Happy Retirement: My Sister Was Born To Teach

IMG951132_copyAs children, while I was still busy beating up the neighborhood boys, my sister was training to be a teacher. With hand-me-down teaching materials from our parents, both educators, she lined up stuffed animals and dolls in front of her chalkboard. Even back then, she never raised her voice. In an old grade book, she recorded only As and Bs making sure that every Connie doll and Teddy bear in her classroom passed with flying colors.

With a soft spot for the underdog, she befriended the child with a limp and made sure the class misfit was included in games. While I was an ornery, hard hitter looking for a fight, Sue, the peacekeeper, inherited an extra kindness gene. Never has a more compassionate soul walked the earth.

As if she couldn’t wait to get started, she graduated a semester early from Illinois State University with a degree in special education. Her first job was so challenging, she questioned her calling, but she didn’t give up. She moved on to Yorkville High School, becoming the first fulltime LD teacher where she dedicated the next 34 years building the special education department, one brick at a time. When she arrived she was the only LD teacher, now nine teachers in her department serve the needs of about 120 students and co teach in 45 classes where they reach additional students. YHS has 4 other special needs programs with another 80 plus students and Sue and her staff sometimes work with those students though they aren’t on their caseloads.

Sue has been honored with Teacher of the Year accolades and the Fox Pride Award but what makes her proudest is hearing about the successes of her former students. And she does find out because her students keep in touch. Several of her students have been inspired to go into teaching.

Most people embrace retirement with open arms; my sister’s heart is torn. If one could put the state testing requirements, curriculum writing, and administrative demands aside, she would remain in education forever. She never really wanted to give up the teaching.

In her magical way, she made every child who felt stupid and hopeless believe that he had something special to offer the world. She unlocked the key to his heart, unscrambled his mind. Then sitting by his side, she taught him tricks to interpret the world in a way that made sense to his brain.

In Sue’s classroom, students never felt uniqueness was a deterrent. She helped dyslexic kids learn to read and ADHD children to understand concepts while on the move. She counseled distraught parents and troubled teens, and won over colleagues and administrators. As a catalyst, she united families, educators and support staff to work together for the best interest of the child. As an advocate, she implemented the best accommodations and individualized education plans to give her students every tool to succeed. She never pampered special needs kids through the program, she merely leveled the playing field and made sure every child in her department was prepared.

IMG_0762_copyAs if preordained, my sister was destined to teach, born with a gift. She set the bar high and served her school with excellence. She earned her rest, yet I imagine she will continue doing what she does best, giving back to her family, friends, church, and community. Though she retired from her position at the head of the class, her legacy continues in students and colleagues and family members whose lives she touched as a teacher.

The greatest proponents of education theorize that kids learn best by modeling behavior. Sue set a shining example, sharing her time, her energy, her wisdom and her heart, not only with her students, but also with the rest of us. She taught each day in a state of grace and went out of her way to make the journey easier for anyone who crossed her path. In her book, we were all special and gifted.

 

Extra Special Moms Remain Best Friends Forever

images-1_copyTraditionally, women have been uprooted from family to follow their husbands’ careers, though that may have changed today, back in the 50s it was the norm. Women welcomed one another to town and friendships solidified over back porch chats, coffee clutches and church circles. There is no greater testimony to friendship than my mom, Lenore, and Shirley DeJarnatt, who have been BFF ever since they met half a century ago.

They met when my folks moved to Sterling and they have been friends ever since. Like sisters they talk on the phone almost every day and stop over at one another’s homes to drop by this or that just to chat. They have shared hundreds of meals, thousands of cups of coffee, and millions of stories.

When my mom was leaving the hospital with her newborn, Shirley was arriving to have her first girl. Born just days apart, naturally, those girls, Karen and Michelle, went to become friends to this day even though they now live 400 miles apart.

Shirley raised 3 boys and a girl, whereas my mom had 3 girls and boy. As kids we shared hand me downs and potluck dinners. My first bike used to be Barry’s and I coveted Mark’s fringed, cowboy vest that he finally outgrew so that I could inherit. Eating at DJ’s house was a special treat because they had a “cow machine” where milk squirted out of the spigots and they served homemade ice cream from the hand turned buckets.Lenore & Shirley_copy

When we were in high school, my sister was hired to clean the DJ’s house and Shirley was always calling to ask where Susie put the frying pan, the hair dryer or the phone book.

In later years, long after Shirley’s mom had passed away, she adopted my grandma when Grandma moved from the east coast to live in Sterling. When my mom was out of town, Shirley would check in on Gram Olson and take her to lunch or give her a ride to church.

Whenever my parents returned from long trips, Shirley would fill their refrigerator with groceries, so they wouldn’t have to run out and shop. And oh no, it was not just any ol’ store bought stuff, but extra special treats, homemade chili and BBQ, banana bread and blueberry pie.

When Shirley’s beloved husband, Carson, died, my folks were there holding her hand, helping her let go and staying by her side through the lonely days to follow.

To my own children she became known as the Bear Lady. During Christmas holidays, we visited Shirley’s beautiful home to see her teddy bear collection. Though Shirley had her own 10 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren, ever so generous, she spoiled my kids too bringing them books and Beanie Babies on their trips to Sterling.

For over a half a century, they belonged to same church where Shirley directed and my mom played the chimes. Both kindergarten teachers, married to high school teachers/coaches, they had so much in common especially kindness. It would be a toss up to determine who was more thoughtful.images-2_copy

During every celebration or setback, birth, or death just like sisters, they have been there for each other to share in the joy or heartache and endure whatever life threw their way. Divided by two, no problem was insurmountable.

Happy Mother’s Day to two wonderful moms and BFFs

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Family, School, Town Combine to Create Distinguished Alumni

Image 7_copyIf you have the fortune to live in the world’s richest and arguably most beautiful country and can open your door to a stunning view of the Alps, why would you ever miss an industrial, farm town on the Rock River in the flatlands of Illinois. But I do.

Creating a sense of community in Geneva, international hub of the world, is the like building the foundation of the Taj Mahal in quicksand. The nature of the typical expatriate is transient; due to job relocation, everyone you meet eventually moves on. Though my friends include people from around the globe, few call Switzerland home and plan to retire here.Geneva

Sterling, Illinois offered more stable roots. Yet, other than lying in the richest soil in the USA, my hometown didn’t have much of a calling card. Sterling is not so much about the place; it’s about the people.

Next Saturday, May 10, some of those people will be inducted into the Sterling High School Distinguished Alumni Class of 2014. The Distinguished Alumni Award honors former graduates for their outstanding contribution to society. It is a tribute to a small town, to public education and to a community that teaches its own to pay it forward in their fields.

Some of the award recipients I never knew as individuals, but I knew their people. I don’t remember meeting Ruth Cooperrider, but I remember her family.

Every member of David Schrader’s family graduated from SHS and though I never knew him, his sisters and my sisters’ lives intertwined every step of our school years.

This year the award also goes to three inductees that I am proud to call friends. In each case, their families, too, have been a stalwart part of the community and, like me, they dedicated their lives to looking out for the underdog.

Carol Fitzgerald ‘68, CEO of the YWCA of the Sauk Valley since 1985, advocates for the national YMCA’s mission “empowering women and eliminating racism.” Her siblings all attended SHS and her mom, Dian, was a beloved English teacher at the high school.

Amy Eshleman ‘80, was my surrogate little sister in basketball and a member of the SHS 1st state championship team in 1977. She became the Assistant Commissioner of Chicago Public Library and helped develop the resource sharing partnerships for the 79 public libraries in Chicago. The Eshleman family was a pillar in the community.

Image 4_copyPhil Smith ‘67 and his family rose above the evil legacy of Jim Crow. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, he turned the other cheek and gave back to the community becoming the first African American coach in the conference. At SHS he inspired hundreds of athletes –including me- to believe in themselves. His loyalty to SHS is parallel to none. Like he always said, “I bleed Blue and Gold.”

During the turbulent 50s, 60s and 70s, at a time of civil unrest, gender inequity and social injustice, our community gave us stability. Through our families, our schools and athletic teams, we learned to work hard, demand excellence, advocate for equality, and give back to society. No matter if we moved to the opposite coast like David in California, or Ruth across the state border line, or regardless if we remained in the local area, like Amy in the greater Chicago land or Carol and Phil in the Sauk Valley Region, we carried the lessons from our community into our careers.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there on May 10th to shake their hands in person, but today I’m giving a special nod from abroad to our distinguished SHS alumni, to my hometown, and to the families that laid the foundation of our lives. Rock solid, Sterling.Sterling H.S. photos July 2011 029_copy

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A Weekend Getaway to Valais Switzerland

One of the perks of living in Switzerland, a small country with such contrasting landscapes, is that within a few hours drive, you can enter what feels like another universe.

Over the long Easter weekend, we drove along the Gold Coast of Lake Geneva, around Montreux, the Swiss Riviera, through the Glion Tunnel into the Rhone Valley and onto the famous wine region of Leytron. Half way up the Alps, we reached our destination, Ovronnaz, an alpine village in the Valais region, perched on a plateau at 1350 meters, known for its thermal spa and ski ranges at 2500 meters. Ovronnaz’s proximity to the plains makes it easily accessible for short getaway trips from Geneva.

Our hotel, located just outside of the village in the Muverans mountain range, offers stunning views of the valley of the Rhone on a clear day, but from our balcony we could barely distinguish the mountains in the mist.

The all-purpose Nordic center offers a winter wonderland of cross-country, snowshoe, downhill and telemark skiing trails. Summer activities are equally enticing for outdoor adventurers and include 90 miles worth of trails for hiking, via ferrata, paragliding, skydiving and mountain biking. We were caught between seasons; no snow remained in the village for cross-country skiing and the downhill ski trails were closing.

To understand why the Valaisan are such hardy folks one must explore the area on foot; it is impossible to walk anywhere without going up. The treacherously steep trails are imposing to a flatlander with bad knees. Invariably, ze Frenchman would bound off ahead on a trail that he was sure looped back down to the village, but at every turn in the trail led upward. Whining about my aching knees, I begged him to turn back. Though the trails are marked, so many overlap, it was easy to get lost.

Yet by venturing off on the beaten path we saw wildlife. We marveled at the mama deer and her doe bounding through the pines. Under a gentle snowfall, we hiked on trails of soft pine needle and through occasional patches of snow. Birds chirped, wild flowers peeked out and trees budded gave hints of the glorious spring soon to arrive.

After a long hike, nothing is more revitalizing than a long soak in the mineral rich baths in one of the three pools with water at various temperature levels. Naturally, I like it hot, so I spent my time in the outdoor pool at 85°. While snowflakes tickled my cheeks, the steaming waters soothed my aching joints. The contrast between the hot water and cold air was invigorating as we floated in a mini paradise surrounded by snow clad mountain peeks.

Forty-eight hours later, we threw open our shutters of our balcony for one last look at the Valais at it’s best. A ray of sunshine illuminates the valley and brings the jagged edges of the surrounding mountains into focus. We wind back down the mountainside toward Lausanne. “Et hop” its back to work in the lowlands.

And if you like wandering around instead of choosing one location, why wouldn’t you take your RV or rent one ?

 

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Happy Easter, Happy Spring

In the so-tired-of-winter Midwest, spring is taking its own sweet time arriving, but over here Europe, we are ahead of the season. My family and friends in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are sick of seeing snow, so throw open those shutters, let the sunshine, enjoy a sneak peak of my neck of the woods, back home in Switzerland.

Out my back door, through the fields, step into that breathtaking view of the AlpsIMG_4382_copy

Traditional mountain chalet with geraniums on the balconyIMG_0012_copy 

Dandelions & primroses dance along mountain trails await for the hardy hikersIMG_3660_copy

A piece of paradise halfway to heavenIMG_3637 - Version 2_copy

Stop in at the local Auberge for the meal of the dayIMG_4399_copy

Even the cows are looking good, donning their Easter bonnets IMG_0035_copy

Hang in there. Spring will be tap dancing at your doorstep soon. Flowers will burst into a riot of color like fireworks reminding you to celebrate the survival of a rough winter. Sending love and laughter, chocolate and chutzpa, sweet vibes and sunshine from Switzerland. Happy Easter.

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Top 10 Highlights of my Final Four Basketball Tour

2014-03-18 04.07.17_copyDuring media interviews and community speeches culminating with my keynote speech at the NCAA Final Four Banquet, I held center stage and had a chance to share the story of the pioneers. Here are my top ten memories riding the emotional roller coaster of my first Final Four.

1. My former Illinois State University coach, Jill Hutchison, whom I hadn’t seen in 35 years drove 10 hours to surprise me. From the front row at the banquet, she gave me the thumbs up and just like driving the baseline long ago, I nailed the performance under her benevolent eye.

2. My daughter, the first doctor in the family, illustrated the true evolution of women’s rights. “In 1970, less than 8% of physicians were women,” Nathalie said in her speech. “My med school class at the University of Minnesota was about 50% female. I’m privileged to have grown up at a time where my gender was not a major handicap to pursuing my dreams, and Title IX played a big part in changing things for the better.”

3. Young athletes, who never fathomed that there was day when girls had to sit on the sideline, sat up straight and listened when I talked about the trials pioneers endured to reach the pinnacle of our women’s NCAA Final Four.

4. The NCAA Chair, Dave Martin told me, “Awesome speech!” Better yet, he promised to pass my book, Home Sweet Hardwood, on to the next generation, his daughter

5. Beth Ball, the CEO of Women’s Basketball Coaching Association, echoed my words and gave a nod to Jill, cofounder and 1st President of the WBCA and to the late Betty Jayne, its first CEO. I felt the profound impact of being a part of history.

6. Shirley Egner, DIII Wisconsin’s winningest coach, a rival back in my college days, became an ally when my daughter played for her at UWSP. The Final Four cemented our friendship.

7. My book was displayed in a university bookstore right along with the Pointer T-shirts, baseball caps and college apparel.

8. I saw firsthand female basketball players dive for loose balls, bump under the boards, and knock down jumpers while fans applauded every action; male peers cheered the loudest.

9. I was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio Route 51 to the background beat of Sweet Georgia Brown. That was same song the jazz band played when I was a child watching the boy’s basketball team warm up, praying one day girls could play, too.

10. The people who hear me chat all the time on the phone and during holidays – my sisters, brother-in-law, and kids – traveled a combined 2200 miles to hear me speak. My son, a history major, nodded in approval and told me I got the facts right. Now how cool is that?

A special shout out to UWSP’s director of general education and history professor, Nancy LoPatin-Lummis for making it happen. While watching her 12-year-old daughter’s basketball game, Nancy realized that had she wanted to play when she was child, her dad would have to court and fight for the right to participate. Nancy wanted her daughter to appreciate the opportunities available to girls today. Her epiphany inspired UWSP Title IX and Access to Opportunity lecture series celebrating the evolution of women’s rights leading up to their hosting of the DIII Final Four Basketball Tournament.

After a week of celebration where I felt like I had landed in basketball heaven, I flew back to Switzerland where no one had heard of March Madness. I went into withdrawal because I could no longer fill in brackets, follow teams, and watch games. But, hey, only another 300 some days until the next Big Dance.

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