Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal: Tom Gerencher was a great man.

drea alerted me this morning to the awful news of the sudden death of Tom Gerencher, one of the very best teachers I have ever met, and my mentor teacher during my time at Saint Joseph's High School in South Bend. Tom planned on retiring in a few more years, and his absence from Saint Joe in that way was something that I could imagine, if I stretched, but not this absence. I am dismayed at the few meager words in this obituary that tries to capture something of his life, but I suppose that that is the curse of the obituary: I find myself wondering what Tom would say about that as the teacher of writing that he always was.

Tom Gerencher was a great man.

He and his wife Rita had no children of their own, but he told me that they were conscious of the opportunity to give all that love to his students, and in his gruff, combative way, his love for his kids shown out of his "tough teacher" persona like the sun at noon. That was the style of the best teacher I had as a high school student, "Colonel" William Ellerby in Oregon, Illinois, and was – with his reputation for excellence – perhaps the biggest reason why I asked Tom to observe my teaching and review me each year. His criticisms were specific, insightful and numerous. His praise was unforgettable. I still have his evaluations tucked away where I can review them when I need to try to self-assess. When I had the opportunity to be a summer mentor teacher for student teachers in Notre Dame's ACE Program, Tom was one of the long-serving teachers I arranged to meet with the graduate students I was assigned, in order for them to get the insights of someone who had long been at the craft. Tom would be on his summer vacation, but leapt at the chance to talk with such teachers in-the-making.

Greatness is defined in the history books all too often by people in the midst of catastrophe: either in answering it or being responsible for it. The names that aren't remembered nearly enough by history are those like Tom who gave every plodding, "normal" day to doing a job excellently and to doing it for the betterment of those around him – in this case, his students. Tom knew one of the great secrets of teaching: that it isn't important that your students remember the content of every lesson you teach. Most of that, we all know, fades away. What is important is that you give a certain character to your work, and that the experience of doing that work thoughtfully and well – that is what will stay with the students. Each student Tom had might be able to rattle off certain facts or techniques they learned from him, but what would most stay with them was the eye-opening passion and integrity he brought to the subject, some love of which might then grow in the heart of the student in its own right.

Tom had thousands of students. I doubt any one of them has difficulty remembering who he was, and what he stood for. And that makes Tom Gerencher a great man.

The South Bend Tribune
August 16. 2006 6:59AM
St. Joe High mourns loss of 'institution'
Popular English teacher Tom Gerencher dies at age 60.

Tribune Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND -- Each year veteran English teacher Tom Gerencher would talk to new St. Joseph's High School teachers before their first day of school.

He was planning on doing it again Thursday before school opened next week.

"It was his love of students that made him special," said retired St. Joseph's teacher Pat Haas. "When he talked to the new teachers he always talked about how you needed to love your students."

Gerencher, a 1964 graduate of St. Joseph's, died Monday morning of an apparent heart attack while walking with friends around the school's track. He was 60 years old.

Word of his death spread quickly through the St. Joseph's community. Hundreds of his former students and colleagues attended a Mass in his honor Tuesday afternoon.

The Rev. Walter Bly presided over the Mass. Afterward, a steady stream of people migrated to the St. Joseph's basement where Gerencher kept his classroom.

The room is an almost overwhelming collage of music history, counterculture icons and literary heavyweights.

No part of the wall is exposed. The likes of Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman and John Steinbeck stare down at students from the walls.

It is an eclectic cross between a San Francisco bookstore and Jim Morrison's Paris gravestone.

"He's a St. Joe institution," said Claire Fallon, who graduated this year. "My first paper was on how everybody was so terrified to take his class."

Still, Fallon said the discussions that took place in Gerencher's class were some of her "favorite memories of high school."

After Gerencher graduated from St. Joseph's, he left for Kansas State University to play football.

Concluding that college football wasn't for him, Gerencher enrolled at Indiana University South Bend for his sophomore year.

After a stint in the Army, he returned home and graduated from IUSB in 1971.

Gerencher joined the staff at St. Joseph's in 1972. Since then, he has taught 10 different courses in the English Department and evaluated more than 33,000 essays.

"I've never thought about this place without his presence," said business teacher Julie Chismar. "It's hard to imagine it without Tom Gerencher. He would hold court wherever he was."

Gerencher is survived by his wife, Rita (Miller) and brother, Ronald.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Thursday in the St. Joseph's gym.

Friends may call from 2 until 8 p.m. today in the Kaniewski Funeral Home, 3545 N. Bendix Drive. A rosary will be said there at 4 p.m.

Edit: The official obituary that came out later:

August 16. 2006 6:59AM
Thomas A. Gerencher
March 1, 1946 - Aug. 14, 2006

Thomas Anthony Gerencher died on August 14th, 2006.

Tom taught English Literature Honors and Media for 34 years at Saint Joseph's High School. Tom was an amazing teacher that students [parents] will never forget. He not only taught his students how to write, he taught them how to learn. He encouraged them to be inspired, motivated, enthusiastic, persuaded, realistic, and most importantly to embrace life - “live to learn and learn to live.” He demanded excellence from his students and rejoiced in the number of them who achieved his/her dreams because he/she rose to that challenge. Tom's passions were teaching, reading and collecting great literature.

Tom was not only a friend to all who knew him, but also a caring mentor to many.

Tom proudly served in the Army in Landstuhl, Germany, from 1966 to 1969.

Tom was preceded in death by his parents, Alex and Margaret.

He is survived by his wife of thirty years, Rita (Miller); his brother, Ronald (Marie); his nephews, Kevin (Jill), Jeremy Adams; great-nephew, Austin; and nieces, Amy (Doug) Martin, Marie (William) Kelley, Mallory Miller, Megan Miller and Kasie Miller. Also, cherishing his memory are his sister-in-law, Leona (Robert) Adams, brothers-in-law, Michael (Kristy) Miller and Anthony (Anne) Miller.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at Saint Joseph High School on Thursday, August 17, 2006, at 10:00 a.m., where visitation will be held one hour prior to the service. Interment will follow at Highland Cemetery. Friends may also call from 2:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. today at Kaniewski Funeral Home, where a Rosary will be said at 4:00 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, Rita and Ron request that memorial contributions be made to Saint Joseph High School.

To send online condolences, please visit
Tags: friends-notre dame era, obituary, personal, saint joseph's high school, teachers, teaching

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