By KAREN PARKER | retired County Line Publisher
Kurt Radke of rural Wilton first met Al Szepi in the late 1970s. Radke had completed a UW Farm Short Course and had served with Szepi on a CESA Committee focused on farm technology.
One day, his dad, Ivan, came home from a Norwalk-Ontario School Board meeting, for which he served as treasurer, and asked Kurt if he knew this Szepi fellow and what did he think of him.
“He seemed like a nice guy to me,” Kurt told his dad.
“Good,” responded Ivan. “Because we just hired him as our new school superintendent.”
The year was 1977, and Szepi was just 29 and possibly the youngest school superintendent in the state. Over the next 28 years, he would guide the small district, which at one point hovered near extinction but vaulted in one year to having the second largest enrollment in the Scenic Bluffs Conference.
Szepi died last week at 74. He had struggled nearly all of his life with Type I diabetes, and when I spoke with him in March, he conceded he was coming perilously close to needing dialysis, a procedure he had no intention of enduring.
I first met Szepi in 1979, when he was intending to move from his job as industrial arts teacher in La Farge to his new position at Norwalk-Ontario Schools. My husband and I were going through one of our restless periods and had listed our place. Our old farmhouse did not make the grade, so he went up Cook Creek in rural Norwalk and bought a different old farmhouse. Neither of us ever left our old farmhouse.
What we did not know then was that in time, Kurt Radke would be his boss as president of the school board, and I would launch a newspaper and become (as newspapers should be) a perpetual thorn in his side. Like all superintendents, he wanted only good news for his school, but that is not possible. And when it was not, we crossed swords.
One of the worst events occurred in 1986, when the board, struggling with enormous budget shortfalls, agreed to cancel the sports program and all other extracurriculars. The board members were not quite accustomed to having a newspaper report their activities. Nor had they realized that WCOW radio station had a subscription to that newspaper. Or that its manager, John D. Rice, recognized a news story when he saw one. He promptly added it to the AP wire (no Facebook then), and by the next morning, Channel 8 and its cameras were rolling in Brookwood’s front door, and not surprisingly, the sports program ultimately stayed in place.
But those were difficult years for the district. Enrollment numbers were in decline for a variety of reasons: the loss of farms to the failed La Farge Lake project, the growing Amish community, farm consolidation, smaller families, and a years-long recession in the rural communities.
At one point, consolidation with another district was considered. A map was drawn to indicated how the district would be divided and to which neighboring school districts students would go.
In the early 1980s, students were not always well served. Ontario Elementary School students had to go to the Ontario Community Hall for physical education classes, and preschool and kindergarten were crammed into a modular and a mobile home. With help from the industrial-arts class and All American Lumber, Szepi fashioned together a gym and three-classroom addition onto the Ontario Elementary School in 1983.
His next project was less successful. The cost-saving idea of creating learning centers out of the two elementary schools was met with outrage. In the plan, lower grades would be in one school and upper elementary grades would be in another school. Parents were mortified at the length of the bus ride for students in the far reaches of the district. At least one board member, Duane Sletten, campaigned and successfully gained a seat on the board with his opposition to the plan.
When that idea fell by the wayside, the next plan was to combine the Norwalk and Ontario elementary schools at a new facility at Brookwood. By then, the economy had improved, but not all residents were on board with the idea. Some were skeptical of mixing high schoolers with younger children. Others feared it would be one more nail in the economic health of small towns.
But there was no denying that both elementary schools would require a major financial investment. Norwalk students ate lunch in the basement, and the building was rickety. The brick facing was falling off in places, and the roof needed a major redo. Both buildings were expensive to heat and maintain. It was a contentious issue, but in fall of 1993, voters approved a referendum to build a $1.2 million elementary school at the Brookwood site.
“What I always liked about Al was that he was so invested in the school,” noted Radke, recalling one time when he arrived early for a school board meeting and found Al in the hallways with a dust mop, clearing cobwebs off the top of the lockers.
When asked what he was doing, Szepi shrugged and replied, “They were dirty.”
After the gym emptied out at the end of a basketball game, it was not unusual to see the school superintendent pushing a broom across the floor.
The district might have finally been under one roof, but the challenges were not over. Brookwood’s neighbor, the EKW (Elroy-Kendall-Wilton) School District, was undergoing its own turbulence. The cost of maintaining three elementary schools led to board discussions about creating learning centers. Wilton residents began to fear its elementary school would be closed, and joining the Norwalk-Ontario District seemed like an attractive solution to some. It was a situation that should have generated conflict between Szepi and EKW Superintendent Art Keenan. But it didn’t.
“Al was a treat to work with,” recalled Keenan. Even after both had retired and Keenan had moved on to serve as Wonewoc-Center superintendent, they stayed in touch.
“He always did the best he could for kids and schools,” Keenan said.
Further complicating the detachment issue, the controversies of school consolidation in the early 1960s were still a tender point 30 years later. In the early 1960s, some rural areas, such as Kinney Valley, went with EKW, although they could nearly spit on Brookwood, while Black Valley in rural Wilton was closer to EKW but opted for Brookwood. Although Wilton was always well represented on the EKW Board, many believed the real power rested with Elroy, the more distant and larger town.
In 1999, after months of contentious meetings and despite the knowledge that Wilton Elementary School would close anyway, voters of both districts approved the detachment of Wilton from the EKW School District. It became the Royall District, while N-O added a letter and became the N-O-W District.
The detachment added more than 200 students to the Brookwood roster, although some high schoolers opted to finish their careers at Royall. Acting as general contractor, Szepi guided the new addition to the building so economically and successfully that “we offered him a bonus,” recalled Radke.
“He turned it down, said we couldn’t afford it.”
It wasn’t a first. He often turned down raises, which I thought was insensible. “Taxpayers aren’t going to remember that anyway,” I told him. And they generally didn’t.
But bricks and mortar are one thing, and people are something else.
“He could be a bear,” recalled retired history teacher Wayne Barrett, one of Szepi’s first hires.
“There I was, fresh out of college, dressed in a blue leisure suit with bell bottoms, thinking what a smart guy … and he hired me!”
Barrett recalls some teachers dreaded seeing the superintendent show up on his regular drop-in visits to the classroom.
Although art teacher Patti Holte was among those most likely to be in conflict with the superintendent, as she had served for a time as union steward and handled negotiations with the board and the administration, she has regard for her former supervisor.
“I always felt that Al supported me, personally, and the art department since the day he hired me,” she said. “When I started, I was teaching K-12 art and two sections of seventh-grade math at the three schools in the district, which was hectic. At the same time, I was going back to school, finishing up my art certification every summer and working a second job to pay for the schooling. He checked in with me often to make sure that I was doing okay or to see if I needed anything, and I felt that he truly listened. He was a numbers man, yet he was a people person, tough but fair and always a professional. I also sat across the table from him and the board for many years, negotiating for the teaching union, and we were always treated with respect. I felt that he cared about the people who worked at N-O-W like we were a family.”
Sarah Hamilton, a former Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton School District teacher who now works in the Tomah School District, recalled, “(He was) a truly wonderful man. He played a major role in my becoming a teacher. He has made an impact on millions of lives. Many of his words continue to guide me in my profession. One of my favorite things Al told the staff was regarding judging parents based on student behavior. He said, ‘Don’t judge so harshly unless you are certain your own children won’t make choices that are not going to embarrass you.’ So sorry to hear of the loss of such a wonderful man and educator.”
Al Szepi came to a district as homogenous as perhaps any school district in the state. And it could be his greatest legacy was his early recognition of the growing Hispanic community. When he offered a welcome to those children with an English as a Second Language Program and treated them and their families with respect, they blossomed, and then went on to college and successful careers.
And somewhere underneath that gruff exterior was a man who recognized that a cookie can be a force for world peace. Every school board meeting ended with sandwiches and cookies. If there was ever a cause for heated negotiation, it was when the EKW School Board came to Brookwood to hammer out the details of the detachment. Twenty-two years later, I still have a mental image of EKW board member Don Yahnke using a cookie to point to a map while delivering his concerns and complaints in a calm and civilized matter.
“We don’t do cookies at our school board meetings,” he told me later.
Szepi retired in 2005, when this year’s BHS graduating class were toddlers. The current superintendent, Travis Anderson, had graduated from college just a few years earlier. But the halls he now walks were once the centerpiece of one man who left us last week.
“We didn’t know each other well,” said Anderson, “because he was retired long before I came to Brookwood; however, in getting to know him in the past few years, he was a very kind man who left a legacy at Brookwood. In talking with him many times once I became the superintendent here at Brookwood, it was obvious he was a very caring, honest, and genuine man. From conversations with staff and community members who knew him very well, he was and will always be held in high regard, and while he was the superintendent at Brookwood, he did everything he could that was in the best interest of the school district. Our sympathies go out to his family and close friends. He will be missed by everyone who knew him.”