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Laura Kessel is managing editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby. She writes a weekly column and shares her thoughts here.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Calling on their past to give a boost to Euclid students

I met John at Roosevelt Elementary School in Euclid. I think we were in fifth-grade.

He was one of the guys then, and every day played a brutal football game called “kill the man” on the side lot before and after school.

My most vivid memory of him involves a set of flash cards and a phonics exercise that involved holding up a card with the sound of the vowel in the word that was uttered by the teacher.

He sat next to me, and we constantly took part in my favorite activity back then — talking in class.

That day, for some reason, we were using our flash cards as swords, and apparently missed the fact that the teacher had called out another word to the class.

All of a sudden, we heard the most horrifying sentence come from the front of the room.
“John and Laura: Kiss.”

Turns out Mrs. Murray wasn’t directing us to pucker up. No, we were supposed to hold up the card that depicted the vowel in the middle of “kiss.”

We immediately wheeled around in our chairs and endured the laughter of our fellow classmates as we caught up and then pretty much ignored ignored each other.

I kind of lost touch with John after that class. He went on to honors classes and starred on the wrestling team. I went on to annoy teachers and pretend I was good enough to be on the volleyball team.

We graduated together in 1985 from Euclid High School, and he attended Bowling Green State University, where he majored in math education.

About 27 years later, I found John when he and another of our former classmates became “friends” on Facebook.

After he accepted my friend request, I took a spin around his Facebook page and figured out what he’s been doing the past 22 years.

John Drage is an ordained minister and founding pastor of The Rock Campus Church at the University of Missouri.

John’s done missionary work in such places as Honduras and El Salvador, and leads a summer-long program called Christian Leadership Training. He’s also helped with such things as shoe ministry, prison ministry and orphanage ministry.

All that goodness and selfless public service needed to be acknowledged, and I knew the perfect place for it.

Last Friday, John was inducted into the Euclid Central Alumni Hall of Fame.

When I walked in the cafeteria and saw the lectern, I worried for a minute about setting him up to give a speech to the members of the school’s National Junior Honor Society.

I needn’t have worried about the guy who stands before a crowd probably daily, delivering remarks.

He and other members of the induction class, including WOIO news reporter Jen Picciano, each took a few minutes to deliver advice to the eighth-graders gathered for the ceremony.

John first relayed a story about his junior high wrestling coach Harry King. He also took a shop class from King, whom he said one day challenged him on his spiritual existence.

“I loved Mr. King,” John said. “He was probably the most crazy, amazing teacher in the history of Euclid Central Junior High School. He was amazing. Everybody loved this guy, and he was the wildman coach.

“And he asked me the question that would change my life. Mr. King asked me, ‘Do you think if you died today, you’d go to heaven?’

“And I had wondered that question all my life. I said Mr. King, ‘I’m just not sure.’ And we had one of those conversations over the next few days, and I made a decision that I wanted to become a Christian and it changed everything in my life.”

John looked back on the lessons King has continued to teach him in his life, and picked out one key he said he wanted to leave with the students.

“You just never know what kind of influence you can have,” John said. “We’ve been influcenced by so many people. Our teachers and our mentors, they want to assist us and we have the choice of whether we’re gonna listen. Are we gonna be coachable? Mr. King was my coach, not just for wrestling but for life. And I think this is probably the greatest thing he ever taught me: ‘Greatness belongs to those who serve.’

“The folks who are going to make a difference are those who serve, those who help people, those who love people, those who want to get out of their comfort zone, who want to be sacrificial and who say ‘I want to live the inconvenient life.’ ”

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Picciano, a Euclid native who moved back to the Cleveland area after working in Texas, told the students how humbled she was to join her cousin, Jim Duricy, in the hall of fame. Duricy was a inducted last year posthumously. He died in the line of duty while serving as a U.S. Air Force test pilot.

She discussed the difficult things she’s done in her career because she knew they’d get her what she wanted — a good job.

She talked about working nights, weekends, and that when she first arrived at Channel 19 as a traffic reporter, her early-morning shift required her to wake up at 2:30 a.m. and do her hair and makeup.
“It was not pleasant,” she said with a laugh.

But she said that her foundation in school and working with mentors and coaches who pushed her have given her the knowledge that she needed to be smart about what she tried to do. She urged the youngsters to do the same.

“Make good choices and continue to do so in your high school and college career,” Picciano said.

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Relying on mentors also was key for Dr. Julie Sterbank, who works as medical chairperson of the Education and Outreach Committee for the Cleveland Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

She said she had a difficult time in school, following two older sisters who both went on to become valedictorians of their graduating classes.

“My advice to you is try,” she said. “Do something that you feel is important and has meaning.”

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J. Michael Tosoch, a former Euclid art teacher, looked back on his time in Euclid schools fondly, noting how teachers urged him to try new things and take chances to become a better artist.
He summed up the occasion with this advice to the students on hand:

“It matters what you can get out of what these people have said,” he said.

Here’s hoping they will take the chance to bond with their teachers, and accept their advice to try and be true to themselves as they study and become a better version of themselves.
Twitter: @lauranh


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