Four educators retired this year from Garfield Elementary, leaving District 91 with big shoes to fill but years of memories for the community they served with such dedication, as together, the educators have a cumulative 112 years of service.
This year, Garfield said goodbye to Barb Popelka, Lotus Moy, Nancy Gehrke, and Terry Wawzenek.
Jamie Stauder, principal at Garfield Elementary, 543 Hannah Ave., Forest Park, said the women have become pillars in the community throughout their years with the district.
Popelka, who served as the support services assistant, had a 24-year career at Garfield before retiring at the end of the 2022-23 school year to shift her workload and only work one job.
“Unfortunately, I had to make a decision and because I’m older and it’s closer to my house, it is more suited for my age,” Popelka said.
Popelka said she was “just a mom who lived down the street,” when she began volunteering at Garfield helping serve breakfast 24 years ago. She was later offered a part-time position in the office and eventually a full-time position in support services.
“I couldn’t wait for them to start school so I could be involved,” said Popelka. “We [ex-husband] just really wanted to be a part of it [community.]”
And Popelka really encompassed “support services,” jumping in and helping wherever she was needed, including being a crossing guard, covering the front desk, cooking lunches, and helping in the library amongst anything else that might be needed.
Following her retirement, Popelka said she will miss the kids the most and reading with the students.
“One child gave me back a book that we read together, she went out and bought it with her parents, and they wrote in the margins everything that they loved about what I have taught them,” Popelka said. “I think I cried for half an hour, in thanks.”
Moy and Gehrke, both reading assistants, like many educators before them, will also be missing their students.
Moy, who had been with the district for 28 years, has been at Garfield for the last 14 years working with first and second graders in reading groups.
“Getting to see the growth they make from the beginning of the year to the end of the year,” Moy said. “They get their ‘ah-ha’ moment and it’s great to be able to see that.”
Aside from the children, Moy will also be missing her colleagues, who have made Garfield a family to her.
“It has been delightful and the staff there is awesome. They are just great to work with,” Moy said.
Moy said she decided to retire after turning 67 last year and will be trying to spend her time with her husband, who will be retiring at the end of June, traveling, along with more time with her family.
Gehrke, who started her career in education 26 years ago teaching in Florida, moved to the area and said her children attended Garfield Elementary before she took a position with the district.
After working in the special education room, Gehrke eventually became a reading aide, assisting with guided reading groups and having discussions with the children about the books they are reading.
Gehrke, who will be turning 71 this year, joked that she said had hung in there until her friend Lotus Moy was also ready to retire.
Like Moy, Gehrke looks forward to spending more time with her family, especially her six grandchildren.
While she will be surrounded by her grandchildren, for Gehrke, the students of Garfield will always hold a special place, along with the teachers, who Gehrke said all care deeply about their students.
“If there was a message to go out to the families in Forest Park it is that Garfield deeply cares for their children and is constantly trying to come up with the best ways that the children can learn and be happy,” Gehrke said.
Wawzenek, an instructional aide at Garfield, began her career with the district in 1987 when her oldest son was in kindergarten and she was asked to help out in the classroom. The next year, a position opened up and Wawzenek has been a full-time employee ever since.
“Getting to know the children, the kids are great, they have always been great,” Wawzenek said.
Wawzenek said all three of her children went through Forest Park schools and now that her children are grown up, she said it was time to retire and have more time to herself.
“Spend more time with my grandchildren, spend more time with my husband, maybe take some trips and just enjoy life,” Wawzenek said of her retirement plans. “It was just time.”
“She has just been a staple in our school and in the district,” Stauder said. “Everybody knows Mrs. Wawzenek and Mrs. Wawzenek knows everyone.”
Stauder notes that Wawzenek was extremely dedicated to her students and could recall the birthdates of the vast majority, even those who had graduated years prior.
“Students would come back to the school and always wanted to see Mrs. Wawzenek,” Stauder said. “We have former students whose children now attend Garfield and they want to connect with [her].”
While District 91 knows they have big shoes to fill, for some of the positions the hiring process has already begun.
Stauder said they are in the process of finding a replacement for Wawzenek. For the positions left vacant by Moy and Gehrke, the district has decided to forgo hiring and do away with reading assistance as a whole, opting to hire a reading specialist.
“They were exceptional, their help was exceptional, they are hard to replace,” Stauder said. “To find someone at that position that has the background, the knowledge, and the skills to pick up and really do the work that needs to be done to really support students in reading, we felt that we would be better in finding a certified reading specialist that has the training from the get-go. That we would be able to utilize that support in that way.”
Stauder said they filled the position with an internal candidate and now former second grade teacher, Michelle Choice.
“We feel very confident,” Stauder said. “We know her and her skill set and that she will be able to support our students in reading.”
The district is also actively looking for a replacement for Popelka.
“All four of them are very dedicated to working with students and helping students grow,” Stauder said. “They all will be greatly missed and definitely irreplaceable, but we will do our best. They really are great, outstanding, dedicated individuals and while they are individuals they worked very well and collaboratively within their group and the entire school.”