Rosemary Pietrzak

  • Master teacher Pietrzak travels with personal touch in the classroomRosemary Pietrzak

    Rosemary Pietrzak displayed a gift for turning her classroom into a special place.

    Her magic and thirst to share knowledge transformed Room 302 at Hauser Junior High School in Riverside into a foreign land, an art museum, a time in history, a piece of music or a place in literature. The 1951 graduate of Morton Junior College created always-changing bulletin boards to show impressionable sixth-graders a big world beyond the boundaries of District 96.

    Whether the longtime Cicero resident visited the Holy Land, saw Pope John XXIII in St. Peter’s Square, went to the Valley of Kings in Egypt, walked the path of the Bataan Death March, stood in the stairs of Anne Frank’s house or strolled pre-Castro Cuba, she wanted to create a lasting “You Are There” memory for her students from her travels.

    “I learned something from all of them,” said Pietrzak, who has collected some 3,000 slides from her travels to 46 different countries. “Now when I read my diaries, I wonder, who is this person who wrote in all this detail - where she went and whom she met? It was all perfectly thrilling to me.”

    Incorporating her travel experiences into an educational setting provided Pietrzak with a perfectly thrilling career for 39 years from 1953 to 1992 in District 96. It was about interacting with students, not preparing them for standardized testing.

    “To me, the personal touch seems to be gone,” said Pietrzak, who retired from teaching in 1992. “I just don’t understand any of it. It takes all the joy out of school.”

    When Pietrzak thinks of education, two people she encountered stand out. One was Dr. Robert Hale, a history teacher, dean and later namesake of the award presented annually to Morton College’s top student at Commencement.

    The beloved “Doc Hale” once told Pietrzak’s uncle, who was Morton High School’s truant officer for 25 years, “You have a smart niece – she should think about applying for a scholarship to Northwestern.”

    The other was Dr. Ludwig Hauser, who hired Pietrzak to teach in District 96. The district’s junior high school now bears Hauser’s name.

    Pietrzak only was the second person in her family to go to college. Morton College was a new and wondrous journey to Pietrzak. It was her first educational endeavor outside a parochial setting. After four years at then all-girls Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, Pietrzak’s first day at Morton was quite an eye-opener.

    “I walked into geology class with my friend and thought there had been a mistake,” Pietrzak recalled. “There were boys in the class. After four years at Nazareth with all girls, it was a shock to see boys.”

    At Morton College, then located on the third floor of Morton East High School, Pietrzak felt all grown up.

    “I just loved being there,” Pietrzak said. “You knew everybody by sight – there were just 400 students. The teachers were excellent. I think men could smoke in the men’s lounge. We had a women’s lounge, too.”

    Pietrzak also learned to accept personal responsibility at Morton College. She and another student had fallen behind in putting together the “Party Line,” a book which contained the home phone numbers and addresses of Morton College’s students, faculty and administration.

    “Mr. Finley called me in,” Pietrzak recalled. “He really scolded me. I had given some reason and he said, ‘It’s not your mother’s job.’ I was a good student and this was the first time I had been called to task. But it taught me a lesson to take responsibility for a job.”

    Pietrzak’s love of music blossomed at Morton College. She discovered she could check out records just like books. The library staff put Pietrzak in charge of maintaining the collection, with duties including reporting any worn out or unplayable records.

    “I always loved music,” said Pietrzak, who still is a Lyric Opera subscriber. “This further exposed me to all kinds of music.”

    After graduating from Morton College, Pietrzak went on to earn her bachelor and master’s degrees in elementary education from Northwestern University. She started out teaching at Central School in 1953. After five years, she moved next door to teach sixth grade. For the first few years, these classes were part of a gifted program.

    Pietrzak was part of District 96 for five decades, teaching reading, language arts and social studies. The district’s September 1992 newsletter praised her as “exceptional educator” and one who could “weave varied elements of instructional content into an effective lesson.”

    In retirement, Pietrzak became involved with the Fra Angelico Art Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting religious art. She also was a board member of a teachers’ retirement group, where Pietrzak served as recording secretary and assisted with their newsletter.

    Pietrzak also is a member of the Eastland Disaster Society and was part of a WTTW’s “Chicago Stories” segment on the Eastland because several of her relatives were part of the 844 people who died that day in 1915 when the passenger ship, chartered by Cicero’s Western Electric to take its employees to Michigan City, Indiana, capsized in the Chicago River.

    While retired from teaching for 23 years, Pietrzak still is a teacher at heart. In Pietrzak’s mind, all her students are still 12 years old and in the sixth grade. If a former student tells her they’re retiring, Pietrzak just can’t fathom it.

    “What’s so great about education is the interaction with the students,” Pietrzak said. “I greatly enjoyed the personal contact.”