Retirees Recall A Very Special Viterbo
May ended and Viterbo hallways quieted down a bit as six faculty closed out the school year and locked their offices not just for summer break, but for a final time.
Retiring were Jerry Benser, music; Pat Wessels and Joan Keller-Maresh, nursing; Larry Krajewski, math; David Schulz, business; and Susan Rush, music theatre. Their tenure at Viterbo ranges from eight to 37 years.
Other long-term faculty who left, but did not “officially” retire include Mary Hassinger, dean of the School of Letters and Sciences after 25 years, Lori Lewis, in dietetics for 34 years, and Wendy Storandt, after 30 years of teaching nursing students.
Their collective retirements warrant a special footnote in the university history book. Never before have this many lay faculty officially concluded their tenure at one time. Friends and colleagues observed this milestone last spring at the annual Rose Awards.
While none admitted that they would miss grading piles of papers, late night lesson plans, or final exams, all agreed that the energy derived from interacting with students and fellow faculty more than made up for the demands of their profession.
“It’s awesome seeing students get it,” said Keller-Maresh, 70, of her nursing students. “When they see a birth; when they write about the wonderful experiences they’ve had; I love the look in their eyes. I’m going to miss that.”
Keller-Maresh: A Hard Start
The nearly three decades of teaching that Keller-Maresh experienced at Viterbo included some challenges she could have hardly predicted, she poignantly recalled. Just 40 and in her first year at Viterbo, she suffered a life-threatening stroke, resulting in impaired speech and paralysis. Fearing career loss and the inability to care for her young family, Keller-Maresh received a sympathetic call from nursing chair Sr. Grace Beznouz who said, “All the sisters would be praying for me and not to worry.” Thus with these reassurances and the much needed therapy and healing time that followed, Keller-Maresh’s career and commitment to Viterbo was solidified in a very deep and unforgettable way.
Rush: She and Viterbo “Meant to Be”
While Keller-Maresh wove together a rich tapestry of memories in logging a 28-year career in nursing, Rush’s 11 years were no less intense or invigorating. In fact, for a performer, her tenure would be considered by many of her theatre peers as an eternity. “This was very surprising. I’m an actor and jobs begin and end. This was a long gig,” said Rush, 64, who originally thought, “no way” would she be teaching in La Crosse for more than a decade.
“I’m a firm believer that this was meant to be,” she said. “I developed some very rich friendships and they are here. I love my house. I love the summers. I guess I just settled in and nested.”
Like Keller-Maresh, Rush cited contact with her students as the driving force that kept her fully engaged and occupied. “I’m an actor who teaches. Shows were hard and fun. Students were hard and fun,” said a characteristically candid Rush. “It could be a pain in the ‘kiester.’ Anyone who teaches would say that.”
Krajewski: A Witness to Change
Viterbo curiosity seekers who want to go way back into the annals of Viterbo history, need look no further than math professor Larry Krajewski, who packed up his math books after 37 years of teaching. Hired by then President Rev. J. Thomas Finucan, only Darrell Pofahl in sociology has put in more years.
Now much larger, the Viterbo he recalls from 1971 was considerably different. “When I first interviewed, I had to look Viterbo up in a directory because I hadn’t heard of it. The college, which had an enrollment of less than 500, had just gone co-ed, and the Fine Arts Center had just opened. The first contract I signed was for $10,500 but that was OK.”
He enjoyed a good laugh as he recalled that he beat out another excellent candidate for the math job. That applicant, Marc Saegrove, would eventually find his way to Viterbo after he successfully reapplied for a subsequent position. “After Marc came in second to me, he then went to teach in Guam for four years and he met his future spouse there. He was then hired at Viterbo where he’s been ever since,” said Krajewski of Saegrove, a respected colleague who for decades, shared a nearby office in Murphy Center.
While Krajewski, 63, is looking forward to free Sunday nights with no papers to grade, the sense of community he experienced at Viterbo will be hard for him to replace. “It’s the people here I’ll miss.”
Likewise, fellow faculty will miss his candor and penchant for speaking out on issues that he thought were important. “That’s something I learned from my father who worked in a factory and went out on strike several times,” he said. “Always speak your mind.”
Wessels: Where were you?
It’s not uncommon for people to recall where they were the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, but few can probably remember where they were in 1978 on the day Elvis Presley died. Retiree Pat Wessels does. That’s when she moved to the La Crosse area, accepting a job teaching nursing at Western Technical College. The following year she was hired by Viterbo.
“It’s unbelievable,” Wessels, 68, said. “I look back and it doesn’t seem real. I wasn’t going to be a teacher. I was going to be a nurse. But even in the hospital, when I worked clinical, I did a lot of teaching through meetings, sharing information, and taking an active role in health issues.”
During Wessels’ career, which spanned 30 years, she left twice to pursue other interests, at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center as a patient care coordinator, and later for another health care position in Cleveland.
But the lure of Viterbo always remained and she returned to the place she loved, to teach, and to also serve briefly as chair of the nursing department and as dean of the school.
As Wessels left Viterbo for the final time, she carried with her a “golden moment” that she will always cherish. Wessels, along with Keller-Maresh, Rush, and Krajewski were conferred faculty emeriti status and each received a specially struck medal featuring the university seal, to commemorate their newly acquired status. “The medallion is beautiful. I could go to any Olympics and get in by showing that medal,” she said with a great deal of pride.
Benser: A Class Act
Also conveying a similar sense of pride, musician Jerry Benser said he knew Viterbo would be a good fit when he was hired and it didn’t surprise him that he stayed 17 years. “The ‘hiring class’ of 1991 was a good one,” he quipped. “That year included former president Bill Medland, nursing dean Silvana Richardson, and history teacher Michael Smuksta.”
Known for his passionate performance and teaching style, Benser said the founding FSPA—many of whom were musicians—set the bar high for the lay faculty they mentored.
“I don’t know how people with children survived,” he laughed. “Sisters Beth Saner, Annarose Glum, Antoinette Delorbe, as they went along, whatever needed doing, they just did it. Viterbo was very fortunate to have the FSPA. As lay faculty, we bought into it. You could sense that this was more than just a job. It’s a vocation and I could feel the dedication, devotion, and spiritual quality that the sisters had. They weren’t trying to get us to adopt the 24/7 approach, it just happened.”
For his part, Benser was pleased to share in his students’ lives and the careers they pursued. “I’m extremely proud of all the students I’ve had. They all have a destiny and many at the time didn’t know what it was. I felt it was important to give them a sense that music is an important human need and that they were doing important work.”
Schulz: Savoring Memories
The final retiree, 64-year-old Dave Schulz, leaves Viterbo and the business department, with only one regret. “This was the best job I’ve ever had and I only wish I had started it long, long ago.”
Instead, he discovered teaching later in life, as a second career, after working as a certified public housing manager and then as a human resources manager.
While logging the shortest tenure (eight years) of the six retirees, the time it took Schulz to find his comfortable niche at Viterbo was worth the wait. In just his first full year of teaching, he was shocked to learn that he had been selected by fellow faculty and students to receive one of Viterbo’s highest academic honors—Teacher of the Year.
“What can I say? It was a crowning moment and it just seemed to come out of the blue,” said Schulz with a look that confirmed that his Viterbo memories will be carried well into the future.
Like the five other retirees, Schulz began and ended his conversation talking about students. “They are the ones I will miss the most. Students will stop by, sometimes just to share what’s going on in their lives.”
“I don’t know where to begin,” he said wistfully. “From former students, I get wedding pictures, birth announcements, invitations, and emails.”
Memories—lots of them—were shared by all six in the days leading to the close of the school year. All were too humble to admit what others knew for certain—that their contributions added to a deeply rewarding experience for their students, their colleagues, and the special place they call Viterbo.
As much as they will remember Viterbo, so too will Viterbo staff and students remember them.