Physical education teacher Susan Oczkowski has announced that she plans to retire this June after 44 years at Morgan Park Academy, bringing to a close a teaching career that touched the lives of generations of children and helped instill in them the value of lifelong physical fitness.
A Chicago native who grew up a few miles from the Academy, Oczkowski joined the faculty in 1975, fresh out of Quincy College. Since then, she has taught P.E. classes for all ages; coached basketball, softball, tennis, field hockey, and volleyball teams; and served as physical education curriculum leader and director of athletics. She was inducted into the MPA Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.
“Sue has been a bedrock of our physical education program and a ‘teacher’s teacher’ who will do anything to help a child or a colleague,” said Head of School Mercedes Z. Sheppard, a colleague for more than 20 years. “Her tireless work toward teaching and modeling the importance of fitness and keeping active has been a key part of our whole-child education for decades.
“When Sue says she’ll take care of it, you always know it will get taken care of, with careful planning, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail that puts students, families, and colleagues first.”
Integrity, fairness, and consistency with students were hallmarks of Coach O’s teaching approach. More than anything, she said, she hopes that students learned from her the importance of doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.
“More than four decades is a long time to do anything, but I would hope the quality of my time here is remembered more than the quantity,” Oczkowski said. “For 44 years, MPA has been my home away from home.
“I am looking forward to not setting an alarm and not packing a lunch — and more important, I hope to stay active in the field of exercise, perhaps by working at a fitness center or boys/girls club or by volunteering with local park activities. I also want to be able to continue my own personal workout routines, only now I’ll have more time to do it. I started going to school at age 5 and have never stopped!”
From Her Colleagues
Lynda Pariso, P.E. teacher and Upper School Athletic Director
“How can you put into words all that Sue has given to the students, athletes, faculty, and community of MPA? Sue has been a leader in the physical education department throughout her 44 years of teaching. She brought innovative ideas to our program with the World Run and Hike & Bike the USA when the gymnasium was being renovated and we could not have any classes in the building. Sue has touched so many children’s lives and encourages each of her students to lead a healthy lifestyle. There will never be another Coach O!”
Heather Kurut, Middle School principal
“As Sue’s colleague for the past 17 years, I have appreciated her attention to detail, her commitment to service, and her perpetual willingness to step up and pitch in wherever needed. Sue gets the proverbial bus moving, and makes sure everyone is on the bus.
“As the parent of two children who’ve been blessed to have Coach O as their physical education teacher for the past two years, I appreciate the love of movement she has instilled in them more than I can ever express. One of my children arrived to school physically confident, wanting and willing to try any sport or climb any object; the other showed up a bit more timid and got easily discouraged when she could not do something on the first try. Thanks to Coach O, I now have two kiddos who know the value of practice and who understand that it’s not that they can’t do something, it’s just that they can’t do it yet.”
Kathy Keelan, retired second-grade teacher
“This is a well-deserved retirement. I will always think fondly of the years we worked together at MPA. She has always been so kind, compassionate, caring, and creative. Her creativity was at its best when the new gym was being built. Without a gym to use, she had quite a challenge on your hands. She decided to engage the entire school in a fitness challenge that turned our entire campus into a gymnasium. I know my second-graders that year were as excited as I was to record their laps and miles.
“Sue has touched the lives of thousands of students in such a positive way. She always encouraged students to try things outside their comfort zones and to always do their best. She has earned the respect and gratitude of all of her colleagues. I hope that retirement brings happiness, good health, relaxation, and lots and lots of golf. It has been a job well done.”
Tom Drahozal, Upper School principal
“Sue is one of the most and organized and professional colleagues that I have worked with. She cares about all of her students and colleagues. It has been an honor to have worked with her. Morgan Park Academy is a better institution for having had her as a teacher, coach, advisor, and curriculum leader the past 44 years.”
Harriet Arnold, school librarian
“I always have been amazed by Coach O’s ability to recognize and express in a few sentences the essence of her students’ personalities, learning styles, and progress. She knows them well and cares about each one. She is a wonderful role model for staying organized and models for students (and colleagues) the importance of setting high standards for yourself!”
Michael Ellis, music and band teacher
“In addition to her contributions to P.E. and athletics, the Arts Department was lucky to see her musical side. Coach O helped out many times in her years here, lending her angelic soprano to performances and even conducting the chorus. Her parodies of Christmas songs (e.g., “Richie got run over by a John Deere”) were always show-stoppers at holiday parties. She brought rhythm to the gymnasium as well, playing drums during Lower School P.E. classes.”
Peggy Scolan, Middle School math teacher
“When I came to the Academy in the fall of 1982, I met many colleagues who have since found their life’s paths taking them in another direction. It’s been my honor to have shared a longer portion of my path with several colleagues from that time, including Coach O.
“When I first met her, I was impressed with her energy and found her editorial comments a source of amusement. She and Coach Pariso had been at the Academy for a few years at that point and I valued their willingness to share their knowledge when asked.
“Over the years we’ve served on committees together, organized events, and discovered that we have a need for planning ahead that’s very similar. I always looked forward to sports awards assemblies when she would share her thoughts about her players and the season just completed.
“When a colleague would retire, she would turn those same reflective writing skills to crafting words that moved all those in attendance. Her unique T-shirt collection with unexpected (and sometimes bordering on the irreverent) sayings have always been something I look forward to on teacher prep days.
“I enjoyed the time I spent ‘across the street’ in the gym helping out with scoreboard duties, especially when I shared that time with Coach O. Supervising Middle School socials always gave me an appreciation of Coach O’s desire for a quiet place in the midst of the cacophony of noise that seems to accompany most Middle School socials. Her willingness to be and do whatever is needed is a treasured attribute to her personality.
“Finally, she has a lovely soprano voice. We were in a faculty singing group many years ago, and in fact, we were singing nuns together in a long-ago production of The Sound of Music. Her help as Middle School chorus director when Mrs. Kurut was out is a memory I treasure, too. We worked well together and the chorus performed well.
“We’ve shared so much over the years and I will miss her, dearly!”