Above: Dr. John Egan, former superintendent for the Kohler School District, served Lutheran High School as the interim executive director during a time where his leadership was greatly needed.
The Right Man for the Right Time
By Chuck Benedeum
Many have found a person who comes into his or her life and makes a difference —a big difference — a truly lasting impression. Often times, this relationship happens over time. It happens only rarely that such a difference is gained from a short time or experience.
That is what happened to the LHS family in 2003 over a relatively short period with Dr. John Egan. Toward the end of summer, 2003, Lutheran High School had a vacancy at the leadership position of the school. Timing was such that it would have been difficult at best to call a new principal. LHS needed an administrator who could model Christian leadership, maintain the quality of the educational experience and to “calm the waters” from a difficult time in our school’s history; to restore unity. An interim administrator seemed like the best option.
Dr. John Egan’s name was submitted to Rev. Darrel Bergelin, Chairman of the LHS Board. Dr. Egan had recently retired from the Kohler School District as their Superintendent. Subsequent interviews with Board and Faculty were held. Dr. Egan came across as a very competent, proven school leader, a clear-thinking individual, proficient in school administration, very willing to listen and learn about LHS. It was difficult not to instantly like him and feel a clear comfort level with him.
Were there concerns? Dr. Egan was an active Catholic. LHS was a Lutheran school. How would that fit? Dr. Egan immediately assured Faculty and Board he would not interfere with anything religious in nature. He would confine his work to the school administration and support Faculty and Staff in the theology areas. He shared his thoughts and his philosophies and won people over quickly.
It became obvious, Dr. Egan was the answer. Pastor Bergelin shared his thoughts on Dr. Egan. “Dr. Egan was warm and friendly, eager to meet students, parents and faculty. He never came across as knowing the only way to do things; he was a team player yet led with authority by putting his viewpoint across quietly. He learned students’ and parents’ names easily; visited regularly with faculty; it just seemed like he had been here for 20 years. It was a great year for LHS!
Dr. Jim Pingel, the Administrator who followed Dr. Egan, shared his thoughts on working with and following Dr. Egan. “No matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen John, you feel like you can pick up and talk just like close friends. Usually when you have an interim administrator, he or she just works hard to make sure the trains run on time. John did way more than that. He helped a faculty and staff heal and come together as a team. He built a smooth runway for me when I came to serve as LHS’s Executive Director. I will always remember him for his kindness, support, and warm advice. He helped make me a better administrator and leader, and he did it in a most humble and selfless way.
Dr. Egan’s legacy in that short one school year’s time frame would certainly be that he successfully advanced LHS through some troubled times while restoring integrity, school spirit and unity. Upon his conclusion to the school year, at graduation, Dr. Egan was awarded a standing ovation of thanks and presented with an honorary diploma. God knew our needs at LHS and provided a servant in Dr. Egan. We are thankful for his time with us and will forever call him “Friend of LHS”.
Dr. Egan—In His Own Words
How were you made aware of the Opening at LHS?
The 2003-04 school year was beginning – and I had retired from the Kohler School District on June 30, 2001, as the Kohler School District Superintendent. In August of 2003, Pastor Darrel Bergelin contacted me and inquired if I might be interested in helping at Lutheran High for a brief time as their Board of Directors conducted a search for a new Administrator. He thought they would need my help until January, 2004. I recall telling Pastor Bergelin that being a Catholic was no conflict for me if it was no conflict for his Board of Directors. Obviously, this quickly became a mute issue. To my recollection, I began at Lutheran High with the beginning of the 2003-04 school year.
What challenges did you see facing you as you began?
I feared that the biggest challenge would be cementing my relationship with the staff and students. Most, if not all, were seasoned employees of Lutheran High. Guess I feared the ‘territorial’ aspect the most. And, of course, the inner feeling that they might view me skeptically – not being a member of the Lutheran Church. Needlessly, this insecurity never came to fruition. They welcomed me openly and integrated me quickly into their group. Once one has the support of the employees, the other pieces fall into place.
What was it like being an administrator working with faculty, staff, students, and boards in a different environment after so many years at Kohler?
There are more similarities than dissimilarities. The bottom line is that both settings are there to help students move on successfully into life.
Your impression of the students, staff, parents, atmosphere:
One could not ask for a more welcoming group. Mrs. Kathy Van De Kreeke, my personal secretary, was a gift from heaven, along with Mrs. Laska. Mrs. Pederson and Mrs. Sabrowsky. They were key to setting the positive tone for the high school students. Mr. Chuck Benedum, administrative staff, was key in assisting me with multiple duties and working effectively in the area of curriculum, development and recruitment. Mr. Jason Zielinski, principal, was also a significant part of my time there.
The Lutheran High students were impressive – in my brief time there, I got to know most of the students by name. Sure, there were challenges in handling typical negative teenage behavior…yet how exciting when a student turns the negative behavior around and realizes that you were there as a ‘helping hand.’
One thing unique about LHS was the time before school started each day. When students arrived earlier, they would spend time together at their lockers and stand around or sit on the floor, etc., until the bell rang for going to their classrooms. It was therapeutic for me to walk through the halls and get to know the students by name. Also, getting to know than by name was important – so I had a large poster on my door with their pictures on it – helping me to cement their faces and names into my memory.
The LHS parents could not have been more welcoming. At art shows, music programs, basketball games, etc., I was able to learn who they were – and connect them back to their daughters/sons. Many parents thanked me for assisting at LHS until a permanent administrator was hired. How easy it was for me to say: “Thank you – I am the lucky one.”
Previous work experience prior to LHS:
Received my bachelor’s degree from St. Meinrad College, St. Meinrad, Indiana, education credits from UW-Oshkosh, Master’s Degree from UW-Milwaukee, Specialist Certificate in Educational Administration and Doctor of Philosophy Degree from UW-Madison.
My work experience includes teacher in Catholic elementary schools, elementary school teacher for Waukesha School District, junior high principal for Adams-Friendship School District, Principal-District Administrator for Stone Bank School District, Superintendent for North Fond du Lac School District, and Superintendent for Kohler School District. Adjunct instructor in Educational Administration for Lakeland College and Marion College – Fond du Lac.
Post work experience after LHS:
Did adjunct teaching and actively involved in ‘Human Concerns-Social Justice Committee’ work for various organizations.
Karen and I have two daughters and four grandchildren. One lives in Madison and the other one lives in New York. Respectively, one works for the State of WI Pharmacy Organization, and the other is a Bi-Lingual Speech Therapist for Nazareth College in Rochester, New York.
What prompted you and your wife to create the John and Karen Egan scholarship:
Education has been a priority in our lives. Both of us have our advanced college degrees and our daughters, too, have received their advanced degrees. Knowing how important advanced education is for the youth of today and the importance of helping others, we decided to annually recognize a student from LHS and a student from Kohler High School who best exemplified the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
An earlier version of this article published in the Spring 2022 Leader's Guide mistakenly excluded Mr. Jason Zielinski as principal during Dr. Egan's tenure. We apologize for the mistake and have included it in John Egan's first impressions.