Anniversary Special: Lynn Gerlach Recalls How It All Started 25 Years Ago


Lynn Gerlach, Guest Writer, Former Teacher and Admissions Director, NDA

Lynn Gerlach, now in Seattle, is a former English teacher and Admissions Director at NDA.  Here is her personal story of the closing of three Catholic high schools and the opening of the new Notre Dame de la Baie Academy. 

In August of 1989, I interviewed for a job at St. Joseph Academy, just one block from my home. After 20 years of moving around the country as a military wife and changing jobs over and over, I hoped to teach at SJA until I retired, earning a reputation of a crusty old bag who had been there forever. My sisters-in-law had all graduated from SJA, and my husband and his brothers had all graduated from Our Lady of Premontre. As a product of 12 years of Catholic education myself and a Xavier graduate, I knew this was just the job I wanted to keep until the end of my career. So I was very disappointed when Sr. Helen was able to offer me only a half-time job. In fact, I would teach only two classes, one freshman and one senior, and I’d have two study halls – not much of a job!

When I left Sr. Helen’s office, having signed my disappointing contract, I drove straight to a doctor who had been recommended by a neighbor (I was new in Green Bay), and within two days I was diagnosed with aggressive, well-established breast cancer. A part-time job was, indeed, all I’d be able to handle for the upcoming year, if I could handle a job at all. Sr. Helen did not allow me to resign. She said, “We need you, and you need us. People who stay employed during their treatment are more likely to survive cancer. If you are sick, we’ll get you a sub.” And that was that in August, 1989.

In November we were all summoned to the gym for a special assembly, and there we were given the news that all three Catholic high schools were now in their final year. There would be no more St. Joseph Academy, after more than 100 years of service thanks to the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. There would be no more Abbott Pennings High School in De Pere, also nearing its 100th anniversary, and no more Premontre High School. The following year, 1990, Green Bay would open a new school in the most favorable site, and all Catholic teens would be encouraged to attend that co-ed school. Premontre had become co-ed a year or so before this announcement; Pennings and SJA were still “single-sex schools.” Now all boys and girls would have no option other than a co-ed school.

Many questions remained unanswered: Where would the new school be? What would it be called? Who would be the principal? Which faculty members, if any, would be retained and which let go? What would the mascot be? Over the next weeks pieces of information started to surface, although we never knew whether we were hearing fact or rumor. A new board of education was formed, under the capable leadership of Diane Liebman. Eventually we were told that the Premontre site on West Mason would be the site of the new school, as it was the most modern facility. Fr. Dane Radecki, then principal at Premontre, was chosen to be the principal of the new school. The board incorporated the new school as Notre Dame de la Baie, with a nod to the French roots of Green Bay Catholicism.

One thing we did find out with certainty and fairly soon after the announcement was that the principals of the three schools, along with the St. Norbert Abbott and the Bishop of the Green Bay diocese, had taken a solemn oath months before that they would move forward with this difficult decision as a team, and that no one would tell a single soul until they were all ready to make the public announcement simultaneously. Later we learned how very difficult those months had been for our leaders, and how they had supported each other in that most troubling and uncertain time.

I don’t know what the atmosphere was like in the two boys’ schools, although my son, Scott, was a junior at Premontre. Rumors flew around Green Bay. We heard the Premontre people were acting “arrogant and cocky.” We heard the Abbott was in mourning. We heard we’d all lose our jobs. Nobody knew what was true, but something interesting was announced through the grape vine each week. In the meantime, the girls and faculty at SJA were in shock and in tears, and then angry, then confused. The seniors realized they would be the final graduating class of their beloved girls’ school. The other girls wondered what their future would be. It was destined to be a most unusual school year. Our goal as faculty was to try to keep education of the current students and their preparation for college at the forefront, no matter what.

Finally we were told how the Notre Dame faculty would be selected: one-third of the faculty would come from each of the three schools. Two-thirds of the entire Green Bay Catholic high school faculty would be let go. Teachers were angry and scared and even panicky. I had a hard time empathizing with their changing moods because I was brand new to the city and the school system, half-time only, and spiraling downward in the punishment of a very aggressive battle against my cancer. I don’t recall a single day ever seeming “normal” in the faculty lounge.

The curriculum for the new school would be developed by the current faculties of each department, although participation was voluntary. I had decided to do everything in my power to get one of those scarce jobs in the new English department, so I volunteered to help create the curriculum for that department. I recall that Fr. Gilsdorf was there and provided a lot of leadership. We had representation from all three schools. Again, I was new and part-time, so I mostly listened as my colleagues offered up their best combined wisdom. In fact, our committee worked smoothly and cordially, and I believe the outcome was very positive.

Next we were told what the process would be if we wished to be considered for a position at Notre Dame. We were to submit a letter of application to Fr. Radecki. Then each of us would have one observation by a faculty member from the School of Education at either St. Norbert College or the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. Based on the observer’s recommendation, our record, and our letter to Fr. Radecki, we might or might not be chosen for an interview.

I knew, personally, that I had everything against me. I was up against teachers with more education and with 20+ years of service to Green Bay Catholic high schools. I was not really embedded in the St. Joseph Academy faculty, as a part-time teacher in her first year. And I was sicker than I’d ever been in my life. But I was determined to make it onto that faculty. I thought about what I did have to offer that might make me stand out: I had the good combination of both English and Speech, with solid experience in both; I’d coached Forensics and directed plays, including plays for competition; and I’d been trained and somewhat experienced in the teaching of Creative Dramatics as developed at Northwestern University in the 1960s. I had been a cheerleading coach, and I’d adapted to teaching in several states as a very “transient” military dependent. In my letter, I didn’t mention my battle against cancer, but I took the same approach to landing the job as I had to beating cancer: I’ll do whatever it takes, and then I’ll win.

I remember that a Dr. Londo from St. Norbert College was to observe me. As the big day approached, I constructed my lesson plans with the utmost care. I recall that we were studying “Desire under the Elms” in my senior class, and I opted to have my observation in that class. Now, I had only 11 girls in that class, and they were considered less than stellar, academically. (Of course: I was new and part time and had only a Bachelors degree.) It was spring of their senior year, and they’d already been told their school was closing. Just getting them to class each day, much less having them prepared to discuss intelligently, was a challenge. I decided to ask them to pull for me. I told them the date of the observation and begged them to please show up for class and please, if they could possibly manage, to be somewhat prepared for the discussion, as this was important to me.

The big day arrived. Not all the students arrived in the classroom though. I quickly decided to arrange the desks in a circle, bringing Dr. Londo right into the midst of the discussion and make the very best of it. The girls who were in class had read the homework, and they were determined to do their part for their teacher! I wanted to hug every one of them. They were alert and informed and ready to take a risk just to keep the conversation moving forward. We had a terrific discussion, and I felt I’d met all the goals of my lesson plans.

The announcement of who would be on the faculty was to come to each of us as a personal letter from Dane Radecki. (Imagine the pressure on him!) On a certain day, we were all to expect a letter in our home mailbox advising us of whether or not we had been selected. Everyone would get a letter; two-thirds of us would get bad news. I heard that principals knew in advance and had identified their own faculty members who would most need support when the bad news came. For some, arrangements had been made to have someone with them throughout the evening and the next few days. I cannot imagine what Sr. Helen and her peers went through in those weeks!

For me, the news was good. I had my interview with Fr. Radecki, and the review from Dr. Londo had been positive. I became a teacher of English, Speech and Creative Dramatics at Notre Dame. I was thrilled to have a full-time job for the upcoming school year. My peers were not so lucky. Some had simply turned their backs on the whole process and interviewed for jobs in the public system, and many were accepted. But some teachers with Masters degrees who had taught faithfully in one of the three original schools for as many as twenty years were told there was no job for them. The next few weeks were emotionally chaotic in all three high schools. In the meantime, the new board of education marched forward with plans to establish the new school.

In late August, 1990, Notre Dame de la Baie opened pretty much like any other Catholic high school. Things really were quite well prepared, and we enjoyed getting to know each other. Instead of a uniform, the school had a dress code. We were told we’d be the “Tritons,” and so we were launched. The facility was crowded, and not every “t” was crossed, nor was every “i” dotted in time for the opening. I did not have a “home classroom” to go to when I was not actually teaching. In fact, I moved from classroom to classroom, as did some of my colleagues. Eventually I claimed a corner in an unused office space and convinced the maintenance man, Gary, to move a file cabinet in there for me so I would at least have a home base.

During teacher in-service, we had our usual meetings, with so much more to accomplish as quickly as possible than we’d ever dealt with before. The investment people came in to talk about our 403B plan, as always, and the health insurance company the school had chosen for our group plan came in to tell us the good news: “Because this is a brand new school and a brand new entity, you will all be accepted for full health insurance coverage with no question about any pre-existing medical conditions.” I couldn’t believe my ears. There I sat, still willing my hair to grow back following the hair loss of chemotherapy. I had taken off my wig for the last time the day before school started, determined to start my new job in this new school with my own sparse, very short, rather strange looking hair. And I was going to have health insurance just like everyone else!

The first year was anything but smooth. However, we made forward progress. It was soon clear that we were positioned to be an athletic powerhouse. The richness of the combined student bodies and faculties really did override a lot of the issues. Students made new friends, and a new culture began to emerge. My own son was to be in the first graduating class. He was enjoying his senior year in spite of everything. On graduation day, our first graduating class marched in to a large hall on the St. Norbert College campus, and they were wearing three different colors! The caps and gowns of the girls who’d come from SJA were SJA white. The former Premontre boys wore Our Lady of Premontre blue, and the former Pennings boys wore Abbott Pennings green. And a very few, who had come from none of those three original schools, wore the new shade of blue for Notre Dame de la Baie. It was the last time our graduates would wear the colors of their former schools; next year they’d all be in the new blue. But it was a very healing moment, and the end of very challenging episode in Green Bay’s Catholic school history.