returned to Hurricane after two years. While he said it never ended up happening during his tenure, he has been teaching long enough that his first students could have enrolled their oldest grandkids in his class.
“I’ve been the luckiest man on Earth to be able to teach for 40 years around such wonderful, enthusiastic and enjoyable children,” Zaleski said. “The young people in our community are the best people in town. The students are the main reason that keeps me teaching – there’s such joy in teaching young people who are enthusiastic to learn and have lots of energy.”
On May 24, just two days shy of retirement, Zaleski led his last class on the first official outing to the trail now named in his honor. He was in his element on the hike, pausing at key moments to point out natural scenery like the Pine Valley laccolith and Virgin River as well as man-made sights like the “D” sign above St. George and the passive repeater atop the knoll.
Zaleski also told the story of what’s missing: landmarks of a bygone era that were part of life in Hurricane before he was even born.
“Up until a year or two ago, I’d always take my students to some things at the base of the cinder knoll: Skeleton Hole, which was an opening to an old lava tube, and the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp,” he said. “My father helped build that camp, and that’s where he met my mother. I’ve been running the trail since I was a teenager, warming up for track or wrestling or whatever sport was in season. So it’s humbling to now be part of the trail’s history.”
After one last class photo atop the knoll, Zaleski led his students and the adult chaperones back towards the school with a smile on his face. He said he’ll return sometime in retirement as he has no plans to give up hiking.
He also said he’ll get to spend more time with his wife, Asenith, and their family – with the pair hopefully serving as senior missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
As for the trail’s future – and more importantly, the elementary’s – Zaleski’s legacy will be carried on through the lives of the students and teachers he helped learn and develop.
“It was a really hard hike, and I could tell that Mr. Z was struggling, but he kept on going,” said Heber Kroff, a fifth grader in the final class. “That showed me that I should keep on trying and never give up on the things I’m working on.”
Chantelle Browning succeeds Zaleski as the most tenured teacher at Hurricane Elementary. With 16 years of experience, she got her start working in the same teacher’s team as Zaleski and being on the receiving end of both his advice and his good natured pranks.
“There’s no way you can replace somebody like Dan Zaleski,” Browning said. “Everyone knows him. Everyone loves him. Everyone wanted to be in his class. You always knew, above anything else, he cared for the students and loved them. “
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