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‘This was my ministry’

Longtime St. Mary’s teacher exits, stage left

Kraig Schweiss takes a break while packing up his classroom at St. Mary's School in Sterling. The English teacher is hanging it up after 41 years.
Kraig Schweiss takes a break while packing up his classroom at St. Mary's School in Sterling. The English teacher is hanging it up after 41 years.

STERLING – If you’re lucky, there’s at least one teacher in your life for whom you’ll always be grateful, who made learning fiery fun, who knew how special you were, and celebrated it.

If you’re really, really lucky, you had Kraig Schweiss.

For the past 35 years, Schweiss has been the tender beating heart of St. Mary’s School in Sterling. He’s firm but fair, and extraordinarily kind. And funny. His laugh wrinkles have laugh wrinkles. For an English teacher, he’s got a whole lot of that French joie de vivre.

Schweiss retired this year, after 41 years of teaching elementary students in the Sterling and Dixon Catholic school systems.

No one’s happy about it, except maybe his wife, Valerie, and their two horses, three dogs and four cats. Valerie, an RN who also just retired from the digestive health department at CGH Medical Center, has a honey-do list that grows daily at their rural Sterling home. (On June 24, they will have been married 25 years. They also have two sons, Jonathan Schweiss, 23, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, and Mike Wilkinson, 34, who lives in Fulton and works in Princeton, Iowa.)

Here’s why no one’s happy:

“My kids had him for a teacher, and he was phenomenal,” said Jeannie Ramos, the school’s office manager. “He’s just the best. He’s very tough, but it’s amazing how much the kids learn from him.”

When former students return for a visit, he’s the first person they want to see, she said.

Both Ramos and Principal Rebecca Schmitt have worked with Schweiss for the better part of two decades.

“He’s probably the best English teacher Sterling, Illinois, has ever seen,” Schmitt said. “They did research papers in fourth grade. They were diagramming sentences. He’d have to hold classes for the parents sometimes, to remind them how to diagram sentences.

“He’s a teacher that the kids never forget. He’s tough, but fair.”

He’s also a Eucharistic minister for St. Mary’s parish; he’s not retiring from that aspect of his life.

“He is very dedicated, not only to his teaching, but also to his Catholic faith life,” Schmitt said.

Dedicated is a good word for the 62-year-old. So is devoted. He’s devoted to his faith, the theater, the planet, the people in his life and his community, and his profession, all of which have brought him a profound satisfaction.

It could have gone another way.

Schweiss, a Sterling native, attended Sauk Valley Community College and enjoyed the theater, but didn’t think that would be a viable career. “I thought I would probably starve to death.”

“English is probably my forte, I’ll go with that,” he thought. “I could be a teacher.”

He attended Illinois State University, majored in English, minored in theater, and decided he wanted to teach junior high. “I thought that would be a really great area to start; it would be an age range I could reach.”

He started teaching in 1973 at St. Mary’s School in Sterling, where he lasted all of 1 year.

The kids rode roughshod over him. He was just a baby teacher. He didn’t know how to make them behave. It was chaos in his classroom. He was let go.

He didn’t give up, though. St. Mary School in Dixon gave him another chance. He taught seventh- and eighth-grade language arts. He began to get his teaching legs under him, to develop a style, a management technique. He stayed 6 years, before coming back home to Sterling to teach fourth-graders.

That’s when it all fell into place. Fourth-graders are imaginative and funny, they love to learn, they love their school and their teachers, they love to read and be read to, and singing, and silliness. Heaven.

“It was my niche,” Schweiss said. “Here I can teach, I don’t have to police.”

He stayed 35 years.

“This was my ministry. To be a teacher to these kids.”

Over the course of his career, he has taught third- through sixth-graders all the general things they need to know, but English was his specialty. He taught grammar and sentence diagrams and creative writing.

He also taught kindness, respect for the earth, and love for animals. “We would pray for the animals every day.”

He led the school’s Recycling Rangers the past 5 years. He taught his kids about the evils of palm oil. (Google it, or take a peek at Schweiss’ Facebook page.)

He’s still a big ol’ theater geek, and with good reason. It fits right in with his love of learning.

“You learn so much about the language and the time period and the people, and how they haven’t changed through the centuries. ... The treachery and the corruption and the goodness, all that hasn’t changed.”

His theater background, in fact, stood him in good stead with his students. He loved to play the different characters when reading to them, and he’s put on the Christmas show for years.

“They’re the best audience ever,” Schweiss said. “I could just be myself with the kids, because they always loved it, and I loved them.”

Still, he enjoys getting outside his own skin, his own head, now and again.

It’s a thrill “to pretend to be something you’re not, or to become extremely intimate with literature maybe you’ve only just heard about. ... I enjoy being in the light and just doing something that is far removed from my regular life. I love the applause,” said Schweiss, who will play Leonato in the upcoming Shakespeare in the Park production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

He also loves his life of service outside the school.

As a Eucharistic minister for the church, he tends to people who can’t make it to Mass. It’s been a joy of his more than 35 years now, almost as long as he’s been teaching.

He softens, and tears up, when he talks about the “unbelievable people” who have been his privilege to befriend, who have befriended him. This is tender Kraig.

“It’s almost like touching saints, meeting saints, ... they’re real, they’re precious,” he said. “You want to do for them.”

Thankfully, he’s not leaving St. Mary’s completely.

Schweiss will be a substitute, will keep putting on the Christmas play, and will help mentor students with special needs. Some kids, for example, are auditory learners – they need to be read to to succeed. He wants to be that tool for them, and “that extra pair of hands that the teacher needs.”

About his successor, Kim Bradley, he says: “I couldn’t be happier. She is a teacher who is by far the best I have ever, ever worked with.”

Recommended reading

St. Mary's School English teacher Kraig Schweiss has retired after 41 years.

Among his favorite things to do over the years was read to his students. As a parting gift to those who never will have the pleasure, here's a list of some of his favorite authors and their books:

Judy Blume: "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," "Superfudge," "Fudge-a-Mania" and "Double Fudge"

Gail Rock: "Thanksgiving Treasure" and "The House Without a Christmas Tree"

Avi: "Something Upstairs"

Leslea Newman: "Hachiko Waits"

Carl Hiaasen: "Hoot," "Scat" and "Flush"

Roald Dahl: "James and the Giant Peach" and "The Twits"

Barbara Robinson: "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever"

Eve Bunting: "Fly Away Home"

Wilson Rawls: "Where the Red Fern Grows"

Chris Van Allsburg: "The Polar Express"

Gloria Houston: "The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree"

Halloween extra: "I would read scary stories to all of my classes on Halloween from Alvin Schwartz's 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,' 'More Scary Stories' and 'Scary Stories 3.’"

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