Students-Turned-Teachers Help to Advance the Friars’ Mission

Why is it that such a surprisingly high number of former students return to Fenwick to teach future alumni?

By Mark Vruno

Presently, there are approximately 140 teachers, administrators and staff members at Fenwick High School, and 38 of them have walked the hallowed halls in Oak Park as students. Over the course of the school’s nine decades in existence, many more former pupils have returned to work and serve. “People come back to Fenwick because of the impact the school had on their lives,” believes Social Studies/History Department Chair Alex Holmberg ’05. “Whether that impact was inside or outside the classrooms, Fenwick leaves a powerful impression on everyone,” says Mr./Coach Holmberg, who triples as the school’s clubs/activities director and the defensive coordinator of the varsity football team.

Alex Holmberg ’05

“The opportunity to shape how future students approach the rest of their lives is incredibly powerful,” he notes, “and that potential draws so many people back into the building. Thinking about that opportunity to help prepare and motivate future Friars is what brought me back to Fenwick, and that thought is what motivates me to continue to help the school in whatever way I can.”

Principal Peter Groom, who has taught Friars since the 1980s, reports that many of the Fenwick graduates he has hired, he had in the classroom. “We get to know our students during their time here,” Mr. Groom explains. “We get to know their intelligence, their values, their passion and their work ethic. Typically, our graduates are also committed to our mission. When we hire people who are committed to our mission, we hire people who want to remain a part of our community for a long time. One of the keys to building a mission-based school is to have teachers who are committed and who demonstrate the aforementioned values.”

Roger Finnell ’59, a Fenwick mathematics instructor for more than five decades, concurs with fellow alumnus Holmberg:  “Many alumni teach here because they remember their experience at Fenwick as being something special and want to contribute towards continuing the traditions here,” reflects Mr. Finnell, who is Math Department Chair.

Roger Finnell in 1968.

“I knew I wanted to teach math when I started college,” shares Finnell, who also is the man behind the scenes of Black Friars Guild stage productions. “In my senior year at Loyola, after I finished student teaching at Lane Tech in Chicago, I heard about an opening at St. Ignatius, so I made an appointment for an interview. But then I thought I might as well also inquire at Fenwick. I did my Fenwick interview and was offered a position here, so, seeing this as a great opportunity, I quickly cancelled my St. Ignatius interview and the rest is history!”

Representing the Classes of 1959 to 2012

Kevin Roche ’05

Holmberg and math/computer science teacher Kevin Roche ’05 are two of thousands of Friars taught by Mr. Finnell over the past 55 years. “I think that there are a large amount of Friars returning because they had a great experience at the school, believe in what the school does, and want to be a part of ‘steering the ship’ for future generations,” chimes in Mr. Roche, who also coaches cross country. “We have Friars in different aspects of the school (operations, administration, faculty and development) who all had different experiences here yet all want to give back. I believe that this influx of alumni teachers is also a sign of our generation: millennials have a great desire to find meaning and purpose in their work. That is their highest motivator and education is a career that offers immense purpose and validation for the work through strong relationships.”

Grace Liliek ’08

Grace Lilek ’08, who is in her third year of teaching social studies at Fenwick, captures the sentiment of many of her colleagues who also are alumni: “I was inspired to pursue a career in education based on my experiences at Fenwick,” says Ms. Lilek, who also is a learning resource coordinator. “I think experience is the first reason so many of us have come back to Fenwick to teach. You will not meet two Fenwick graduates who had the exact same experience. You can be an athlete or a thespian or participate in academic competitions, and always find your niche. You can also take on all three of those roles and thrive. It is an honor to come back to Fenwick as a teacher and share these experiences with our students.” Lilek continues:

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Forever Friars: The Dobber

Fenwick High School periodically profiles people affiliated with our community who have since passed on …

Dan O’Brien ’34 (1917-2003)

Remembering DOB, “the Dobber:” a coaching/training legend affiliated with Fenwick for seven decades.

By Mark Vruno

In the basement of Fenwick High School sets the Dan O’Brien Natatorium. Our swimming Friars will host the 30th Annual Dan O’Brien Relays this coming January. Younger alumni and present-day students may wonder: Who was this O’Brien guy and why is he a such a legend at Fenwick?

DanOBrien_plaque

Dan O’Brien was more than a stellar swim/dive guru; he was versatile. DOB was a FHS student (Class of 1934) who then served as a physical education teacher at his alma mater. “Dan’s first Fenwick paycheck predated the Social Security system and had no social security withholding,” deadpans Jerry Lordan, PhD., who teaches social studies at Fenwick and wrote the preface for O’Brien’s oral history, a hardcover book entitled Fenwick Over the Years.

In 1937 Football Coach Tony Lawless hired O’Brien to lead his freshman team. Football was O’Brien’s first love in sports. In the fall of 1930, seven years earlier, Fenwick was only one year old. Dan was a scrawny, 128-pound freshman who showed up for tryouts at the new school, only to be snickered at by burly classmates and upper-classmen. “Sorry, son,” said Lawless, according to a 1972 Oak Leaves article. “I can’t use you. You’ve come out for the wrong team.”

O’Brien, however, was determined and refused to give up easily. Here’s how reporter Ted Londos recounted the story 42 years later:

“The kid faced the wise, young coach and replied firmly, ‘Mr. Lawless, I’ve come out for the team. You’ve asked for candidates. Here I am. You’ve got to give me a chance to show you what I can do.’ And so, to get rid of that reckless kid, Tony put him into a scrimmage – just for laughs. But on the first play, Coach Lawless’s eyes popped when he saw the tiny freshman bring a varsity giant down with a devastating tackle. Again he tried him out, and another regular bit the dust. Young Lawless shrugged his shoulders and decided to let the gutsy little guy hang around. ‘What’s your name?’ asked the coach.”

But the feisty O’Brien’s gridiron career with the Fighting Friars was short-lived. As a sophomore he suffered severe medical complications from the surgical removal of a kidney, which kept 15-year-old Daniel out of school for an extended period of time in 1931-32. “His surgeon warned him that the procedure may either fail and/or kill him,” Lordan later learned. “Dan outlived the surgeon and saw the surgeon’s grandchildren (twin boys) attend Fenwick.”

DanOBrien_1954_cropped

Dan O’Brien circa 1954.

 

Fast-forward 45 years, to when two of his former swimmers-turned-doctors came to O’Brien’s aid. “I had come back to Chicago in 1977,” recalls Leonard Vertuno ’57, M.D., a Loyola-educated nephrologist (kidney specialist), “and Pete Geis knocked on my door.” Dr. Peter Geis ’60 was a transplant surgeon and an All-State swimmer three years ahead of Vertuno at Fenwick. “Pete said, ‘Dan needs a doctor, and you’re it.’”

So began a reuniting of player and coach – and an adult friendship that would span more than a quarter-century. It was Dr. Vertuno who would give the eulogy at Dan O’Brien’s funeral in 2003. “He was an amazing man,” the retired doc said in early November from Sarasota, FL. “Dan was renowned nationally and internationally. He chose to stay at Fenwick and work with Tony [Lawless].”

From field to pool

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