This is February 1, 1994. I am speaking with Mr. John Cutler in his home in Mercer, PA on his experiences as a high school principal and retired county superintendent.
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Q: Mr. Cutler, would you begin by telling us about your family background and childhood interests, your education and how you entered the field of teaching?
(Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)
A: I grew up on a small farm over on the left side of Mercer County, near Sharpsville. My father was a truck driver, I guess you'd say, and he also worked at the blast furnace in the steel industry, which was only a couple miles from where we lived. I guess I started out begging as a door-to-door salesman. Times were different then than they are now. We used to grow rhubarb and green onions, tomatoes, corn, and things like that, which, uh, were mainly marketed door-to-door. And, uh, that was my particular job. I had a Shetland pony and little wagon went with it, and I started out that way.
Q: What year was that?
A: Well, I was born in 1903 and I think I would have been about, uh, maybe nine of ten, in there somewhere. Forgotten what year I got the pony. Won the pony. Won the pony in a, in a fireman Fireside contest. It's a magazine. A great experience, really, for me at that age.
Q: You sold cars before you went to college?
Q: In 1921?
Q: Is that what made you decide to go into education?
A: No. I decided, uh, decided that pretty much before and that, uh, I needed a little cash to go to college.
Q: How long were you a teacher? Two or three years I think?
A: I taught not quite two full years before I was made high school principal. I'll have to say that the, uh, principalship was different in those days than it is now. I think schools, many of them, were not as large, of course. And, uh, it was easier to be...there were no qualifications, no certification for principals. That time, you got five votes on the Board and you were in. I guess three votes would do it, maybe (ha, ha).
Q: What motivated you to be a, become a principal?
A: Well, I wanted to live and (ha, ha) have a family, and, uh, I guess money was the motivator, probably.
Q: Some things never change.
Q: Would you describe your school, and any unusual features in the building as you walk us through it?
A: Well, the building was in Sharpsville. It's, uh, been there since, uh, 1924 or five, I guess, 1922, 1922, it was. I was a member of the last class to graduate from the old high school building in Sharpsville, and then this building was built and they moved into it in 1922. It was, uh, fundamentally, a classroom building. There was a, was a, uh, auditorium, which doubled as a gymnasium, at that time. Later, a gymnasium was added. The old one taken just for an auditorium. We did the usual things, I guess, that we did in schools. We had assemblies, we'd have contests, and, uh, played basketball, football. That was about the extent of the athletics, I guess. There was a library. Of course, it just started, really. Home economics. That's what it was called then. And, uh, we had a pretty good chemistry department, in fact, and biology department.
Q: Do you remember how many students night have been in a class, or graduated?
A: Yes, uh, well, let's see. Oh, 30 or 35 would have been a pretty good size class at that time. In my high school class, at the same school, there were about sixty of us that started in the freshman year, ninth grade. And, uh, four years later there were eighteen of us that finished. You see, at that time, that was during war years and, uh, boys could get jobs, girls, too. Some of us did. The dropout rate was terrific. Sixty down to eighteen that finished.
Q: Do you have a general philosophy of education?
A: Well, I think that education should be for the good of boys and girls and for the country in which we all live. I think that, uh, education should be in fundamentals. Good reading, writing and arithmetic are still a good base to go on. But you have to go way beyond that now. With all the electronic age that's coming in. I think around here the schools are meeting that challenge pretty well. I think there are computers, probably, in every school in this county. They work at them, do problems and exercises. Some of the teachers are prepared specially for that work.
Q: What kind of things do teachers expect principals to be able to do, um, or what kind of things you think it takes to be effective as a principal?
A: Oh, it's changed a great deal in my line of time. But in the beginning the, uh, teachers looked at their principals for help in managing students. Back in those days we used the paddle and the principal applied the paddle. Usually, not always, usually. And, he was looked to for any kind of a problem really, that came up in the classroom. A dispute between parents and teachers. It was a manifold type of position, as far as duties and responsibilities were concerned. And that's pretty much true today. I think, too that with the exception that he has more help. When I was a principal, (ha) (ha) I hate to think of the teeth I had to stop aching. We had no nurse. We had no doctor. (Ha) Anything that was done for the good of the kid was done either by the teacher or the principal and the principal did a good bit.
Q: That's really interesting. Would you discuss your pledge to leadership, because over the years much has been discussed in this area? And maybe you have a technique that worked for you in terms of leading the teachers or students, that you want to describe.
A: Well, I think that the main thing for a principal to do is to gain the respect and the confidence of the teachers. If he lacks that, uh, it's real difficult, I think, to get very much accomplished in the way of working together. And teachers are all different, just like principals are. And you have to get a kind of a happy medium in there that everybody can believe in and subscribe to. Education in those days compared to today was quite a little bit more formal. Many teachers required pupils to stand up to recite, for example. I don't suppose anyone does that now much. And teachers were never called by their first names by the student. And some of that is done today and it's not universal, but moving in that direction. And teachers usually didn't call their fellow teachers by their first name, but Miss or Mister. Sometimes with their close associates that wouldn't hold but generally speaking, it was the case. So, it's changed quite a bit since that time. I don't know if I can go into very much philosophy or the motivation of students. That was one of the big things, that seemed to be necessary. I think discipline and organization are two big things. When I went to high school, there were, as I said, small classes and they got smaller through the years. But I lost my train of thought I guess.
Q: What about the salary, your compensation? It's changed quite bit since you were a teacher. Would you be able to discuss your early days in terms of salary, or your view on how teachers are paid today?
A: Well, the good ones you can't pay enough and the poor ones are paid too much. (ha, ha)
Q: You said that!
A: Salary, as I remember, I think I started teaching for thirteen hundred dollars a year, maybe. And when I became a principal, two thousand. And I stayed pretty close to that until 1926 to 1930. Until 1938 when I went to Mercer, as assistant county superintendent. But I moved to Mercer from Sharpsville for an increase of six hundred dollars a year. I was making twenty four hundred as a principal, and that time the assistant county superintendent was making three thousand. I could hardly believe I moved a family of six that distance for a six hundred dollar increase, a year. I don't think anybody is doing that today, and the starting salaries are ridiculous. When I read what some of the superintendents are getting today, and what I was paid and those were at that time, it gives me the shivers.
Q: You were talking about motivation, discipline, and organization as being necessary to accomplish goals as a teacher. And you also said the principal should gain the respect and confidence of teachers. Otherwise it would be difficult to accomplish tasks. Is there a way or formula that one might adopt to gain the respect of others? Is it an attitude or...
A: Well, a great deal of that depends upon the personalities of the people involved. I have seen cases where the biggest man couldn't manage a room full of students and a little girl about as high as his shoulders would come in and everything would straighten out right away. Very interesting disciplining. But I thing a great deal has to do with respect and confidence, fair treatment, backed up by the paddle. (Laughing)!
Q: Many teachers today have tenure in the system or continuing contract. At the time that you were in the profession was there such a system in place? And, does a system of being able to keep teachers, and pay them more, have strengths and weaknesses?
A: The Pennsylvania Tenure Act was passed I think about 1919, and it came into being while I was still in high school. But it was new and people didn't know. Retirement came in about the same time. The two sort of went together in their development. But, at the time that I started, you got a majority vote at the school board for a year, you were in. You didn't get it the next year, you were out. That was the way it worked. Then that continuing contract came in but, of course many of the Mercer teachers were kept over. I say the time the Tenure Act went in, the teachers needed protection on account of their religious beliefs, and their political affiliation, and from paddling the school board president's son. (Laughing). But they got much more. I still don't know whether they got too much or not, but I know that it's very difficult to weed out the poor ones now.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about the background of the schools or teachers, in terms of how they taught, before I go on to the paperwork or something like that? We talked about background philosophy and what you think should describe success and some expectations of leadership to this point, as well as the salaries.
A: Repeat what you said please.
Q: Sure, Sure. I was just trying to summarize the first part of our conversation. We talked about your background and philosophy, what you think describes success for a teacher, and expectations of the job as principal, as well as leadership and their salaries. Is there anything more you would like to say on any of those subjects?
A: Well, I think there's probably lots more to say, but I don't know as I'm prepared to say it right today.
Q: One area that administrators always complain about is the paperwork and the bureaucracy, how hard it is to deal with that. In your administrative career, could you compare problems with your perceptions of the situation at that time? Was there a lot of paperwork involved in your job as principal or superintendent?
A: Well, there's always been grades to record and report cards to make out and attendance records for us to keep. However, all that has changed some, I think, over the years. The attendance registers now are used partly as the basis to determine the amount of money that is paid by the State. Usually, there are records kept of each student placed in their folder as to their behavior, and their trouble with various teachers or students. They do use suspension yet I think, or expulsion, but not the paddle. (Laughing).
Q: I guess you think that's pretty good. It's an effective means of getting someone's attention. Would you, Mr. Cutler, recommend any changes to American schools today in the terms of the way they operate?
A: That's a pretty hard question for me because I've been out of the system for twenty years or more, but teachers are still a key to education. No question about that in my mind that the teacher is the key to the educational situation. I've seen it done very successfully in one room schools, with up to forty students and six or eight grades. It's hard work, difficult, but it can be done. There was great controversy going on I think between main lining and putting students of similar quality in groups by themselves. I went through all that now, in a one room school, for example. (grandfather clock ringing in background) a youngster wasn't quite normal, mentally, or even physically. He had to stay in that classroom. There was no place else for him to go, unless you put him out in the hall. We tried to get that done in this county, and we did get it done pretty well, I think. We got special classes started. We had classes for the people who were mentally not the same as some of us. Teachers would specially prepare, train, did a lot of hard work and had classes in speech, as therapy, I mean. Now they are saying we should do away with all that. Some are saying, we should do away with all that segregation and put everybody back together. So I've gone a complete circle in that. I think that I would favor taking some of the slower learners out of a main line group, into group themselves for part of the work, but not have to stay in that all the time. Well, that's just my thought about it.
Q: I'd like to discuss or hear your comments about school boards and their effectiveness in terms of the school operation. Do you have any thoughts on that?
A: I didn't get the first word you said.
Q: School boards. Your relationship to the board of education, and of their effectiveness.
A: All right. Well, school boards in small school districts usually practically run the school. If their were five school directors in a district, and ten schools, they'd divide them up and somebody would take two rooms, or certain rooms. Some ways they did some things that a principal these days would do. But the pupil population kept growing and growing, until it seemed some separation would have to be made and it was made. But now we're back to the individual rights matter pretty prominently and some people feel in education that that ought to prevail, and maybe it should. But I think I would well I guess I'd put it this way. If I had a child that definitely couldn't keep up with the others for example, I would prefer to have him or her in a small section where individual attention could be given by a person trained in that field. I think I would be getting the most for money that I would be paying as a taxpayer. But the social angle of it where they're kept apart is bothering a great many people it seems, and there's a tendency to let that now hold its way for aim and I suppose we'll go around circle again, if I live long enough. (Laughing).
Q: Well, you look as if you're in excellent health and you if made it through the last couple of weeks, you're doing great (because we had severe weather conditions). Mr. John Cutler, tape one side two. Mr. Cutler you wanted say something else about the teachers.
A: Teachers didn't have any protection as far as their job was concerned. They had to be voted in and maintain their vote on the board and that's all that was necessary. Then, there was no rating of teachers. Some principals and superintendents would keep some records, but most of them, I think, didn't do anything. Then the rating card came out in Pennsylvania. Principals and superintendents, and the superintendents had final say, on what kind of rating a teacher would get for her work. These cards were developed over a period of time, and I thought they were rather well done but they didn't tell the whole story. That's probably impossible. Not too many teachers were dismissed when I was in active work. But if you were, sometimes there was great controversy about it. Public meetings, attorneys. That changed some now, although there's still some litigation on rating.
Q: For what reason might a teacher be dismissed besides a school board member's son's complaint?
A: I'd rather say You might not be reelected or replaced. I think at that time, the public schools, many of them, were reluctant to employ any people in the Catholic church. But that's of course stopped long ago. It was a very sensitive thing. Another thing at that time was what political party you belonged to, what the composition board of your board was like. Things in a sense that didn't have much to do with teaching.
Q: what did you think of the school board and their role in functioning of the schools. You said they were very powerful.
A: Most of them were fair, but every so often you would get a man elected, or woman, but there were mostly men back in those days. Get somebody on the board that just despised a certain teacher and wouldn't vote for her the next year and get two or three other people to go with him. And she would have to move. The success of teachers is very interesting. I remember one instance of a teacher who was in a one room school, a relatively young teacher, and the board contended that she sat too much, she didn't get up and move around. Finally they took the teacher's chair out of the room. (Laughing). But that teacher went on and finally resigned and went about ten miles, 8 or 10 miles across the country, and got another school, another district. She did wonderful. Well liked.
Q: Your normal work day and how you spent your time as a principal, was it an 8-4 kind of job, or was there an expectation for you to get everything done whether or not and you could go home when everybody else did?
A: I never worked in an 8-4 job. It's always been: do the work and spend as much time as it takes. That meant homework teaching, home studying when you're teaching, and went for extra curricular activities. I've taken tickets at night at a basketball game, concerts, and that sort of thing and no renumeration. It was just part of the job.
Q: What would you like to say about the curriculum and testing? Over the years, it's gotten more complex. Positive and negative aspects to every situation. But, from your experience, were there certain standardized tests the students had to achieve before they were passed on? Was the curriculum was developed from some kind of philosophy, or did everyone pretty much decided how they wanted to teach? You want to say anything about that?
A: Well, in my active days, the grading and judgement about the teacher about the work was pretty much up to the principal and school board (I don't think I'm hitting your question)
Q: I'm asking about the curriculum in school and your experience with testing. Some people think standardized tests improve instruction. Did that exist for your school?
A: There were some standardized tests given. They were not given as a means of promotion, of passing with the exception that students who lived in the school district in Pennsylvania that didn't have a high school and went to a one-room school or small consolidated schools and looked for a neighboring district, a larger district for a high school. They had a test to take. Now that was a subject test, by and large, not an intelligence test, so to speak. But they had to pass that test. The county superintendent was given the authority most of the time, to make those tests, and score those tests and announce the results.
Q: Every job has its pressures, headaches, and its problems. Could you describe some of the daily pressures at work or explain how you coped with the part of the job that was difficult?
A: Well, the biggest problem was between teachers and students. There were some students and teachers by their personalities that just didn't get along. I recall one incident where if a student came in contact, or came into the room of this particular teacher there would be fight! A word fight, no fists involved but these personalities were of such conflict that I just had to solve. I arranged a schedule for this boy so he'd never come in contact. He wouldn't meet her in the hall! Wouldn't go into to her room at all. I don't know if it was a solution to the problem or not but it got us by. Those were very infrequent cases, but we were thinking of this exception for the interview.
Q: Would you be able to say as a principal what was the key to your success? Or, have you already defined that?
A: There was one or two rules that I followed, that not everyone knew about, some did. First place, if I made a statement, made a decision that such and such was to be done, it had to be done. I was careful about what decisions I made but once it was made it had to be followed. If it wasn't followed, there would be punishment. Teachers and students both got to know that. Not everyone supported it. Now the other thing. I never punished when I was angry. I thought that was important. A great deal of trouble in schools comes about, I think, because of personality conflicts.
Q: What would say the to universities to help them get people ready for an administrative position? Is there something we can offer or learn about to help us do this job better?
A: You have to remember I've been out about twenty years (laugh), so I'm a little bit out of date. But I still think that there has to be a head to the school. When that a decision is made, it's got to be carried out. I think that is where a lot of the problems break down.
Q: Mr. Cutler, was there someone who helped you when you were a new principal, in term of a mentor, where an administrator might have someone to get advice from. Was there a person influential in your career?
A: When had a supervising principal who was a correspondent for the superintendent for the district. I could always go to him, usually helpful, but I don't know if I would call him a mentor, but I discussed situations, that's true.
Q: Well this may be the same question, but is there an ideal character that would make a good principal, or are there qualities that a person must possess to be successful in this job?
A: Well, I think honesty, I think attractiveness in appearance, determination to succeed. There are others, but they don't come to mind just at this minute.
Q: Would you discuss your involvement and participation in community organizations? I know you have been very active. Also, which ones had great influence?
A: Well, I tried to help the Retired Teachers as an organization, a professional responsibility. I served on some of the athletic committees, when I was active. I thought that was important. I helped with what we called the Music Literary Home Fest one time in the county. All the schools participated in things like declamation, oration, debate, written history examination, written math examination, language proper usage. I think they were all worthwhile. Does that answer you?
Q: Yes, thank you. Today it's been said that more parental involvement should be developed. What is your view on interacting with parents and citizens who might be important to the well being of the school?
A: Ok, I think it's important to have a support group for a school that would be active and supportive of the policies and helping to make the policies. But the ones that have an ax to grind don't help much.
Q: In your experience, to what extent were parents involved in the daily operation of the school? Did they call you about problems? (clock chimed)
A: Yes, they would. Usually if there was some kind of trouble, problem. There's a lot of talk these days a lot being written about training our parents as well the children. That might have some merit, I don't know. The problem with that, as I see it, is that many of the parents of children these days just don't have the background to understand. Some do, a great many do, but there's a percentage and I don't know what the percentage is, that we're better off without them and try to work with the kid. That's not very well said, is it?
Q: You're fine. I have two or three question about teachers. Would you describe a philosophy of evaluating a teacher, or your approach to how you would critique a classroom performance?
A: I think there is no substitute for school room visitation by a person who authorized to a degree to help. They have to see what's going on. The other way, of course, is to interview people about it. But that's not as good, in my opinion, as actually witnessing it. There are some classrooms built years ago that had one-way glass and an observer could be there and teacher wouldn't know he was being observed. I always felt that's the way I would like to be observed, because I tense up a little bit when a person like that comes into the room. But, many people, many teachers get to the place where, and the students too, sometimes tense up. But some school situations get to the place where they just don't pay any attention when anybody comes into the room.
Q: Do you think teachers have a right to a grievance procedures? Or when they're satisfied, is there an approach that you handled when they came to you with a problem that you would discuss?
A: We always tried to settle the problem, but it wasn't a grievance procedure. In my time we didn't have the law then. And I would get a little perturbed sometimes about instances I would read or hear about where grievances were held. I think this all come about through union development, maybe. I think a lot of it doesn't gain at all educationally.
Q: What do you think of teachers striking?
A: Well, I've always been opposed to it. But at the same time I'd hasten to say that I think a lot of the things that teachers strike for should be granted to them. But this is a method that doesn't, that is not conducive, to education. It's on the negative side I would say. A school, to be successful needs to be coherent and differences of opinion of course, but shouldn't be at the point where they start a fight.
Q: And prevent the student from his continuing education?
A: That's right.
Q: I don't want to put words in your month. If you had an assistant as a principal, what duties would you assign to that person? And maybe in the past you had an assistant?
Q: I didn't think so! If you did, what do you think the assistant principal's role would be for him or her?
A: Well, it depends upon the background, experience and ability of the assistant and the principal, too. They ought to work as a team. Some assistants are good at grading teachers. Some are good at discipline. I certainly think that they should have a strong part in schedule development, work with students. That's about it, I guess.
Q: It seems that as a principal you may be constantly dealing with problems and it could be tense at times. Were there things that you did to alleviate the stress, or how did you maintain your sanity? You were in this job for a long time, so you must have found success. How did you do it?
A: I don't know! (laughing) That as good an answer as I can give. (laughing).
Q: Well other people who know you speak well of you. You obviously have the respect and admiration of your peers, and the teachers you worked with. Do you know why? Was it your consistency, was it that you took this job seriously?
A: I don't think you should ask me that question and the people that had the confidence! I don't know. I tried to be fair, honest back up my word.
Q: Given the problem in today's schools, do you think those qualities would translate into an effective leader in our local school districts today?
A: Oh, I think they always do.
Q: So whether or not a person has the ability to use a computer, if there is a honest-minded individual, they could effect the leadership in a positive way of their student or something like that?
Q: I guess I have some closing questions about retirement and I don't know if I should ask but I would like to hear about your career as a county superintendent, which spanned twenty years and your career as a principal spanned ten years. Is that correct?
A: Let's see. I taught about two years, principal for ten. And I was in the county office for thirty-two years. I was assistant for sixteen and county superintendent for sixteen.
Q: As a principal, you were in the building everyday dealing with problems, I imagine. As an assistant county superintendent you traveled to many difference sites to perform your job duties. Would you be able to compare these two positions? How were they alike, what was different about them?
A: Well, a principal unless he has several schools, has limited area in which to work. The assistant superintendent, and the superintendent would call all over the county pretty much, and had a chance to compare "A" school with "B" school. "A" man with "B" man, and so on. The principal doesn't have quite that same range of observation unless he does it through meetings or contacts with his peers. I think that it's important that the principal as well as the superintendent have a responsibility.
Q: You were saying that the principal and superintendents have the opportunity to work together to effect decisions from the schools. Do you mean in terms of curriculum, in term of teachers development or would you be able to discuss in more detail what you mean?
A: I mean the whole thing really. It has to do with the operation of the school and that include the disciplinary procedures, teacher administrator relationship, school board and the public, certainly need to be involved.
Q: In your days did the students come to school on a bus? Did you have problems in the cafeteria with lunch? That is a typical problems that we study in terms of preparing for the principalship. We haven't talked about the support staff services. Would you give me some insight please?
A: Things about the busing. When I started, if a youngster past the eighth grade lived more than two miles from school, he didn't have to go to high school in Pennsylvania. There was no transportation. Then we went through a period when the parents paid the transportation. The school board made contract with the contractor and charged the per pupil rate and the parent paid the school board. That didn't last very long. Then finally, we got to the place where we if you lived beyond a mile and half from school, you had to be transported. The board had to furnish transportation. That's about where it is about now I think. Except that they've added private schools. In certain instances, at least, the board must pay transportation or furnish transportation to private schools. The problem of handling a bus load of kids is a pretty big problem. We had in our county one or two days of instruction with the school bus drivers on how to deal with pupils and parents that caused problems. Sometimes the parents were a bigger problem than the pupil. But there is no one answer that could solve all situations. I think you have to be guided by the personality of the parent and the child, and their understanding, their stage of development. There isn't one answer to it, really. School bus driving is a tough job. Did you ever drive one?
Q: My first school required me to have a bus driver's license. That was in Nebraska. If this were my interview, I'd tell you more.
A: Some, it's just like school teachers, some bus drivers can maintain that discipline and others just can't. They're doing all kinds of things. I never drove a school bus. Maybe I ought to go and do that. (laughing).
Q: One more thing. What about the school lunch program? How lunch was handled. Was that a problem or were their problems?
A: Well, in the early days of course, the children carried their lunches to school in lunch buckets. And in many cases of one-room schools they went to the neighbors' to get water and carry it back. That's pretty much changed now, except maybe out in, what South Dakota, isn't it? They have a lot of one room schools left.
Q: And Nebraska. Where I started.
A: I thought Nebraska was pretty well closed up, consolidated.
Q: That is what they call them, consolidated schools. There are still a few trailers on somebody's ranch that accomplishes that purpose. But you're right. The Dakota's is more remote. When you decided to retire, what circumstances lead up to that decision? Would you give your reasons and the process that help you reach the conclusion to step down?
A: Well, in Mercer County, after working for thirty-two years in the office I felt it was time to give somebody else a trial. But, in the state, there was a change taking place in the county superintendent's office. That job was really liquidated. And developed Intermediate Units, which were larger than the county, in most cases. And, I didn't have too much interest in going into the intermediate unit, although I did help get it established. So I resigned then the about the time the Intermediate Unit came into this area. I was stimulated to do that, too, because the judges in Mercer county came to me and wanted to know when I'd be ready to be a court administrator. I thought about that for awhile but I didn't know anything about courts, to speak of. But I said whenever they were ready, I was ready. That's where I went from school right into the county court. I think I'd been a better school man if I could have had the court experience first.
Q: What advice would you want to pass on to today's principals and maybe in an overall comment the pros and cons of service as an administrator?
A: Say that again?
Q: What advice would you want to pass on the today's principals, or comments in terms of pros and cons of administrative service? Is there...I guess to every job...good and bad. Any insight you'd like to give the next generation?
A: Well, I sometimes feel or frequently feel that the best work I did, the greatest good I did was as a school principal, even though that was a short period of time. I never walked down the street with what somebody has a hello from way back there. It was a very gratifying experience. A principal has a contact with the children, or should have, that most superintendents can't have because of the numbers. And there's a closer relationship to the principal, principal and student,in my opinion, than there is in superintendent-to-student. A principal just has to be himself and try to stand up for the things he believes in and the right. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
Q: Thank you Mr. Cutler. Is there anything else that I might have left out, or is there something I should have asked you, that I didn't?
A: A lot a things, you could have asked, but fortunately (laughing).
Q: I'll close this interview, and, I again thank you very much.
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