September 28, 2012

‘Doing the right thing’ guides award recipients

By John Shaughnessy

It’s one of the best compliments ever given.

In describing Providence Sister James Michael Kesterson, a friend once said, “She must have a direct line to heaven. Whenever I ask her to pray, it goes well.”

Sister James Michael prefers to put the focus on God, believing in this approach to life: “Do your best. God will do the rest.”

It’s a philosophy that has marked her 83 years of living and more than 60 years of giving to others as a Catholic educator in the archdiocese.

It’s also a way of life for the two other Catholics from the archdiocese who will join Sister James Michael in being honored during the Celebrating Catholic School Values: Scholarship and Career Achievement Awards event in Indianapolis on Oct. 30. (Related: Tickets, sponsorships available for celebration of Catholic education)

This year’s Career Achievement Awards recipients are Sister James Michael and Dennis Sponsel, chairman of the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies board. Fred Klipsch will receive the Community Service Award for his leadership as the president of School Choice Indiana and the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust.

Here is a glimpse of the three recipients and the differences they make for others.

Sister James Michael Kesterson

Providence Sister James Michael KestersonThe measure of Sister James Michael’s life can be taken in this anecdote she once shared from her days as a teacher at a Catholic school in Illinois, in the affluent community of Evanston. After school, many of her students chose to stay with her because their parents weren’t home. Some told her that the only person they had to go home to was the maid.

“They would come over on Saturdays, too, because they knew I would be listening to the Notre Dame games,” she recalls. “We’d listen to the game together, and then I’d take them over to the gym to play. They came from good homes. They just needed extra attention.”

The measure of Sister James Michael’s life can also be taken in her remarkable career of 60 years in education, including 32 years as the principal of St. Jude School in Indianapolis.

During that time, the school earned two Blue Ribbon School awards for excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.

“My blessing was to be with the children all those years—to help them, to teach them, to see them grow,” says Sister James Michael, who also served as principal of Our Lady of the Greenwood School in Greenwood and as a teacher at the former St. Andrew the Apostle School in Indianapolis.

The measure of Sister James Michael’s life can also be taken in the ways she has continued to live her faith since she retired in 2010.

She teaches in the after-school, religious education program at St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis. She is on the planning committee for the 175th anniversary celebration of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. And she volunteers part-time in the Archives of the archdiocese.

“You have to stay active,” says Sister James Michael, who will be 84 on Nov. 21. “My family, my faith, my community and the children have been my priority in life. God has blessed me, and he continues to bless me.”

Dennis Sponsel

Dennis “Denny” SponselDennis “Denny” Sponsel remembers his mom and dad—the parents of seven children—starting every weekday by receiving Communion at 5:15 a.m. at St. Philip Neri Church in Indianapolis.

He recalls his Catholic Youth Organization football coach, who always stressed mental toughness in overcoming challenges.

And he has never forgotten the priests, religious sisters, teachers and other parents from his childhood and youth, who set an ever-present example of doing the right thing, giving from the heart and caring about others.

“Those are the values I believe in and try to live by,” says Sponsel, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis.

Sponsel credits that foundation of Catholic faith and Catholic education for his commitment to numerous volunteer efforts, including the United Way of Central Indiana and the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies, a consortium of Central Catholic School, Holy Angels School, Holy Cross Central School and St. Philip Neri School, all in Indianapolis.

“I’ve never let go of my connection to St. Philip Neri and the near east side being a major part of my life,” says Sponsel, who is also a graduate of the former Latin School in Indianapolis. “The roots are deep and strong. I realize the needs of the inner city, and that’s what drew me to helping those schools today.”

Those roots and values have also shaped his approach as the president and owner of RJE Business Interiors, an office furniture dealership.

“I sincerely would not trade my Catholic school education for anything,” says Sponsel, a father of four and a grandfather of six, who has been married for 30 years to his wife, Cathy. “Everything I am today is because of my parents and my Catholic school education.”

Fred Klipsch

Fred KlipschFred Klipsch could just focus on his own life, telling the story of how “I have been successful beyond belief.”

It would be the story of how a boy who grew up on New York Street in Indianapolis became the owner of several companies in the healthcare industry, and how he served for 22 years as chairman and chief executive officer of Klipsch Group Inc., a world-class speaker company based in Indianapolis.

Yet, Klipsch is more concerned about helping to create success stories from the lives of underprivileged children in Indiana.

“Every child has the right—and should have the privilege—of a very good education that should be made available to them no matter where they live,” he says.

Klipsch has made that goal his passion as chairman of School Choice Indiana and the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust, two programs that offer children from low-income families the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, including Catholic schools.

“Through Educational CHOICE Trust, we’ve given out $20 million in scholarships to 20,000 children in the first 20 years,” he says. “School Choice Indiana is helping 9,500 children this year get an average of a $4,500 scholarship or voucher.”

A product of public schools in Indianapolis, Klipsch chose a Catholic school education for his children at St. Pius X School and Bishop Chatard High School, both in Indianapolis. For him, Catholic schools offer a spiritual view that makes life more rounded. Still, his push for school choice for children and their parents is open-ended.

“I’m as concerned about public schools as I am about private schools and charter schools,” says Klipsch, a member of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese, who often attends St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “Every parent should have more than one choice.”

Klipsch views his work for school choice as a way of sharing his blessings.

“I had a lot of positive support in my lifetime that not every child has access to today,” he says. “We’re all influenced by people who stand up and do the right thing on a regular basis.” †

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