School's out for teachers

Steamboat Springs faculty members move on to retirement

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— Steamboat Springs Middle School world history teacher Bruce Wenzlau paced the front of his classroom recently in an army green shirt.

His lesson was short and to the point.

He encouraged his students to ask questions, some of which he answered, some of which he didn't.

It has been 35 years since Wenzlau returned from the Vietnam War, but time has done little to heal the war's emotional wounds.

Only in the last couple years has Wenzlau discussed the war, and as a symbol of his dedication to teaching, it was his students who first heard him open up.

"My concern has always been boys and their attention to war," Wenzlau said. "They have this opinion that it would be fun. I just want to get them to know it's not fun. People die."

It seemed almost fitting that Wenzlau's final lesson as a schoolteacher might have been his most important.

After 15 years of teaching Steamboat children, and another 18 years teaching Hayden and Arizona students, Wenzlau retired at the end of the school year.

"I'm going to miss not having that contact with these kids who are so enthusiastic and so excited about things," Wenzlau said. "It pumped me up just knowing I had to come in here and be with them."

Wenzlau began his teaching career as a physical education instructor in Arizona.

He started teaching, he said, so he could coach football. But he continued to teach for more than three decades for the kids.

"I just love being around kids," he said. Seventh-graders were his favorite students.

"They're still enthusiastic about school and they're old enough to understand what's going on in the world," Wenzlau said.

Wenzlau plans to drive a school bus for the district next year as he waits for his wife to retire. He hopes to move to Durango and spend time traveling.

Karen Meek

In her 28 years as a Steamboat Springs School District employee, Karen Meek has seen a lot of change, perhaps none more so than how reading instruction has evolved.

Meek, Strawberry Park Elementary School's Title 1 reading teacher, retired at the end of the school year.

Students with reading disabilities used to be pulled from their classrooms for individual instruction, Meek said. Years later, reading instruction has progressed to inclusion in the classroom, she said.

Meek has spent many years going into classrooms and helping young readers there with their peers, in an environment that doesn't ostracize children for their ability.

"The neatest thing I experience is when kids go from nonreaders to reading at grade level in first grade," Meek said. "It's one of the neatest things to know they've made that much progress."

Looking back on her years teaching, Meek said she is most proud of the Accelerated Reading Program she and Ilene Stevenson developed 13 years ago.

She will also look back fondly on the wonderful staff at Strawberry Park, she said.

"I'm going to miss the teachers and just the camaraderie that goes on here," Meek said. "It's a really happy environment here."

Meek will teach summer school this year, which she said will help her transition to retirement.

Her first order of post-retirement travel will be to visit her recently married daughter, who moved to Sicily with her husband.

"It gets to that point of your life when you want to be able to visit your children," Meek said.

Meek, who also taught eighth-grade math and the fourth grade before becoming a reading teacher, said she looks forward to traveling, though her husband, Kelly Meek, will continue to coach basketball and teach at the high school.

Jean Koch

Retired Soda Creek Elementary School art teacher Jean Koch treasures the short, handwritten notes given to her by students over the course of her 19 years with the school.

But reading them didn't make retiring any easier.

"I made the mistake of reading them before the end of the school year," Koch said. "(The decision to retire) was very hard for me. I certainly had some ups and downs, especially saying goodbye to the kids. I loved my job every year. I was very fortunate to have a job I loved doing."

Koch began her career as an art teacher when she was chosen to fill in for a previous art teacher who was taking a sabbatical, Koch said.

"My hope is that in some way I've not only instilled the love of art, but that I've touched kids in a way that they know if they tackle things that are hard for them, they can do it," Koch said.

Judging by her encounters with past students, Koch might have accomplished her goals.

"It's really neat to see the kids I've had in years past that will stop me in the street and say, 'You know what, I still have that picture,'" Koch said.

As for retirement, Koch's first item of business is a September trip to Italy, where for the first time she will see European art in person.

Koch's husband, Ray, also retired this year after serving the district for many years as a Board of Cooperative Educational Services school psychologist. Ray Koch was out of town and not available for comment before press time.

Marcia Kaufman

In her 18 years teaching Steamboat children at Strawberry Park Elementary School, Marcia Kaufman has been teaching's equivalent to a utility player in baseball -- she does it all.

Kaufman began teaching third-graders, which she did for eight years before moving to second grade -- her favorite -- for nine years.

And in this, her last school year, Kaufman taught the first grade, which she had done prior to moving to Steamboat.

"(Teaching first grade) was easier when I was younger," Kaufman said. "But I liked it all, I really did. They're all at just a different stage of their life. It's fun to see them all."

Kaufman began teaching because she wanted to help kids, she said.

"Sometimes you just have to trust you're doing what kids needed; that you'll add a little step into their lives," she said.

Seeing individual growth in each student is teaching's biggest reward, Kaufman said, not to mention just being around young children.

Kaufman plans to enjoy retirement by traveling.

She's also looking forward to attending her daughter's wedding next month.

Kaufman, who has lived in Colorado for 30 years, came to Steamboat 22 years ago when her husband, Steve, took over as assistant principal, and eventually principal, at Soda Creek Elementary School.

She said she doesn't plan on leaving the area for very long.

"We'll be in Steamboat for a long time, hopefully," Kaufman said.

The reality of retirement, Kaufman said, probably won't set in until August, when she won't be gearing up for another school year.

"It will be a very different experience," she said. "Each new adventure that life offers is usually wonderful. The adventure goes on."

Neil Bergman

Steamboat Springs High School custodian Neil Bergman accepted the custodial position 29 years ago, figuring it would supply a steady income until something else became available.

"Twenty-nine years later, I was still there," Bergman said. "I'm kind of slow at finding another job."

Bergman moved to Steamboat in 1970 from the south side of Chicago.

"I basically came here to ski, and like many people, I just stayed," Bergman said.

His years at the high school have been wonderful, thanks to the great staff he works with, Bergman said.

"The greatest people in town work there," he said. "The kids have been getting better over the years, too. The school's been super."

Bergman said he's most looking forward to not being tied to any clocks or schedules.

Accordingly, he's headed to Hawaii next week with his wife, Helen.

The couple plans to spend future mud seasons in Baja, Calif., where Bergman recently purchased a little hideaway.

"I just wanted to get my dime's worth out of life," he said.

Editor's note: Marj Kelton, transportation director for the Steamboat Springs School District, also retired this year. Kelton did not immediately return phone calls for this story.

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