By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Elementary teachers Leeanne Fenton and Jean Harvey have been a steady presence at Notre Dame Catholic School in Burlington for decades. After more than 80 years combined in the classroom, the longtime educators are among those retiring from Notre Dame this spring.
They are “legends in our school,” said Principal Bill Maupin. “They have impacted the lives of so many students and families. It has been a pleasure working with them. They are going to be greatly missed next year.”
Leeanne Fenton has been part of the Burlington Catholic school community for the past 46 years, not including the 18 years she spent there as a student. A product of St. John School and Notre Dame High School, she returned to Burlington after graduating from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “Teaching in the Catholic schools just seemed like the natural thing to do,” she said.
She began teaching first grade at St. Paul School in Burlington in 1972. St. Paul and St. John parishes had not yet merged, and each had a first through eighth-grade school that fed into Notre Dame High School.
In Fenton’s early days, religious sisters had a significant presence at the school. Teachers were required to wear skirts or dresses. Fenton preferred pants on account of their functionality, so she attempted to skirt around the issue by wearing culottes (split skirts). “Boy, did I get an earful the second time I wore them!” she recalled. Over time, the dress code for teachers relaxed a bit.
After two years at St. Paul’s, Fenton was transferred to St. John’s and began teaching second grade. She moved back to St. Paul’s about a year later when the parish schools merged. She stayed there until 1997, when a new elementary wing was added to the Notre Dame high school campus.
Although the move was necessary due to the building’s condition and the need for better technology access, leaving St. Paul’s after two decades was bittersweet for Fenton. “There are two things I miss about the old building. St. Paul’s was on a hillside two blocks from the Mississippi River. My classroom was on the southeast corner second floor. We had a fantastic view of the river. The other thing is what the kids and I called the ‘raindrop symphony.’ When the rain came from the east the windows would leak and I would put jars on the window sills to catch the drips.”
Fenton was also able to experience Notre Dame as a parent. Her children, Erik and Susan, attended the schools from preschool through high school.
In retirement, Fenton is looking forward to “not having to set the alarm clock.” She plans to spend more time with family, especially her granddaughter, and hopes to do more fishing, bicycling and volunteering. Fenton also plans to tackle a “long list of things that I haven’t gotten to over the years.”
She is grateful for her experiences at Notre Dame as a student, teacher and parent. “I wanted to pass on the faith my parents gave to me by helping children to receive the sacraments and grow in their love and knowledge of God.”
Jean Harvey has been with Notre Dame since 1984. A graduate of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, she worked at a school in New Jersey and the old Washington school in Burlington before settling into her 34-year career at Notre Dame. She started as a half-time kindergarten teacher and moved to full time after a year.
“I stayed at Notre Dame because I believe in Catholic education,” she said, noting that she attended Catholic schools from elementary school through college. “I like being able to bring God into the entire day and see the children, at this level, love to hear about him.”
Now Harvey will move to Dubuque to be closer to family. “I am especially looking forward to being close to my three grandchildren and their activities.” She plans to travel to visit family and friends she hasn’t seen in a while. “The freedom to travel at any time will be fantastic.” She plans to volunteer at St. Columbkille Parish in Dubuque and volunteer, where needed, in an educational setting.
She’ll miss most the people she’s come to know. “The students will be missed so very much. It’s such a blessing to see them grow during the year. I can say that I have never had the feeling that I did not want to go in (to work) each morning. It’s not because every day is magical with no problems but because the individual students bring love and joy to my day.”
She’ll also remember the laughs and tears shared with her fellow teachers. “I’m grateful for the times they have supported me through the many rough times in my personal life, especially since I have no local family. God has blessed me in so many ways and I am very grateful for my years at Notre Dame. My wish is for all the teachers I leave behind to enjoy teaching as much as I. (They) are very special people who deserve recognition for the great job they do.”