By Celine Klosterman
IOWA CITY — When John Allen was hired as a religion teacher at Regina Junior/Senior High School in 1976, then-principal Father Eugene Benda told him he could arrive each day at 8 a.m., leave at 3:30 p.m. and never get involved in students’ lives. Or, Fr. Benda said, the teacher could get involved.
Allen chose to get involved.
Now, after 33 years of taking late-night phone calls from teens with troubles, cheering on Regina athletes at sporting events, moderating proms and chatting with students in the halls, the man students and teachers call “Mr. A” is about to retire.
“I will miss this place,” says Allen, 69. “I will miss the kids dearly.”
What he considers their honesty and willingness to talk kept him at a job he first thought he’d hold just a few years. Before coming to Regina, the 1967 Drake University graduate spent four years at Des Moines Catholic schools and five years as a staff training assistant for the Army Reserve in Iowa City. And before taking those positions, he’d spent a year-and-a-half in Conception Seminary College in Missouri.
Though he left the seminary to pursue teaching, the theological insights he gained there made it “one of the best things I’ve ever done — besides getting married,” he laughs. He and his wife, Margaret, of 42 years, have three sons: Christopher, Mark and Andy.
Of course, working with students ranks high on Allen’s list, too. “I always got along well with the younger generation,” says the former Boy Scout camp counselor. He appreciates their willingness to learn, but says that willingness comes with a caveat.
“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he says, recalling a quote he used to write on his whiteboard. “I very much believe that.”
He talks to students if he thinks they’re having a bad day. He keeps several former students’ phone numbers on a piece of paper in his shirt pocket, and has letters of thanks from several more students.
“From those (letters) I know I’m on the right track,” he says.
Jared Mills, a 2006 Regina graduate, agrees.
“He was more than just a teacher,” says Mills, now studying at Maryville University in St. Louis. “He’s a very good friend of mine. He’s the kind of teacher you can talk with about anything and everything. He knew students very well.”
The two are still in touch regularly, Mills said.
Allen also left an impression on Adam Gartner, a 2005 Regina graduate who’s now a senior at Eastern Illinois University. When the student was in junior high, his mother was severely burned in a house explosion that killed seven of his relatives. Allen “was the first person to come to me,” Gartner said. “…We were pretty close.”
Not that students have always been complimentary. Allen jokes he’ll never forget a few words two eighth-grade boys exchanged outside his classroom during Allen’s first year.
“Is that the new religion teacher?” one asked.
“Yeah, he’s funny looking; he won’t last long.”
Now, Allen observes with a smile, he’s friends with both of those former students. He’s taught their children, too.
He’s a “cornerstone” of Regina, says Ray Pechous, principal of the junior/senior high. “John is an advocate for students, teachers and Regina and a great role model for all of us. He openly shares his faith and always practices what he preaches.”
His kindness, sense of humor and Catholicity will be missed, Pechous says.
Allen so far has a modest post-retirement plan: sorting decades’ worth of books, papers and uniforms from summer Army Reserve assignments. But he does have one wish: to return to Regina as a substitute teacher.
“Many students tell me I will be missed,” he wrote in his retirement letter to Regina’s school board. “It is I who will miss them.”
A reception for Allen will take place June 7 from 2-4 p.m. in Regina’s cafeteria.