March 20, 2009

The bond of Catholic education: Scholarships make schooling possible for children in need

A teacher for 44 years at St. Louis School in Batesville, Lil Kennel shares a hug with students Lizzy Moeller, left, and Anna Moeller. (Submitted photo)

A teacher for 44 years at St. Louis School in Batesville, Lil Kennel shares a hug with students Lizzy Moeller, left, and Anna Moeller. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

A Hall of Fame basketball coach wanted to “pay forward” a blessing from his youth.

A teacher of 44 years hoped to share a special gift with future students.

The children of a man who died viewed their choice as the perfect way to honor their father.

And a school secretary who has dedicated 30 years to making life better for children and their families celebrated a landmark birthday by giving a memorable present to others.

All four individuals are connected by the bond of Catholic education. The four people are also connected by their desire to make Catholic education a key part of life for children in need.

Here are their stories, stories that are similar to the hundreds of other people in the archdiocese who have created endowments and scholarships for Catholic education.

A memorable shot

He has coached basketball at the University of Notre Dame and, for more than 20 years, in the National Basketball Association. He is also a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. So John MacLeod has seen countless shots in his life. Yet one of the shots he remembers best is the one he was given by a priest during his youth in southern Indiana.

It came before the 1951-52 school year, the year that marked the opening of Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville.

“My family didn’t have the money for me to go to Providence High School,” MacLeod recalls in a telephone conversation from his home in Phoenix. “Msgr. [Joseph] Hamill was kind enough to help me get into Providence. He stepped up to the plate and gave me the money to go there. He was great at doing that.”

MacLeod describes his four years at Providence as “a great time in my life,” years in which he ran track and played baseball and basketball.

As a way of thanking the late Msgr. Hamill, MacLeod has established a scholarship endowment fund at Providence to help students who need tuition assistance. He even returned to the school in 2004 to speak at a fundraiser for that purpose.

“I always thought when I had the chance, I’d like to do the same thing,” MacLeod says. “My intent was to help the kids who don’t have the wherewithal to go to Providence. A lot of times, a kid wants to go to a Catholic school, but they don’t have the funds. This is my way of helping.”

A teacher’s special gift

Here’s a defining story that reveals the special way a teacher can touch a life.

It’s the story of a man returning to his hometown after nearly 40 years—and the person he especially wanted to see there.

The story also helps to explain why a Catholic school community established a tuition assistance endowment fund in honor of a woman named Lil Kennel.

The story occurred recently at St. Louis School in Batesville, the southeastern Indiana community where the man grew up. Living in New York now, the man and his sister had returned to their hometown so they could bury the ashes of their father there.

“They stopped by to see the school,” says Chad Moeller, the principal of St. Louis School. “He said the one teacher [that] he remembered was Miss Kennel. That’s typical. She still has students coming to see her. So we called Lil. And she said to please give him directions to come over.”

“He was in my second class,” says Kennel, who retired in 2004 after 44 years of teaching second grade at St. Louis School. “Their family left here some 40 years ago. It was so neat when he came back. I’ve kept in contact with a lot of my students. I felt I shared those children with their parents. I felt I belonged to all those families.”

That sense of connection worked both ways. When Kennel retired, the school community wanted to honor her. She told people she didn’t want anything for herself, and that they could just contribute whatever they wanted to help students whose families have difficulty paying tuition. The contributions were so sizeable that an endowment was established in her honor.

“I so much want every child to have the privilege of going to a Catholic school,” Kennel says. “I just see a Catholic education as very important. In second grade, the children were like sponges. It was always a good feeling knowing I had prepared them to receive Communion for the first time.”

A touching tribute to a father

As a father, James Magee always gave his children his love. He also gave them a philosophy to live by.

“His approach was, ‘Find a way to get it done. Just do it,’ ” recalls Tracy Magee, the oldest of her father’s three children. “He really pushed you to excel. ‘Be what you can be. Do what you can do.’ If Cs were the best you could do, that was fine if it was the very best you could do. At the end of the day, he wanted you to say you did the best you could. He wanted you to say you were proud of that day.”

James Magee followed that approach in his own life.

“He was the first in his family to go to college,” Tracy says. “He went at night. It took him eight years. With three kids and he worked full time. Education was very important to my dad. Catholic education was especially important to him. He liked the idea of the moral, ethical component of Catholic education—that there was religion every day, that the curriculum was God-led. He liked that faith was at the heart of everything you were doing and learning.”

When he died at age 55 in 1999, his wife of 35 years, Peggy, had the idea for a Catholic education scholarship to honor him.

“Mom wanted something that would touch someone’s life in a meaningful way,” says Tracy, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For the first seven years of the scholarship, tuition assistance was given to an “average,” at-risk student who wanted to go to any Catholic high school but didn’t have the money to make that goal possible. This year, the focus of the scholarship will switch to at-risk students who want to attend Roncalli High School in Indianapolis—the alma mater of James and Peggy Magee’s children.

“We picked someone going into high school because we thought high school is such a turning point for kids, and that a lot of families have to make a decision about Catholic high school or non-Catholic high school depending upon finances,” Tracy says.

She believes her father would be touched by the scholarship.

“He believed that education, particularly Catholic education, was the most important thing parents could do for their kids. He felt education could change your life.”

A surprise to celebrate

When Rose Sochacki turned 60, her children held a surprise birthday party for her. Then they gave her a surprise gift.

“In lieu of birthday gifts, my kids asked people to contribute to a scholarship,” recalls Sochacki, who has been the secretary at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis for 30 years.

“My daughter, Susan, had heard me say that the families at school were so generous to me at Christmas and on Secretary’s Day that I wished I could give them some other options for gifts. She thought a scholarship was another option. Everyone at the party was very generous. We collected $5,000.”

Sochacki thought the scholarship was a terrific idea for helping students in need to attend St. Thomas Aquinas School.

“It’s been perfectly fine with me,” she says. “I’ve tried to make people understand that even donations of $5 are important.”

After several years, the fund in Sochacki’s honor grew to $13,500. In 2008, to simplify accounting procedures at the school, the fund was rolled into the Alma Mocas Scholarship Endowment Fund. Mocas was an educator at St. Thomas Aquinas School for more than 20 years.

Now 66, Sochacki continues to work at the school where she has long been beloved by students, families and staff. That appreciation marks her devotion to Catholic schools and her desire to help children attend St. Thomas.

“With today’s economy, if we’re going to keep more people in Catholic schools, we’re going to need more scholarships.”

(For information about scholarships or tuition assistance endowment funds, contact the Catholic school of your choice or the Catholic Community Foundation at 317-236-1482, or 800-382-9836, ext. 1482.)


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