At one time, students carried an armload of books; then it was heavy backpacks. Now, thin laptops access much of the material they need.
At one time, most students rode a bus to school, and few drove. Now, the student parking lots are filled on school days.
At one time, nuns and priests filled much of the faculty. Now the teaching staff is all lay teachers.
Yes, English teacher Jean Guy and Spanish teacher Winnie Geelan-Potthoff saw many changes from the time they stepped before their first Kuemper Catholic High School classes. That was 48 years ago for Guy and 45 years ago for Geelan-Potthoff.
Over the years there were challenges, even some heartbreaks, but those were overwhelmingly outweighed by the rewards. That’s why Guy and Geelan-Potthoff made Kuemper their home for their entire careers — two of the longest since Kuemper opened 67 years ago.
In a visit at the school at the close of their careers, both Guy and Geelan-Potthoff said they were attracted to teaching early in life.
Guy, who grew up in the tiny town of Vienna, South Dakota, said, “I intended to be a teacher since third grade. … I had a fabulous teacher. It was a small school, so I had her for the first four years. I just always liked school. I’ve always liked to learn.”
Geelan-Potthoff, who grew up at Ruthven in north-central Iowa, was inspired by her mom, Rose Geelan, who taught in country school and then Ayrshire Public School, as well as Rose’s five sisters, who also were teachers.
Guy graduated from Willow Lake High School in 1969 and the University of South Dakota in 1973. She student taught at Heelan Catholic High School in Sioux City before coming to Kuemper.
“I came right out of college here, and I really intended to stay only about a year, but then I met my husband. He was already here,” Guy said. “I met him, and two years later we married.”
Keith Guy, a Davenport native, had begun teaching religion at Kuemper in 1971. He and Jean married in 1975.
Geelan-Potthoff graduated from Ruthven High School in 1972 and the University of Northern Iowa in December 1975. She joined the Kuemper faculty in January 1976.
At that time, Kuemper also offered French and Latin. Now Spanish is the only foreign-language course.
Guy said of deciding on a career teaching English, “I always read a lot. I’ve read books forever. I read ‘Gone With the Wind’ in four days and then read it again. I liked every kind of book. I’m still that way.
“There are some books I like for escape. Then there are other books I like for deep thought or meaning. I’ve always liked literature because, to me, it reflects what’s going on. I find that you can understand history better by reading some of the books about it — ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘The Jungle,’ ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ John Steinbeck (‘Grapes of Wrath’ author), I loved him because he was a voice for the voiceless and the marginalized.”
Guy said she assigned books for the different lessons they offer.
Some of her favorites: “The Chosen,” which teaches about customs and experiences of Jewish people and also shows the diversity within that culture; “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for its social satire; “Nineteen Minutes” for its contemporary theme for youths; “The Crucible,” “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Voices of the Holocaust” for their historical lessons and modern-day connection; “Five People You Meet in Heaven,” “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Last Lecture” for their lessons on how to live a meaningful life. Her favorite is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where Atticus Finch tries to teach his children not to react to the negative and to try to look at the world from the other person’s point of view.
Along with literature, Guy has taught creative writing, and her classes enjoyed a partnership with John Bruner of Fort Dodge, who wrote the books “Bonk: Monsters & Miracles” and “Me & Snap,” both about growing up in Carroll. Bruner visited Guy’s classes, led bus tours highlighting sites of his childhood adventures, and critiqued the students’ own memoirs.
“It was neat to have an authentic author that they’d read who would comment on their stories,” Guy said.
For her part, Geelan-Potthoff said she was inspired by a fabulous Spanish teacher she had in high school and was intrigued by people who can fluently speak multiple languages.
She said that knowing Spanish can pay off for students in various career areas, such as business, manufacturing, health or public service.
But maybe more importantly, she said, it’s important students learn about other cultures.
“Whether they tend to believe it or not, they’re pretty sheltered here in Carroll, Iowa,” she said. “And I think it’s important they try to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes. I think it’s important they realize, I told them many times, ‘You people already have won the lottery because you were born in the United States. A lot of people are not nearly as fortunate.’ And I try to emphasize the fact that many of the immigrants come here not because they want to leave their home country, their home language, their family, but they come in search of a better life.
“Being able to understand a little bit of where they’re coming from and why they’re doing this, I think, adds empathy. I try to encourage them to think that way, try to figure out how you would feel if you were in that situation.”
Many summers, Kuemper Spanish students had an opportunity to experience different cultures, as Geelan-Potthoff accompanied them on weeks-long trips to Mexico.
“They learned a lot,” she said. “It really opened their eyes to a different world. You get on a plane, and hours later you’re in a totally different environment.”
The Kuemper groups took along a suitcase filled with gifts — T-shirts, shoes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bars of soap, shampoo, crayons, baseballs, softballs — for children and their parents who lived in severely poor conditions.
“(The gifts) didn’t have to be anything new. They didn’t have to be anything expensive. Anything was so much appreciated,” Geelan-Potthoff said.
Also, for years the Kuemper Spanish Club sponsored students in Mexico, providing tuition, school supplies, clothing and meals.
Guy and Geelan-Potthoff’s extraordinary combined 93 years of service received special mention from Kuemper Catholic School System President John Steffes at this spring’s graduation ceremony.
Steffes, who had both Guy and Geelan-Potthoff as teachers on his way toward graduation from Kuemper in 1982 and becoming KCSS president in 2015, also emailed to the Times Herald, “Jean and Winnie have been loyal and dedicated Kuemper teachers serving not hundreds but thousands of young minds through the years. They not only were excellent teachers in the classroom, but they genuinely cared about their students. The Kuemper Family owes so much to their ministry of Catholic education. I look forward to seeing both of them subbing at Kuemper and attending events of future Kuemper Knights. Thank you, Jean and Winnie!”
Guy said of the rewards of teaching, “Every year is different. It’s just such an invigorating climate, because you learn so much from the students. They teach you so much, too, how they look at life.”
She added, “I can’t think of a better job. It’s just incredibly invigorating, and I appreciate the students and their parents and their grandparents.”
Geelan-Potthoff added, “Their (students’) energy keeps you young, keeps you wanting to continue to learn, keeps you wanting to interact.”
Guy and Geelan-Potthoff also enjoyed their camaraderie with colleagues, and Geelan-Potthoff said, “Granted, we’re surrounded by young, energetic teachers and we draw from their energy, but hopefully we give back to them some of our ‘wisdom.’ There’s classroom management and a lot of other things that just come with experience, and you try to help the younger teachers out so they have a good experience in education.”
Guy and Geelan-Potthoff said there’s good reason the term “Kuemper family” is used frequently.
“I’ve been blessed having these students, and they’ve come from homes where they’ve been cared for,” Guy said.
She continued, “When Mr. Steffes (Kuemper President John Steffes) says that we try to educate the mind, body and soul, I think that’s really true — not just teach them a subject, but, like he says, trying to teach them about caring about people.”
Geelan-Potthoff said she emphasized that it’s important “to try to see the whole picture and not be judgmental.”
“We’re not the ones to judge,” she said. “Try to accept everybody for who they are and where they’re at.”
“I can’t say enough good about what it’s meant to be at Kuemper all these years,” Guy said. “I’ve appreciated all the people who came before us and the traditions, and I just love the way the alumni support the school, the Kuemper Ball and Kuemper Phoneathon. And whenever we’ve needed volunteers for anything, people are so willing to give of their time. It’s been a real honor and privilege to be at this school.”
“Wonderful, wonderful people,” Geelan-Potthoff joined in.
Guy was never more appreciative of the Kuemper family than when her husband, Keith, who had become high school principal in 1992, shockingly died of a rare heart ailment in June 1999 at age 49.
She said, “Atticus Finch from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ always reminds me of my husband, who also did not believe in basing your actions on the actions of others. Since Dr. Guy died 22 years ago, people at Kuemper and in the larger Kuemper community have often written me a note or even a letter, or stopped me around school or town to share a story of how Dr. Guy touched their and/or their children’s lives. This happened again this year at a graduation I attended. The way he is so fondly remembered, and that others have shared those memories with me, helped me heal over these several years.”
Guy and Geelan-Potthoff have welcomed the opportunity to teach in a faith-based school.
“In addition to teaching material, we have a philosophy that I believe in,” Guy said.” I love the Kuemper community, the parents and the grandparents.”
“I agree,” Geelan-Potthoff said. “My subject is Spanish, and the majority of the Spanish-speaking countries are Catholic, so that way I can talk about Our Lady of Guadalupe. I can talk about St. Isidore (patron saint of Madrid, Spain, known for his love of the poor). I can talk about the Spanish things and go through all the Christmas traditions they have.
“And to share your faith with the students is a wonderful opportunity and hopefully gives them a foundation that they can carry with them the rest of their lives.”
Guy and Geelan-Potthoff both also noted that all students progress at their own pace — learning is lifelong, and Kuemper is just a step along the way.
Guy said, “How they do in high school does not necessarily determine how they’re going to do in life, because we’ve had some students who struggled a little bit at Kuemper, and they’ve gone on to flourish and have fabulous lives. So I don’t count anyone out.”
“No, never say never. … Some people are a shooting star forever, but some people hit their stride a little bit later,” Geelan-Potthoff said.
With all their extracurricular activities, college-credit courses, jobs and more, students today are busier than ever, Guy and Geelan-Potthoff observed.
“Now they have college classes, they have jobs and they participate in sports, and they have their cellphones and they have the iPads,” Geelan Potthoff said. “They have so many things going on. They’re so busy, busy, busy.”
Guy said, “So many of them are so focused on getting college classes out of the way. They may work harder because they’re doing so many more things.”
Today’s technology devices have been very helpful in connecting with students and making them more accountable, Guy and Geelan-Potthoff said, but they’re also challenged to make sure students aren’t using them for entertainment or texting.
“They can change those screens so fast. It’s impossible to be everywhere in the room,” Geelan-Potthoff said.
While grateful to receive recognition for her own career, Guy said, this was also a good time to acknowledge some colleagues who never made it to retirement because they passed away much too soon, such as her husband, Keith, and close friends Michele Kerwin, a longtime Kuemper English teacher, and Julie Bruggeman, who taught English and theology at Kuemper and later at O’Gorman Catholic High School in Sioux Falls.
“I just think it’s a good thing to mention them, because they never had the opportunity to finish their careers,” Guy said.
Retirement will give Guy and Geelan-Potthoff more time to pursue some personal interests. Guy recently joined a CrossFit exercise program and is looking forward to some travel. Geelan-Potthoff, who got a taste of a slower pace teaching part time this year, plans to garden and do some volunteer work.
Both are looking forward to visits with children and grandchildren.
Geelan-Potthoff and her husband, Keith, who’s semi-retired from farming, have four children, who all graduated from Kuemper: Sarah (2004), who’s a chiropractor at a VA hospital in Washington, D.C., where she lives with her husband, Eric Tillson, and their two children; Jill (2006), who’s owner/personal trainer at Wellness Warehouse in Kansas City, Missouri, where she lives with her husband, James Boland; Kevin (2008), who’s a physical education teacher at Summit Middle School in Johnston; and Kerri (2012), who’s a speech pathologist at two hospitals in Denver, Colorado.
Guy has three daughters, all Kuemper graduates, and three grandchildren with two more on the way: Kara (2000) and husband Jeffrey Carter live in Los Angeles where she’s a realtor and they have a 1½-year-old son, Keith; Mollie (2002) and husband Joey Lappe live in Carroll, where she’s a nurse for orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Goding and they have sons Rohan, 15, and McCoy, 9; and Jenna (2010) and husband Jacob Pierce live in Omaha, where she’s an expense assistant with a global relocation firm.