Educators make impact far beyond graduation - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Educators make impact far beyond graduation

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2012 1:26 pm | Updated: 1:06 pm, Mon Mar 18, 2013.

As another school year winds down in the East Valley, it’s a time when students prepare to move on and look to the future, hopefully remembering the influential educators in their lives and possibly contacting them to let them know how their futures are shaping up.

Maybe as the years go by, they’ll even stay in touch with a favorite teacher or principal who impacted them the most.

For me, that educator was Ed Lendenski, a former longtime and retired principal from Milton-Union High School, my soon-to-be demolished alma mater in West Milton, Ohio near Dayton. On Tuesday, a friend of mine called to let me know that Lendenski, who was 80, had died after battling a blood disorder that destroys platelets and causes one’s blood count to drop to dangerously low levels, requiring frequent trips to the hospital for transfusions.

Many of us called him “Big Ed” because of his larger-than-life presence and booming voice barking out his trademark “Hi, how ya doin’?” in the brick-laden hallways of our school.

He was a part of my young life and adult life as I sometimes called him to catch up on things, see how he was doing and to let him know the next time I would be “home” for a visit. He was a positive influence on my life and career and someone near the top of my list of people to visit whenever I returned to Ohio.

For at least three generations of high schoolers during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Lendenski, an old-school Polish guy from Natrona, Pa., was a fixture, a pillar, if not iconic figure of a midwestern rural town’s high school scene — as much, if not more, than the school’s mascot, an old concrete bulldog gracing the front of the school in a town where everyone knew everyone and pretty much still does. He believed in God, family, friends, respect, and enjoyed having an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day and going on fishing expeditions on the Stillwater River.

Lendenski, worked in education for 35 years, including 23 years as principal of Milton-Union. In the late 1970s, he received national recognition at a principal’s conference for implementing “Senior Citizens Day” at the school, a day to honor the town’s seniors by hosting a morning assembly and luncheon that included special recognition and students serving as their chaperones.

Lendenski was a positive influence on a lot of students for those who took the time to stop, listen and laugh with him, someone I had the privilege of calling friend for about the last 30 years. He always encouraged me in advancing my career. I can jokingly say he was among a select few who I don’t know whether to thank or curse for that, given the state of print journalism these days. However, among people like my parents, family and close friends, Ed was among those who pushed me to reach higher, do better and make the most out of opportunities.

“Everyone is important in high school regardless of economic status or whether they come to school early and stay in the parking lot,” Lendenski said at the time of his retirement in 1991. “Sometimes, people say, ‘Oh, there’s a bad kid,’ but some kids need direction. If a kid gets on the wrong highway, let’s hope they hit the right exit. All kids deserve the opportunity to succeed, and it’s our job to remind them of that.”

In 1986, as a young reporter for my now defunct hometown weekly newspaper, the West Milton Record, I sought Ed’s help with a story in which I thought I had hit a dead end.

A Vietnam War veterans memorial had been built in Dayton containing the names of those from surrounding towns who died in combat, including James Dennis West of West Milton. But back then, we didn’t have the Internet and search engines to locate people or obtain details about them. And there were many Wests in the phone book. So I called the high school to see when West graduated. Ed got on the phone and went over to the guidance counselor’s office and pulled his file. To make a long story shorter, Ed’s help enabled me to get in touch with someone who had known West and to get some details about this soldier who had been killed in Vietnam at age 18 in 1967.

So, thanks in no small part to Ed, West Milton’s only Vietnam combat casualty was remembered in a story.

Achieving success in what was a big story for me at the time, it motivated me to continue to dig into other stories, bolstering what I hope is my knack for research and putting a face on an issue or what we journalists perceive as a good human interest story.

Ever since I graduated from high school in 1985 (that’s really not so long ago), Ed and I kept up a tradition of betting on Major League Baseball’s World Series, the loser having to foot the bill for a meal. Lendenski won the last bet and most of them in-between.

In ’85, I won the inaugural bet when the Kansas City Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals for the World Championship. We had breakfast at a place in town called the Pearson House.

“Get whatever you want and all you want,” Lendenski said. “You won the bet.”

After I was through with the feast, he asked me if I had enough to eat. I told him yes and thanked him. Then, he leaned over and told me, “If I would’ve won the bet, that’s what I would have done to you,” meaning that he would’ve loaded up on the eats.

And Lord, he took it to me in my many losing bets that followed, sometimes to the point I told him he ate so much for the winning bet I was going to claim him as a dependent on my income tax return.

Those “bets” were just one of many ways to help stay in touch with someone who was a positive influence, an upbeat person in my life as a roving reporter and someone who always was glad to see me.

Lendenski won the last World Series bet we made, one that I didn’t get to pay off because he was unable to go out for the winning meal due to his health.

The best way to pay that bet off, I figure, is to continue being the best journalist I can be for the remainder of the time I am permitted or continue to be one.

The power of the press is a precious thing to have these days. It allows us to provide a voice to those who don’t have one, to be watchdogs for taxpayers and the little guy.

And sometimes, it gives us the opportunity to write about the people who have made such a positive difference in our lives, the people we won’t forget.

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