Steve Unowsky, who grew up wandering between the bookcases of Ruminator Books and later became a Canterbury Park racing handicapper, is on the fast track in St. Paul schools.
After a two-year stint as an assistant principal in Saudi Arabia, the 33-year-old is the new principal of one of St. Paul's most popular elementary schools, Linwood A+ Elementary. He is one of the district's most-touted new principals, despite a résumé that includes little time as a classroom teacher and no time working in public schools.
Yet, school staff members and St. Paul administrators are gushing over his personality and potential.
"Steve's personality is just a really dynamic one; you could see that right from the start," said Rene Myers-Kelley, a Linwood parent, staff member and member of the school's site council. "He seems to be a leader."
Unowsky, a hometown boy and graduate of St. Paul Highland Park High School, certainly has blazed his own unconventional trail to school leadership.
"It's a little out of the ordinary," he said, chuckling.
His father, David Unowsky, was the longtime owner of the Hungry Mind Bookstore -- later renamed Ruminator Books and recently closed -- near Macalester College in St. Paul. Steve Unowsky remembers spending hours between the stacks of books in the shop, which became renowned as a center for the local and national literary community.
Despite that pedigree, he never developed much of an interest in writing. Instead, after graduating from Highland, he attended the University of Minnesota and majored in child psychology.
"Kids. Kids are the defining force of my career," he said.
That's not to say there wasn't a detour.
In the mid-1990s, Unowsky turned a visit to the Kentucky Derby with his dad and a family friend into a passion for parimutuel betting and the ponies. He learned, he watched. He began working as a handicapper at Canterbury Park and wrote a column for the Star Tribune giving readers betting advice.
About the same time, his career plans veered from counseling children to educating them. He began working at Annunciation Catholic School in Minneapolis, where he served as assistant principal until 2002. That's when Unowsky and his wife, Valora, went to work for the Aramco Schools in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia -- Steve as an assistant principal at a middle school and Valora as a second-grade teacher.
Aramco is the world's largest oil company and its schools educate the children of the company's international workers. The Unowskys lived and worked in a 22-square-mile compound that was home to thousands of people from all over the world.
"It was a great job. It was a great school system providing an excellent education," Unowsky said of his time there, from the summer of 2002 to late April 2004.
"It was an opportunity to meet people from all over the world and be exposed to an exchange of cultures that you just don't see in St. Paul," he said.
Political unrest and anti-American sentiment never rattled them, he said. But after a couple years, they wanted to return home. Unowsky applied for the St. Paul schools' Leadership Institute, an administration training program, via the Internet. He was interviewed and accepted before leaving Saudi Arabia.
It was good timing. Six weeks after the Unowskys' return to Minnesota, Western hostages were taken and killed from Aramco's Oasis Compound. They still have friends there, Unowsky said, and they check the news often.
Once back in the Twin Cities -- the couple now lives in the Lake Harriet area of Minneapolis -- it didn't take Unowsky long to move up the leadership ladder. Before he had even finished the Leadership Institute, he was asked to interview for three principals' jobs.
The folks at Linwood said they decided within minutes after interviewing Unowsky that they didn't want to risk losing him.
"This is a rising star," Myers-Kelley said of the high-energy Unowsky, who was renowned in track in high school and still looks as if he could break the tape ahead of the pack. "And he's hit the ground running."
Even before signing his contract and collecting a paycheck, Unowsky began meeting with Linwood staff members, said Debi March, who is entering her eighth year at the school. Even though she jokingly referred to her new boss as "just a baby," March said Unowsky has impressed teachers with his openness and "ability to quickly size up a situation."
The situation at Linwood is positive. The school's focus is on the arts, it has good test scores and there is a waiting list to get in to the school, not far from the popular Grand and Victoria area of St. Paul. School staff members are close, March said. And the sense of community is strong. Parents and neighbors gather with teachers and students every Friday afternoon to go over the week's accomplishments.
Joann Knuth, Area C Superintendent and Unowsky's assistant principal when he was a student at Highland Park Junior High, said that coming into a successful school can be tough for a new principal. Unowsky, though, seems well-suited for the job.
"Being a principal is simply a very demanding job," she said. "The challenge for him is how to take that school, as a leader, to the next level."
Bookstore brat, child psychologist, American expatriate and now, principal -- Unowsky sees it as just another, natural leg down his own track to happiness and success.
"I feel like I'm in a great situation," he said. "I couldn't have hoped for a better placement. I couldn't have wound up in a better school."