Retirees Reminisce about “Their” Viterbo
By Pat Kerrigan
It was their time to talk and mine to listen.
Pending retirement can promote a lot of reminiscing, so I scheduled a visit with our departing faculty to hear more about what it was like at Viterbo and what memories they will be carrying with them as they locked up their offices one final time.
Joan Keller-Maresh, nursing, talked about what it was like to be just 40 and to suffer a debilitating stroke in the very first year of her teaching career. Frightened and uncertain about her future, a loving and caring campus community embraced her and gradually her fears dissipated.
Dave Schulz, business, couldn’t get over the shock he experienced when fellow faculty paid him the ultimate compliment after just his first year at Viterbo, naming him Teacher of the Year. If you can believe it, Schulz made a confession that would shock the payroll officer at Viterbo. “This is the most fun I’ve ever been paid to do. In fact, I never told my wife, but I would have done it for nothing,” said Schulz who enjoyed two other careers and didn’t get started at Viterbo until he was in his 50s.
Susan Rush, music theatre, said an actor is always on the move looking for his or her next job. At Viterbo, she broke the rule and stayed because she liked La Crosse, her students, and her colleagues. “I just nested,” she admitted.
Pat Wessels, nursing, doesn’t recall how many students she taught, although she knows the total is plenty. At 68, she leaves still believing she has a lot more to give and thankful for her rich and rewarding career at Viterbo.
Jerry Benser’s passion for music and teaching is impossible to miss. He brought with him, for our chat, letters of thanks from several students often containing heartfelt reflections that he could hardly talk about without choking up.
Finally, Larry Krajewski, a man always known to speak his mind, logged 37 years at Viterbo, quite a feat by anyone’s standard. At Viterbo, he taught every course in the math curriculum except probability and statistics. Years of routine? Hardly. He said he’ll miss teaching and in particular, his colleagues. “We had a wonderful department. I can’t think of a time when we’ve had a serious fight. We always worked things out,” he said.
All had stories to tell that began and ended in a similar fashion. Dedicated professionals, they love teaching, interaction with their students, and the daily dose of stimulating conversation that goes on among friends and fellow faculty within the campus community where good chemistry and camaraderie prevail.
I couldn’t help but feel that Viterbo founders would be pleased with what I was hearing from this first large group of lay faculty to retire at the same time. The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) started this educational mission well over a century ago.
Some names are familiar. Sisters Celestine Cepress, English; Grace Clare Beznouz, nursing; Marie Leon LaCroix, theatre; symbolize hundreds of other like-minded FSPA members who dedicated their life work to advancing the mission of Viterbo and the careers of its students.
I love the way Jerry Benser described the FSPA he worked with early in his career and the way a cadre of dedicated nuns influenced his approach to the music profession. The sisters he knew led by example. Today, the term “mentoring” is a fancier modern day equivalent.
“Whatever needed doing, they (FSPA) just did it. You could feel the dedication, devotion and spiritual quality the nuns had. They weren’t trying to get us to adopt a ‘24/7’ approach. It just happened.”
I have to agree. When I started at Viterbo 24 years ago, 33 FSPA were working at the university. I knew many and worked incredibly hard to meet their standards in the hopes that I would not disappoint.
While the number of FSPA has dwindled over the years, the expectation always remained that the stewardship, mission, and Franciscan way would be carried on by future generations of lay faculty and administrators.
Some might say that the FSPA vision is a tall order to maintain in today’s highly mobile, grab ’n’ go, here-today and gone-tomorrow society.
But, Viterbo is still a place that works, adhering to Franciscan values while growing and changing and meeting the challenges that go with it.
Some things change, but in good places like Viterbo, the underlying values that bind a community together, remain the same.
That’s what keeps Viterbo going and why the university continues to attract dedicated, quality faculty and staff.
And to those who have just retired, thanks for your commitment, for putting students first, and most of all, for being an important chapter in the continuing Viterbo story. Your retirement is well deserved. Your colleagues that remain and the future generations of faculty and staff who will follow in your footsteps, will do like the FSPA did for us, benefit from your good work.