Kendall County area community leaders recall the teachers who shaped their lives

Oswego Fire Protection District Assistant Fire Chief John Cornish will be sworn-in as a fire chief June 14. (Photo provided)

The reach teachers have extends far outside their classrooms and the walls of their school buildings.

For proof, look no further than the offices at Kendall County-area businesses and government agencies. There you will find today’s community leaders who can quickly recall the teachers who inspired their educations and helped shape their lives. These leaders are now, in turn, among those shaping the fastest-growing county in Illinois.

Yorkville Police Chief Jim Jensen said there were many teachers who made a lasting impression on him as he grew up in Yorkville and attended District 115 schools in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Jensen said two teachers in particular stand out in his memory as the most inspiring to him: Mrs. Esther Riley in the fifth grade and Mr. Eric Miller, a coach and teacher at Yorkville High School.

The city’s top law enforcement official recalled being “so scared” as he entered Mrs. Riley’s class for the first time.

“Mrs. Riley was ‘old school,’ she was not afraid to yell in class, but she also was not afraid to praise and hug. Mrs. Riley was very strict and expected a lot of her students. You knew what you could do in her class, or should I say get away with, and you knew what you couldn’t do in her class. This was exactly what I needed at that time. I learned more that year than any other year in school. Mrs. Riley truly cared about her students and I believe she truly cared about me, which made the difference,” Jensen said.

Yorkville Police Chief Jim Jensen takes his official seat shortly after being sworn in during the City Council meeting Tuesday, Aug. 13 at City Hall, 800 Game Farm Road in Yorkville.

Mr. Miller, in addition to being a coach, was Jensen’s shop teacher throughout his four years at YHS. Jensen said Mr. Miller taught him the value of working hard and doing your best.

“School was not fun for me and I was not a good student. Playing sports was the only thing I wanted to do. Coach Miller was that teacher/coach who made me understand that you didn’t have to be a great student to succeed, but that you needed to work hard and give your best effort in everything that you do. Coach Miller set realistic expectations and followed through on his word. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint Coach Miller because I knew he truly cared about his students and players,” Jensen said.

Kristie Vest, who serves as superintendent of events and cultural arts for the Oswegoland Park District, said she has fond memories of a teacher who, at a very young age, stirred her imagination and fueled a lifelong interest in reading.

In her job with the park district, Vest today plays a key role in the planning and staging of community events such as Oswego’s annual PrairieFest community celebration that entertains thousands of people on the grounds of PrairieFest Park near Oswego High School.

"The park district belongs to the people in this area. We never make a decision that's not something that is driven by a community request," Oswegoland Park District Superintendent of Events and Cultural Arts Kristi Vest said of the future steps for the district.

“I fondly remember sitting on the carpet in Mrs. Hildebrand’s first grade class listening to chapter after chapter of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” I was a 6 year-old student of Ben Franklin Elementary in Glen Ellyn and had daydreams of Templeton the rat feasting at the fair. So many decades later, I still find escape through good stories and I dream up festivals for people, not critters. I look back on Mrs. Hildebrand with great affection. This sweet teacher gave me a love of reading that has lasted my whole life,” Vest said.

Doug Marecek, a Montgomery village trustee and current member and former chairman of the Montgomery Economic Development Corporation’s Board of Directors, singled out a teacher he had in third grade, Mrs. Fisher at C.E. Miller Elementary School in Westmont, as being his most inspiring instructor as he grew up in the western suburb.

All these years later, Marecek said he still can recall the patience she showed him and the rest of the class.

Montgomery Village Trustee Doug Marecek

Referring to Mrs. Fisher, Marecek said she “had the ability to make you feel special. She had a very nurturing personality.”

It was a teacher at Naperville North High School who inspired and left a lasting impression on Jeff Burgner, a Naperville native who grew up to be Oswego’s police chief.

Burgner recalled Mr. Jack Pertel, an automotive technologies teacher, as an “excellent educator who was focused on providing hands-on experiences in the automotive program.

Oswego Police Chief Jeff Burgner

“I always appreciated him for his patience in making sure you understood what you were doing and why it was important. He treated his students like adults and trusted that we would do our work without micromanaging our every move. I learned numerous life skills regarding vehicles from Mr. Pertel that I still use today and have passed on to my own son,” Burgner said.

Kendall County State’s Attorney Eric Weis said he had many great teachers growing up in Oswego and attending Oswego SD308 schools in the 1970s and 1980s, but one teacher in particular stand outs: Mr. Charles Potts a physics teacher at Oswego High School.

Weis noted that Mr. Potts also taught his father, Jack, when he attended OHS in the 1960s.

Weis recalled he took physics his senior year at OHS and found Mr. Potts to be one of the smartest people he has ever met. For Weis, the class proved to be life-changing.

File photo of Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis

“I learned that I always needed to be prepared for that class. If you didn’t know the answer to his question, he would wait until you found the answer. No matter how long it took. Looking back, I don’t think I was ever more prepared for a class than his. It taught me that preparation was key to success and that doing things just to get by would not cut it if I wanted to be successful in his class or in life. His teaching left a profound impact on me. I don’t know if I would be where I am today without taking his class. I was never so happy to get a B in any class as his,” Weis said.

Trying to identify only one teacher who inspired him most as he grew up in Yorkville and Aurora in the 1960s and 1970s, Kendall County Presiding Judge Robert Pilmer said was one of the more difficult assignments he’s had in quite some time.

“I can’t say which one teacher inspired me the most, as there were many teachers who inspired me along the way. I remember Mrs. Gabel and Mrs. Umbanhowar from my time at Yorkville Grade School, as well as Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Kassel at Freeman Elementary (in Aurora). Each of these teachers not only challenged me, but they encouraged me to do better, and to believe in myself.

Kendall County Chief Judge Robert Pilmer talks before hearing arguments for summary judgment ahead of a potential trial for a breech of contract lawsuit between former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and a man named as James Doe on Friday, May 31 at the Kendall County Courthouse, 807 John St. in Yorkville.

“That continued when I attended Washington Junior High School in Aurora, with teachers like Mr. Popolizio, Mr. Hutton, Mr. McGuire, Mrs. Bernard and Ms. Williams. They also set high expectations and encouraged me to not only meet those goals, but exceed them. Again, this continued during my time at West Aurora High School, where teachers like Mr. Hafenrichter and Mrs. Adkins challenged me to do better at math; Mr. Toraason nurtured an appreciation of the arts; and Ms. Rislow taught me to be a better writer (this skill has aided me tremendously throughout my life). Both Mr. Ebeling and Mr. Pinnow taught me not only about science, but they let me know what was expected of me, and encouraged me to exceed those expectations.

“Each of these individuals inspired me to not only do well, but to excel at my studies. I struggled at times, but they continued to offer assistance and encouragement, and they let me know that they believed I could do better. Their guidance and encouragement throughout my elementary and secondary education enabled me to do well as I furthered my education and began my career. I am grateful for all of the help each of them provided, as well as many others who are not named,” Pilmer said.

It was an 11th grade history teacher at Hazelwood Central High School in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, who left a lasting impression on John Cornish, chief of the Oswego Fire Protection District.

Cornish remembered Mrs. Geri Debo as a “stern and old-school teacher” who left “no room for horsing around” in her classroom.

“She ran a tight ship and yet had a delicate way of presenting the information and making it fun. She truly cared about her students and believed in what she was teaching,” Cornish said.

Cornish said the study of the Middle East was the focus of Mrs. Debo’s class.

“I learned so many things about the history and culture of countries in this region of the world. I was captivated by what she taught me. Little did I know that just a couple of years later, I would be serving in the Marine Corps and deployed to the Middle East and served in the first Persian Gulf War,” Cornish said, adding, “Mrs. Debo and I would write to each other and I sent her items from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to assist her in teachings. I still remember her to this day and can’t help but think that she made a difference in my life.”