John Polka, Beloved Biology Teacher and Hall-of-Fame Track Coach, Has Retired After 52 Years at Fenwick

Brother Rice alumnus who put the science in service for a half-century was fêted on June 15th.

Science teacher John Polka graduated with a B.A. in biology from St. Mary’s University (Winona, MN) in 1964, taught at a public school for one year, and has been at Fenwick High School ever since. Teaching some 5,000 students at the same school over a 52-year stretch is a milestone that few educators have achieved, but Polka comes by his love of teaching honestly: He is one of nine teachers in his family. The Brother Rice alumnus says he always had an interest in science and has taught biology since day one. Later, he earned a master’s degree in biology from Chicago State University.

Of his students at Fenwick, “They’re alive academically,” says Polka, who resides in River Forest. “They want to learn — it’s not dumb to be smart. And they challenge you; they keep you alive academically.” Polka developed the Ecology of the Rainforest and Marine Biology programs, traveling with students into the rainforests of Costa Rica and Peru. A trip to Belize featured hands-on marine biology lessons. A love of running is as much his passion as anything related to the classroom.

“Coaching,” Polka believes, “compliments the teaching. You see the students in a different way, in a different venue.” He started coaching cross country in 1966. Former Illinois governor Pat Quinn ’67 was team captain that year. They won their first meet but lost every other one after that. The next season, however, Polka coached the team to win the Catholic League title. That spring he began rebuilding the track and field team. One of his stars was Thomas Durkin ’71, who won the Chicago Catholic League Championship in the two-mile run in 1971.

Forty-six years later, “I can still remember my quarter-mile split times from that race,” says Durkin, a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois since 2013. (His best two-mile time was 9:47.) Polka was inducted into the Chicago Catholic League Coaches Hall of Fame (HOF) in 1991 and the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association HOF 10 years later. The coach went on to become an IHSA rules interpreter and consultant as well as a meet official.

Polka’s other awards include:

  • National Association of Biology Teachers, Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for Illinois (2006)
  • Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers (1994, 1996, 2000)
  • Outstanding Teacher Award – M.I.T., University of Chicago, Carleton College
  • Rev. George Conway, OP Outstanding Teacher Award, 1993

The quiet light of influence

“John Polka has impacted the lives of countless young men and women for decades,” says Fenwick Principal Peter Groom. “Under his guidance, the Science Department developed into one of the finest in the nation. Our success in state and national science competitions is evidence of this success.”

Last spring Polka was honored with Fenwick’s Lumen Tranquillum Award, which is presented annually to individuals who inspire students. (In Latin, the name translates to quiet light.) “One of John’s greatest qualities is his humility,” Groom continues. “The best example of this that I remember was his speech to the student body during the Hall of Fame assembly in 2016. That was his moment of recognition. Rather than talking about himself, he talked about other prominent members of the Fenwick community.”

Reflecting on his long and distinguished career, Polka notes: “Fenwick is a building. What makes it unique are the students and instructors and, of course, … the Dominican tradition. Being around these students and seeing them develop are why people stay here. Fenwick kids have goals and objectives. The environment here doesn’t exist in a lot of other schools.”

Five of Polka’s former students have earned, or are earning, their degrees in environmental sciences. That is a small number against the thousands he has taught, but just because the others are not pursuing a similar academic path as his, doesn’t mean that they weren’t influenced by him in some other way. It is that kind of effect that fills him with humble pride. “I can’t save the rainforests or the endangered coral reefs, but our graduates can,” he muses.

Post-retirement, Polka plans to spend more time at the Shedd Aquarium volunteering as a behind-the-scenes tour guide – a “hobby” he started about five years ago. He also will devote time to assisting senior citizens and homeless children through local community centers. Additionally, Polka is a sixth-degree black belt in the Korean martial art of Hapkido and has instructed the Martial Arts Club at Fenwick for the past 16 years. “[Head Trainer] Tony McCormick is taking over the program, but you may see me back in the building helping him out,” Polka “warns” his former colleagues.

June 15th Reception

In addition to Polka, two other faculty members — Irene Drago and Dennis Zelasko — also are retiring after nearly 30 years of combined service to the Friar community.

  • Irene Drago has taught all levels of Spanish in the Foreign Language Department at Fenwick for the past 19 years. Mrs. Drago also has moderated the International Relations Club, where she developed a close relationship with the late Anne Smendinghoff ’05. An American diplomat, Smendinghoff, 25, was tragically killed by a suicide bomber in 2013 while delivering textbooks to school children in Afghanistan.
  • Denny Zelasko has been a health teacher and Fenwick class counsellor since 2006. He also served as head sophomore coach for boys’ basketball through the 2012-13 season. Previously, Zelasko guided the Notre Dame College Prep (Niles, IL) on the varsity basketball court from 1988 to 2005, winning six regional titles and making an IHSA Elite Eight appearance en route to more than 200 victories.

In honor and celebration of Mr. Polka and Zelasko, alumni, parents, past parents and other friends are invited to a retirement cocktail reception at Fenwick on Thursday, June 15. The party will be held from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. in the school’s courtyard. (Ms. Drago will not be present due to the pending birth of her second grandchild!)

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