||St. John the Baptist School in Jefferson teacher Margie Schels, middle, stands with eighth graders Josie Peterson, left, and Karsen Powell, right, during a recent celebration honoring Schels’ 40 years as a Catholic school teacher and more than 20 years teaching at St. John the Baptist. (Catholic Herald photo/Kevin Wondrash)
JEFFERSON -- As the annual observance of Catholic Schools Week came to a close at St. John the Baptist School in Jefferson, Principal Susan Loof made a bold, but appropriate statement to a teacher sitting in the front row of church.
“You are Catholic education . . . Today is your day to be appreciated in a very public way.”
The teacher was Margie Schels, who was being recognized in that public way for her 40 years as a Catholic school teacher.
Schels teaches religion and math to seventh and eighth graders and is the eighth grade homeroom teacher.
“She touched so many lives,” said eighth grader Josie Peterson. “She cares for other students and she’s very kind and she helps people grow a lot in their faith.”
“She has so many amazing features about herself and she’s just a really amazing person,” said eighth grader Karsen Powell. “I look up to her -- she’s just a great teacher.”
Mass is celebrated
The February 3 Mass at St. John the Baptist Church, celebrated for the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the feast of St. Blaze, was also a chance to honor Schels’ four decades as a teacher, including more than 20 years in Jefferson.
Loof later said all Schels wanted to celebrate her 40 years was a Mass during Catholic School Week -- just a Mass, nothing more.
Loof said “that just didn’t sit right with me” and there would be a larger celebration -- one Schels didn’t know was happening until she walked into church.
Members of Schels’ family, former colleagues, and friends were special guests at the Mass, which was celebrated by Pastor Fr. Tom Coyle and Fr. Tim Renz, a Jefferson native.
Diocese of Madison Catholic Schools Superintendent Michael Lancaster and Assistant Superintendent Mike Flanagan were also in attendance.
Following Mass, Loof addressed Schels and everyone in attendance.
“Considering all the lives that you have touched, changed, supported, loved, and taught [and] while I know the best place to honor that is right here in church, we wanted to make the day just a little more special for you. So you never ever forget how much you mean to us,” Loof said.
“What started 40 years ago has led you to us, and boy, are we grateful,” she added.
Loof said the school collected letters from current and former students and co-workers and assembled them in a binder to give to Schels.
“In going over the letters that have been coming in,” Loof said, “the one thing that stood out was how you made each student feel special and important.”
“You meet each student where they are, not where you want them to be. Your endless planning does not go unnoticed. I have never known you to take the easy way out.”
Schels was also presented with an Apple gift card, supported by the parish community raising more than $2,000, so she can get a new laptop computer.
Schels’ mother Monika was also in attendance and recognized for her support all these years.
Another surprise was a video presentation made up of thank you messages from former students, many of whom had Schels as a teacher earlier in her career at St. Peter School in Skokie, Ill., and at St. Athanasius in Evanston, Ill.
One of the messages was from WGN-TV in Chicago news reporter Mike Lowe, who said he used to be the “class clown,” but “now I’m the guy on the news, and a lot of that is thanks to what I learned in your classes, so congratulations on 40 years of teaching.”
Former co-worker Linda Grau was one of the guests at the celebration.
Grau has known Schels her whole career and served as a mentor in her early years.
“After the first day of watching her, I knew I wasn’t needed and that anybody that got her would get gold,” said Grau.
“I think she is so deserving of this and any other accolades she can get. She has always been a selfless, self-motivated, wonderful teacher.”
One of Schels’ two sisters, Chris Fragassi, who helped plan a lot of the event, said she couldn’t imagine her sister being in any other occupation.
“When I was four or five, we were playing school all the time. [Margie] was, of course, always the teacher, so my younger sister and I were always the students . . . always knew she was going to be a teacher.”
When getting her turn to speak, Schels said she was “awestruck” and going through a wealth of emotions.
She remarked part of the reason she and her sisters always played “school” was, as the oldest child of immigrant parents from Germany, she knew English the best and helped her sisters with their homework.
“I never doubted that I would become a Catholic school teacher,” said Schels. “That was always uppermost in my mind.
“I’ve been very blessed to be able to do that . . . I feel so very blessed to be here.”
She also hoped and prayed her students will live out their callings as well.
Later, at a reception with family, guests, and her current students, Schels said she felt “overwhelmed and such a tremendous amount of gratitude . . . gratitude for so many things for people and for opportunities.”
She added in addition to gratitude, “there’s this sense of accomplishment.”
“I’ve always loved teaching eighth grade,” Schels said, “just knowing that I could be a part of helping them steer through adolescence, but most important to me, is just being a mentor for their faith development.”