Educator Debra Schams Thankful for Viterbo Mentor

Wednesday, October 25, 2023
Deb Schams

When Debra (Kelly) Schams graduated with her Viterbo early childhood education degree in 1981, getting a teaching job was a tall order. “I think there were probably 500 applicants for every job back then,” she recalled.

But when Schams graduated, she got two offers: one from a school in her hometown of Marshfield and one from La Crosse’s Cathedral Elementary, where she had just completed a stint as a student teacher in the class of Gloria Aguon, FSPA ’66.

“Sister Gloria wanted to go back to Guam, so they asked me to take her place,” said Schams, who jumped at the chance to stay in La Crosse, which she had fallen in love with during her time at Viterbo.

Deb Schams at Cathedral Elementary 2017
Debra Schams's daughters, Carly and Lindsey, came to Cathedral Elementary on the first day of school in 2017 to get a "last first day of school" picture of their mother.

She didn’t even have to go through an interview for the Cathedral job. Schams asked the principal why: “He said, ‘Sister Rochelle’s word is enough.’”

“Sister Rochelle” is Rochelle Potaracke, FSPA ’64, a former Cathedral teacher herself who was a member of Viterbo’s education faculty and an important influence on Schams. She was a masterful teacher and was recognized for her work at Cathedral in 1970 with a statewide Teacher of the Year Award and in 1990 with a Viterbo Teacher of the Year Award.

“Sister Rochelle demanded excellence and you delivered. She was such a strong mentor for me. She’s just one of those people I really elevate,” Schams said. “When I was student teaching, my goal was to just nail the lesson when Sister Rochelle observed. Every time, though, she would find something to work on. That was her way of challenging you.”

Although the number of FSPA faculty members was already declining when Schams was a student, there were a number of other Sisters who left a great impression on her. “I have fond, fond memories of Sister Annarose Glum,” she said.

A 1951 Viterbo graduate, Sr. Glum was a longtime music professor whose no-nonsense approach earned her the affectionate nickname of “Sarge.” As an education major, Schams was required to learn to play piano, something daunting for her because she’d never played a musical instrument before.

“On the strength of Sister Annarose’s teaching, in one semester I went from not reading music to playing The Entertainer,” Schams said, referring to a difficult Scott Joplin ragtime piece made popular in the 1973 movie, The Sting.

Schams’s studies at Viterbo prepared her well for her teaching career, and she flourished as an educator. Eight years after Sr. Potaracke’s recommendation helped Schams land a job at Cathedral, Sr. Potaracke recognized her accomplishments by nominating Schams for the Outstanding Young Alumni Award.

“When I got the letter from Viterbo, I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know they did this,’” recalled Schams, noting that she only invited her then-fiancé (now husband), Tom, to the ceremony.

It’s not surprising she didn’t know about the Outstanding Young Alumni Award. The first such award was only given the year before, to nursing graduate Mary Burke ’79, who has been a Viterbo nursing faculty member since 1995.

While Schams remembers being surprised about getting the award, she does not recall whether the 1989 ceremony in the Marian Hall cafeteria was attended by another award winner that year: Thea Bowman, FSPA ’65, who was honored with a Global Community Service Award. (Viterbo archivist Jason Skoog '06, who found an audio recording of the July 23, 1989 ceremony, confirms that Sr. Thea was not in attendance, but she had been back for a March 1989 humanities symposium.)

Over her 37 years as a second- and third-grade teacher at Cathedral, Schams saw some major changes, with Cathedral going from a parish school to part of the Aquinas Catholic Schools. But one thing never changed. It always felt like she was among family at Cathedral.

Schams said her husband is always amazed at how she is recognized by former students. The students, of course, have changed a lot since they were second- and third-graders, but once they get talking Schams usually flashes on memories of that former student.

One time when she was out to dinner at a restaurant, Schams ran into a former student who was now a teacher herself. “I could actually picture her 7-year-old face when she told me, ‘I think of you every time I do an art project with my students,’” Schams said.

Rochelle Potaracke, FSPA
Rochelle Potaracke, FSPA '64

Over the years, Schams hosted many Viterbo education students in her classroom for their student teaching, many if not most sent to her by Sr. Potaracke, who supervised Viterbo’s student teaching program even after she left her faculty position in 1992.

“If Sister Rochelle asked, I would always say ‘yes,’” Schams said.

For her part, Sr. Potaracke had a habit of always saying “yes” to Viterbo, and in recognition of that she was honored in 2009 with an alumni award for service to the university.

Schams still sees Sr. Potaracke regularly. They both sing in the Mary, Mother of the Church parish choir, and they have developed an endearing way of greeting each other.

“She will say, ‘hello, student,’ and I will say, ‘hello, mentor,’” Schams said.