Jerry Marco, Montgomery County's longest-serving principal, is retiring at age 69. He's been at Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School since 1975 and, including previous leadership jobs, has worked in the county school system for 44 years. Before heading off for golf, fishing and grandchildren, Marco spoke with staff writer Linda Perlstein.

Q What was Whitman like when you arrived?

A It was big -- we had 2,200 students in grades 10 through 12. That period of history was an interesting time. It was a time when institutions were on the line, coming out of the Vietnam War, demonstrations and civil disobedience. A lot of that ended up on the doors of the high school. . . . The drug situation was evolving, or coming out of the closet.

How did those things manifest themselves in a high school?

Kids would sneak out and smoke grass in the restroom. . . . There was a whole sort of attitude -- school wasn't important. That's not true of all kids, but there was a significant number who fell into that category.

When did that start to change?

Towards the middle of the '80s, things started to turn around. It probably took us several years to get hold of things. Some of those teachers kids had feelings about in a negative sort of way started to retire, and we could bring in new teachers who were young and dynamic and related well to the kids.

How has the job of being a high school principal changed?

In recent times, this started with the Clinton administration perhaps, there has been no remorse for doing something wrong. . . . I perceive kids as not weighing things from the standpoint of what's right and wrong, but rather from "what are the consequences if I do this?" and "am I willing to bear the consequences?" . . . And then we become spin masters: "It's everyone's fault but mine."

I see that changing now, and that's a plus. I try to trust the kids as far as I can possibly go, and they usually don't let me down. That's one thing I have to say has changed -- the trust factor is strong in this school.

The Whitman kids, they're aware they have certain privileges other kids in this county don't, except maybe at Churchill or Wootton [high schools], but they never, ever, ever brag about that. In fact, they're more likely to go the opposite direction.

Why stay in one place for so long?

I came in '75, I woke up, and it was 2004. No, I've had offers, superintendencies and so on. One thing is, I would have had to take a cut in pay. . . . Also, I've seen where parents up and jerk their kids around for their careers. That's great for the parents, but it's hell on the kids.

Oh, you've got to come back to our Festival of the Arts next year in May. You'll see 1,000 pieces of artwork, you'll see one-act plays. . . .

You're still advertising.

Hey. Great place.

JERRY MARCO