By Nona Tepper
When he was young, Gerald Lordan dreamed of earning his juris doctor in law, a master's in economics, and then going on to be a tariff lawyer for the Organization of American States, a policy group that focuses on the Western Hemisphere. But a summer job with the Providence Boys Club in southern Rhode Island changed the plan.
Working as the canoe instructor, he realized many of the teens he mentored were functionally illiterate.
"I would tell the kids to put on a life jacket and they had never put on a life jacket," Lordan said. "'How do I do that?' [they asked]. I said, 'Well, the directions are right there on the front; read the directions.' And they couldn't read them."
From that point on, his passion has been education. The ensuing 46 years are history for anyone with children in Oak Park or Forest Park. Lordan is retiring from his long tenure as an administrator and history teacher at Fenwick High School. His last day is June 6.
"We thought we'd be here for two years and we've been here for 37," he said.
A native of Boston, Lordan landed in Oak Park thanks to his wife, Barbara, who was hired as an account executive at R.R. Donnelley printing company in Chicago. Lordan spent his first few years as a stay-at-home dad for their two children and worked part-time at Parenthesis, a nonprofit that provides family support this is now named New Moms.
Eventually, Lordan's career as an educator began at St. Luke Parish School in River Forest, where he rose through the ranks to become assistant principal. He then served as principal of the now-shuttered St. Bernardine School in Forest Park. In 1991, he was hired as an art history teacher at Fenwick, where he had interviewed three times previously. His desire to teach there was spurred by his doctorate at Boston College, where he majored in education theory and minored in administration.
For his doctorate, Lordan looked into the effect of gender mix on academic achievement. He wanted the opportunity to witness a single-sex learning environment and, at that time, Fenwick was an all-male school. He had also fallen in love with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Dominican philosopher, who believed "we have to be deeply invested in the well-being of our students and we are to take a holistic investment inside their well-being. It's not just their intellectual well-being, but also their spiritual and personal well-being," said Lordan, who preferred that perspective over the traditional American philosophy, based on the classical Greek approach of Plato, who believed, "what you teach is more important than who you teach," Lordan explained. "Your goal is to imitate the great masters of your academic discipline and the child is only worthy if they master the information. So smart kids are [considered] worthier than less smart kids."
He accepted the art history position at Fenwick even though Lordan knew nothing about the subject. "I didn't know Rembrandt was Dutch," he joked.
A year later, when Fenwick transitioned into a co-ed institution, Lordan said he was the only person on the faculty who had ever taught women, and so he moved to the freshman level to teach world history. Later he taught scripture and then American history, his favorite subject.
"American education has two goals," Lordan said, "to train literate workers and patriotic citizens. So the way we train patriotic citizens in America is we teach them American history," he said. "I was really pleased to have that opportunity to contribute to one of the most important aspects of American education."
Over the years, Lordan said, the biggest change he's seen in education is technology, with the internet offering students a wealth of easy-to-access information at all hours. Students can't read cursive anymore, he said. They write research papers by speaking into a dictaphone application on their phone, printing out what they've said and handing it in.
"Why listen? Nothing important ever gets said at 3 o'clock in the morning when you're doing your homework in bed and you can Google it. We don't store information anymore in our brain. Why would we? I've got a file on my smart phone, and when we retrieve it, when we share that information, we just attach it as a file," he said.
"We can say, 'Well it ain't like the good ol' days.' Well it's not. But if we are to continue to be the champion of democracy and capitalism and dignity and the rights of man, etc., if we're going to be the leader for the free world and the free world's going to sustain itself, we have to be smarter than the opposition. Working hard isn't good enough anymore. We've got to work smarter."
He will miss watching students learn and feel proud of themselves when they understand a new subject. He will also miss drawing inspiration from his colleagues, like Fenwick's principal, English department chair, and athletic director, all of whom he taught as students.
But he'll still be involved. Lordan will volunteer on the school's advancement team, with plans to start an alumni faculty association and alumni fathers club.
"We'd like to have two or three times a year, if your kids went there, you can come to a basketball game, Christmas party, something like that," he said.
He will also continue to represent Fenwick at community organizations, like the Rotary Club of Oak Park-River Forest, the Kiwanis Club of Forest Park, chamber of commerce events, and West Side Men. As a thanks for his continued service and many years at Fenwick, he said the school has named its annual incoming freshman family picnic after him.
"I never dreamed I would live in a house as nice as the one I live in now. I never dreamed I would live in a community as nice as Oak Park. I never dreamed I would teach in a school as nice as Fenwick," Lordan said. "How fortunate I've been in my life. That's what I really learned."