There's an old bit of wisdom suggesting that those who wish to be interesting should first be interested. Margaret Kruse is both, as the nearly 200 people gathered in the Grace Lutheran School community room Sunday afternoon came to attest.
Some 40 former students joined the school's staff for the program. Kruse, who said she had no idea what they'd planned for her, had only one request of the organizers.
"I did ask that people who come wear name tags, because the last time I saw them they were in fifth grade," she said, laughing, "and they tend to grow up."
For 50 years, her colleagues and former students said, Margaret Kruse has readily shared her many interests with successive generations of children, to their benefit. An avid reader, traveler, animal-lover and fan of great architecture, she is also a talented storyteller, admirers say, able to convey her own sense of wonder about the world to her students.
"That's her in a nutshell," said Candice Buchbinder, "very interested in life, for sure."
Jerry Koenig, principal of Grace Lutheran between 1980 and 2000, praised Kruse as an outstanding teacher who is unusually dedicated to her work.
"Her whole life has been about teaching," he said. Kruse engenders the type of respect from students that allowed her to leave her classroom for extended periods without supervision. When she returned, "it would be exactly the way she left it," said Koenig.
A loving taskmaster
People who sat in her classroom more than 40 years apart agree Kruse was both an inspiration and a demanding taskmaster. Sophie Amado credits Kruse with turning around her attitude-toward schoolwork in particular and life in general.
"She's the teacher who got me thinking seriously about school," said Amado, who was Kruse's student during the 2002-03 school year. Amado said she was an indifferent student who didn't work hard and had no interest in reading prior to the fifth grade. "Before her, I didn't read at all," said Amado.
"What was interesting about her class was she'd have a lot of stories," said Amado.
Current Principal Hugh Kress said part of the secret to Kruse's success is her routine use of the phrase, "When I was there," in introducing a subject. "She's very much a good storyteller, which children love," he said.
"She's an interesting person. She's just a fun person who cares about students," said Amado.
Kruse has the serene look of a person whose life has been spent doing what most interests her and working with what she most values. "I have quite a wide background of interests, and when I'm teaching children, I try to bring that to them," she said. "I try to make it fun for them."
Not that "fun" means Kruse's classroom is an easy place to be. Kress said the other secret to Kruse's success is that she knows the difference between being a teacher and being a buddy. "She [tells students], 'I'll work with you, but you're going to work,'" he noted.
The result has been students like Amado willing to work harder for Kruse than they ever thought they could.
"It was a fun year despite how difficult it was," Amado said of her fifth grade experience. Now a sophomore at Trinity High, she's earning straight As.
Richard Martin, now an attorney, was in the first class Kruse taught at Grace Lutheran in 1963. Like Amado, he recalled a demanding teacher who gave as much as she asked.
"She was a lady who expected a lot of her students, and she got it because of what she put into her teaching," said Martin. "She was a blessing to those of us who had the opportunity to receive her gift of teaching."
Kress said Kruse also instilled in her students something just as valuable as a strong work ethic and love of learning.
"If nothing else, she gave them a moral compass, and the sense that they are children of God," said Kress. "She wanted them to grow up and be the best that they can be."
Two years ago, Kruse got the opportunity to sail around the world for six months with 650 college students. She rode a camel in Egypt, walked the Great Wall of China and hoisted a snake on her shoulders in Vietnam-all more grist for the learning mill. Kruse is forever readapting and sharing with her students.
"It's things like that, experiences like that, that help me go back and tell children about it and have fun with the things I did," she said.
Over the years, one project stands out as Kruse's imprimatur assignment-the state notebook. A year-long project, it involves a student choosing a particular state and studying its history, economics, culture and politics and producing a book jammed with facts and observations.
As usual with Kruse, the project is both difficult and fulfilling.
"I have [former students] tell me where their state notebook is on their wedding day," she said with obvious delight.
Teaching multiple generations of the same family has presented some unique potential problems, however. Over the decades, a lot of state notebooks have been created, and Kruse now finds herself teaching children of children.
"I told them that they couldn't do one that their brother or sister had done. And later on they couldn't do one that their mother or father had done," she said.
With a sly look and a smile, she adds, "Don't give that away. They all believe I remembered who had done what."