Developmental psychologists tell us that as people move into the retirement years, one of their main internal tasks is to look back at their lives and ask the question, “Was it worth it?” The crowd assembled at St. John Lutheran Church on October 1 to celebrate, in part, the retirement of Charles Brod after forty years of teaching, answered that question for him with a resounding “YES!”
Eloise Andrle, one of Brod’s recent students wrote in a letter, “You are the best science teacher ever. It was fun having you as a science teacher because you were doing an experiment every single minute! P.S. Keep collecting rocks! The rock unit was my favorite!”
“Mr. Brod helped us see the world”and our God”a little differently. We are better for it. So thank you, Teacher Brod, for your discipline, your instruction, your example, and your love,” said Carl Gnewuch, a former student who is now an ordained pastor.
Charles Brod attended Zion Lutheran School in Lyons for all eight grades of his elementary education. In those days, the kindergarten met in one room, the first through fourth grades met in another and the fifth through eighth grades met in a third. The teacher in each room would rotate from grade to grade. “We used to cheer,” Brod remembered with a smile, “when it was time for lunch and the teacher hadn’t gotten around to our class.”
He recalls that discipline was strict but said, “Kids will be kids. We still did our mischief.” The message, however, that he received from religion classes was that “God loved us and that we would do things for God because we love him too and do for our neighbor.” The memorization if many Bible passages and hymns was a basic learning method.
Three people had a major impact on his life in those years. “My grandmother was the one who really saw to it that I went to church,” he said. “If I missed church or Sunday school, she was on the phone. Grandma would see to it that my uncle would pick me up and drive me to church.” For his grandmother, an intimate relationship with Christ, as opposed to belief in a set of doctrines, was at the center of her faith.
Pete Petrosky, the school’s principal, was another mentor for the young Charles. “I always respected him,” Brod said, “but one thing I remember is that he always wore soft soled shoes. And, sometimes I would have toys in my desk and he would sneak around and catch me.”
The third important person in his life was Steve Schmidt, the congregation’s youth worker and choir director. One vignette illustrates how as a boy Brod experienced some adults in his church and school as caring about him as a person. “We’d have choir during recess time,” he said, “while all the other kids were out playing. One day I put a pencil under my nose. He kind of got angry at me and said, ‘if you’d rather goof around you can go outside and play.’ And I said, ‘great,’ and went outside. After he thought about it, he came outside and got me.
“The thing I remember about him was after a Wednesday evening service he came up to me and said, ‘I apologize, because it’s not good to let the sun go down on your wrath.’ I remember that to this day.”
“The love for the work they were doing for the Lord and the love they showed to their students was the model for me,” Brod said, “and I kind of modeled myself that way. I tried to be very loving and fair and considerate.”
And that is a key to understanding why so many former students refer to Mr. Brod as their favorite teacher. It’s not as much what he taught them, although he has received honors for being an excellent instructor. In 2002 he received the Distinguished Lutheran Teacher award from the Lutheran Education Association. His science program, for example, has produced a doctor, science teachers and a chemist.
But what students remember most is not what he taught them but how he related to them, that “love they showed to their students” which he experienced in his Lutheran church and school while growing up.
Former student Paul Klopke wrote in a letter to Brod: “I know that I was not the greatest speller in the world. I had a lot of C’s and D’s. You didn’t scold me. You would smile and say ‘Paul, you need to study a little bit more.’ When you had said that I knew you were on my side, and I was encouraged.”
Gnewuch, said this about his former teacher: “I know every class was special to him, and every student, even those of us who were his more ‘challenging’ pupils. He had already tried everything himself when he was a student, he declared at the start of every school year, so we could be sure we couldn’t get away with anything. Having firmly established there would be no groups of kids who were good, bad, or uncaught, he was able to treat us fairly, which he did.
Brod’s teaching career demonstrates that discipline and love are not mutually exclusive. “One of the things God has given me is to be good at discipline,” he said. “I’ve never had a lot of major problems with kids. It comes from respect. They have respect for me and I have respect for them. They always said I tried to be fair, but you’re only human. You make mistakes.”
Relationships clearly were central to both his teaching and his way of looking at church. “I know I could have been in the public schools and made more money,” he said, “but I’ve been blessed beyond anything in the years I’ve been at St. John. So many blessings”the relationships I’ve had over the years with the pastors, teachers, students and their families.”
When he began teaching at St. John, he was single, and he remembered how his students’ families would invite him to their homes for supper. He told about asking Pastor Paul to officiate at his wedding in Florida, and how the congregation presented him and Nancy a basket of money when they returned to reimburse him for the expense money he had given to his pastor and more.
“St. John has always been a family,” he said. “The people there, I love them and they love me. You hurt, I hurt. We do what we can for each other, especially in prayer.”
During his years at St. John the composition of his classes has changed from homogeneity to diversity, but relationships have remained central to his teaching. “As a mission we felt that we opened our doors not just to St. John children but to anyone who wanted to come in and get a Christian education. I think our church grew because of it,” he said. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed in teaching religion is that you have so many people with different religious backgrounds.”
He says that the diversity of ways of looking at the faith in his classroom in recent years has actually enhanced his teaching of religion. Again, respect has been the key. “I have never changed from teaching Lutheran doctrine,” he said. “This is what we believe and I don’t apologize for it. But the students from other traditions in my class expressed their ideas, too, and I think it helped the Lutheran children to think ‘why am I a Lutheran’.
“You have to know what you stand for and not apologize for that. ‘I’m a Lutheran because. . . .’ But I think it’s important to know why other people are what they are. I think you have to have a knowledge of that and a respect for these beliefs.”
Charles Brod has also been active in the Forest Park community. He served on the library board for 24 years and was president during the construction of the new library. He thinks the changes in the village have been for the better and it is still a great place to live. “I appreciated all the years that I’ve been able to be in this town and at St. John,” he concluded. “I’m thankful for my wife, Nancy, who for 35 years put up with me not being home all the time.”