May 16, 2014

Dream job and friendship: Best friends who taught same grade at same school for 40 years will retire together

Connie Hessler, left, and Donna Ross are best friends from college who have been teaching fourth-grade classes at St. Jude School in Indianapolis for 40 years. As they prepare to retire on May 23, they pose in front of a mural of the Blessed Mother and Jesus as a boy near their classrooms. The two teachers had the mural created to honor their moms. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Connie Hessler, left, and Donna Ross are best friends from college who have been teaching fourth-grade classes at St. Jude School in Indianapolis for 40 years. As they prepare to retire on May 23, they pose in front of a mural of the Blessed Mother and Jesus as a boy near their classrooms. The two teachers had the mural created to honor their moms. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

While nearly everyone has an idea about what would be a dream job, Connie Hessler and Donna Ross have no doubts that they have lived theirs.

For Hessler and Ross, the first part of what makes a dream job is to do something you love—and both of them have loved teaching fourth-grade students in a Catholic school, helping to shape the lives, the faiths and the futures of children.

The second part of what makes a dream job for them is to share it with your best friend—which is what Hessler and Ross are to each other.

Indeed, for the past 40 years, the best friends from college have been teaching fourth-grade students together at St. Jude School in Indianapolis—in classrooms right across the hall from each other.

Their closeness as friends extends far beyond their loyalty to their favorite teams, the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Reds. They also take summer trips together, power walk together, talk to each other on the phone for an hour after being together all day, and even dress in complementary costumes on Halloween, including Dorothy and the Scarecrow and Snow White and the Wicked Witch.

And on May 23, they will mark one more significant event as best friends: They will retire together from their dream job of 40 years.

“We made a pact several years ago,” Ross recalls. “We said, ‘We walked into this school together, and we’re going to walk out together.’ ”

There’s also one other distinction the best friends share: 40 years ago, they both became teachers for the same school in what has to be one of the easiest and least stressful hiring processes ever.

‘Teaching is a heartfelt profession’

Ross and Hessler first met at Marian University in Indianapolis and soon became close friends through the education classes and school visits they shared.

Ross had part of her teacher training at her grade school in Indianapolis—the former St. Andrew School—where she was welcomed by the principal, Providence Sister Mary Justin Gootee.

“In my senior year, in the fall of ’73, Sister Mary Justin became the principal of St. Jude,” Ross recalls. “I called her to see if she had any openings for teachers. She said to ‘call me on February 6.’ I called and she said, ‘Donna, I’m going to have three openings in fourth grade and at least one in third grade.’ I asked if I could interview. She said I didn’t have to.

“I ran back to my friends, and Connie was one of them. I told them about the openings. A week later, I get a call from Sister Mary Justin saying, ‘I have an application from Connie Hessler.’ ”

Ross told Sister Mary Justin that her friend would be great for one of the fourth-grade positions. The principal called and asked Hessler if she wanted a job. Hessler said yes, and the interview ended.

They started teaching together at St. Jude in 1974. Their influence has since become legendary.

“They exemplify everything about great teaching and love of teaching,” says Father Stephen Banet, pastor of St. Jude Parish. To them, teaching is a heartfelt profession. In this day and age, it’s unusual for teachers to teach a class for 40 years. It’s that consistency that our families have looked forward to for years. They know it will be a wonderful year for their children.”

Joe Shelburn has experienced their gifts as teachers from a rare perspective—first as a former student of Hessler and now as the principal of St. Jude.

“I cannot think of two people more dedicated to bringing the Catholic faith alive in a classroom,” says Shelburn, from his perspective as principal. “Their love for God and our faith is instantly felt by anyone they meet.”

His memories of Hessler as a teacher are just as glowing: “She cared for us as her own children. She told fantastic stories about her own life and had a knack for making learning truly interesting. She had an amazing teacher voice that drew you into whatever she was explaining. She set a great example each and every day, and I can still remember trying to do my best to make her proud.”

Hessler and Ross have that same sense of love and pride for teaching children in the fourth grade.

‘Put God in your life every day’

“If there’s anything a 9- or 10-year-old child can expect out of life, we’ve helped them with it,” Ross says. “We’ve had kids whose parents have passed away, and exciting times when baby brothers or sisters have been born. And when they turn double digits, that’s exciting for them.

“For us, it’s really teaching them about life—how to put the good works of Jesus into their lives.”

Hessler nods and adds, “I tell them, ‘If you put God in your life every day, you can accomplish whatever you want to do.’ I also encourage them to be optimistic, to stay positive.

“I love telling stories about growing up when I was their age. My mom and dad owned a little mom-and-pop grocery store. Every day, I try to get in a fun story about growing up. It humanizes us. Sharing stories with them will always be a special memory for me.”

The story of their teaching and their friendship extends beyond the classroom.

“Connie is such a dear friend,” Ross says. “My father refers to her as his third daughter. When my mom was dying, I stayed at the hospital with my mom, and Connie took over, making sure everything was done for me in my class. If you want to know the definition of a friend, Connie is that for me.”

The feeling is mutual for Hessler.

“When I have great news, Donna is always the first one I want to tell,” Hessler says. “If I have sad news or bad news, Donna is the first one I want to tell. She’s another sister. We’re family. I’d also say we laugh the hardest together.”

A lasting and touching tribute

As their 40 years of teaching in the same grade at the same school with their best friend nears an end, Hessler and Ross have already received tributes to their teaching ability, their faithfulness and their love for their students.

Still, perhaps the best reflection of them is visible in the tribute that they had created on the wall near their classrooms.

It’s a mural of the Blessed Mother and Jesus—a mural they had made in honor of their mothers, Fran Hessler and Julia Ross.

“They were our best teachers,” Hessler says.

“It reminds us of our mothers every day,” Ross notes. “We were both close to our moms. We wanted to leave something to St. Jude’s to remember our moms. So we had a mural made by a former student. It’s of Mary and Jesus when he was a little boy.”

Even in the wistfulness of remembering their mothers, there’s a joy in remembering the influence their moms had on them.

A similar combination of wistfulness and joy marks their nearing retirements.

“We’ll be sad,” Ross says. “But there are all these doors that will be open to us.”

They plan to spend time with their families, do volunteer work, and take vacations that don’t just have to be scheduled during summers.

“We will miss the people—the faculty, the students, the families,” Hessler says. “The faculty all loves one another here. We’re going to miss teaching, too, but it’s time to pass the torch. And that’s a good thing, too. I think of this as starting a new chapter, not ending teaching.”

One of the most beautiful parts of their past 40 years together won’t change when they retire.

“Our friendship is going to stay the same as it’s always been,” Ross says.

“It will be stronger,” Hessler says. “Even stronger.”

And the best friends smile again.

(Anyone whose life has been influenced by the teaching of Hessler and Ross is invited to send them a note of thanks at St. Jude School, 5375 McFarland Road, Indianapolis, IN 46227.)

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