Beloved guidance counselor ‘Mr. C’ retires after 41 years at Fort Campbell

Chris Casa Santa, guidance counselor at Barsanti Elementary School, talks with fourth graders Brody Hall and Kaitlynn Furnas about their career goals during a classroom visit on June 2. Casa Santa is retiring after 41 years of service to military children at Fort Campbell. 

Casa Santa spent most of his career at Marshall Elementary School, with a brief stint at Lincoln Elementary before working the last five years at Barsanti. During that time, he helped thousands of students through military life’s struggles with his focus on positivity and problem-solving.

“I was actually going to retire a year ago, but the climate was so unstructured that I wanted to come back and be here for the kids,” Casa Santa said, referring to COVID-19’s impact on education. “We’ve always tried to make them feel that school can be a safe place, and I thought my being here might add to the confidence of the children.”

To the students he worked with throughout the pandemic, Casa Santa accomplished his mission.

“When I remember Mr. C, it’s because he made the school year more positive during a hard time like this,” said Cadence Heron, a fifth grade student at Barsanti. “He teaches us to always think positively and helps us feel better on the inside.”

Heron and her fellow students spent time with Casa Santa daily, whether in guidance classes, the lunch room, drop-off or dismissal. Having that consistency and familiarity showed the children they could count on him to help whenever they needed.

Connecting with military children

“Situations come up where they need a counselor for this or that, and I’ve seen all kinds of them,” he said. “During the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict I was talking to children all the time, unfortunately, whose parents had either been deployed or they weren’t going to be able to come back because they’d been killed.”

When it comes to helping military children through their problems, Casa Santa said the most important thing is relating to them. Coming from a teaching job in Muncie, Indiana without a military background, he may have seemed an unlikely candidate. But his father was a Korean War veteran, and he eventually found another personal connection with the students.

“People are surprised when I tell them this, but I originally called up to decline this job,” he said. “Because of the unknowing and the change, and moving into new places and not knowing the faces – and these children did the same thing. They don’t know anyone, and they’re coming in here and they need a friendly face to help them, spend some time with them and talk to them. It took me a while to correlate my situation with theirs, but we’re all in this together.”

Casa Santa credits the hiring manager at the time for encouraging him to take on the role.

“I just like working with the kids, and finding out neat things about them, their Families and their experiences,” he said.

A heart for community service

Casa Santa headed up a few programs of his own, including annual canned food drives for the local chaplain and tab collections for the Ronald McDonald House, which provides Families with sick children a place to stay during hospital visits.

“The canned food drive is super fun because Mr. C always makes sure we remember the real reason we’re doing it,” said Isabelle Bailey, a fifth grader at Barsanti. “It’s not just to raise money. We’re doing it to help others, and he’s just extremely caring toward all of us.”

Those efforts tie directly into the lessons Casa Santa worked to teach his students over the last four decades.

“Some of the main things I want the kids to learn about are being respectful of others and being aware of those who aren’t as fortunate as they are,” he said. “When we’ve collected tabs for the Ronald McDonald House, I tell them what the tabs go toward and how it helps Families ... and in the five years I’ve been here we’ve probably donated 6,000 cans to the chaplain on post. It’s that type of community spirit that I at least try to get the children thinking about.”

Part of the Family

Casa Santa also led the students by example, said Melinda O’Bryan, a fifth grade teacher at Barsanti who worked with him for four years.

“When he comes in to work with the students, he treats them all like they’re his kids,” she said. “He’s given out hats and scarves, and he also puts birthday pencils in their school mailboxes. He’ll be hard to replace, and I’m sure he’s like a grandpa to the kids.”

O’Bryan said Casa Santa showed that same level of care and consideration for his fellow employees.

“The biggest thing about Mr. C is that the moment you meet him he becomes Family,” she said. “He’s a very genuine person, and you can tell it’s not just his job.”

Paying it forward

Casa Santa’s role in the school system was inspired by his own guidance counselors growing up, and he said they left a strong impact on him that he wanted to pay forward.

“I think overall, the children look to the school as a place of safety and comfort more now than they did when I first got here,” he said. “When you see a child who may be struggling in one aspect or another, and you see the lightbulb go off and you see them get what they can do, that’s what’s rewarding. You’ll see people who come back and say, ‘gee whiz, thanks for helping me.’”

Many of those people are students who returned to Fort Campbell as Soldiers with their own children, who Casa Santa calls his “grand-students. Others have visited the installation to thank him for impacting their childhoods.

“When I went to college, I was friends with the man who became the creator of ‘Garfield,’ Jim Davis,” he said. “Fast-forward a few years, and a little boy who had a tough upbringing, I was working with him. He had mentioned to me how he likes ‘Garfield,’ so I just stuck that in my head.”

As that child’s Family was preparing for a move, Casa Santa reached out to Davis for an autographed photo of Garfield, then framed it for the student as a going-away gift. Nearly 10 years later, the student returned to thank Casa Santa for the gesture.

“Somebody in the office called me and said, ‘there’s someone here to see you,’” Casa Santa said. “We talked for about 15 minutes, and you talk about a lightbulb going off, there was mine. He said, ‘I really want you to know how happy I was when you gave me that Garfield picture.’ It was the same kid, and he had come back and talked his parents into stopping at Fort Campbell to thank me. Those are the most rewarding things.”

Hugh McKinnon, Barsanti Elementary School’s principal, said Casa Santa always put the students before himself and worked tirelessly for military children, Families and the installation.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with Mr. C,” he said. “And I think I speak for everyone in the Fort Campbell community when I say we were privileged to have worked with him and had him on board at these schools for so many years. We’ll be forever in his debt for his contributions.”

During retirement, Casa Santa plans to spend more time volunteering with charitable organizations near his home in Nashville and try out several “bucket list activities” with his wife, who also plans to retire soon.

“After 45 years in education and 41 in one spot, it was time to let another young whippersnapper guide the children,” he said. “Being at Fort Campbell has been wonderful and rewarding to me. It’s something I could have never even dreamed of when I first took this job.”