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St. Mary's 'tough guy' steps aside after 42 years
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff

Frank Schmitt, retiring after 42 years as a teacher and vice principal at St. Mary School in Buffalo Grove, leads a procession of family, students and alumni to a Mass Tuesday.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Frank Schmitt hugs his grandson Shamus Segersten as his wife Mary Schmitt stands behind them.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

St. Mary School principal Gary Campione talks to students and alumni about Frank Schmitt.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

St. Mary School students and staff listen to principal Gary Campione talk about Frank Schmitt's 42-year career with the Buffalo Grove School.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Frank Schmitt enters St. Mary School in Buffalo Grove Tuesday for a Mass marking the end of his 42-year career at the school.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/10/2009 12:00 AM

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It started when a sixth-grade student wanted to sing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" during the class Christmas party. It was 1967 and Frank Schmitt's first year as a teacher at St. Mary Catholic School in Buffalo Grove.

And he kind of liked that song.

"We got to 86 bottles of beer," Schmitt said. "Then the door flies open and there was Sr. Paula. She must of heard us singing from the hall and boy, did I get in trouble."

So he knew what it felt like.

***

It's been 18 years since I walked the halls of St. Mary's but the phrase "Mr. Schmitt wants to see you in his office" still makes me wince.

It meant you were in as much trouble as you could be in. Reform school was right around the corner.

For more than four decades, he patrolled the hallways covered in chalk dust and armed with a voice that stopped spit balls in midair.

Frank Schmitt, 66, retired last week after 42 years mostly as the school's vice principal. Through the years, most of the school's principals were elderly nuns so Schmitt was the main disciplinarian.

He was the one who stayed after school with kids serving detentions - or as most Catholic students call them - "JUGs" (Justice Under God). Most of the time, the infractions were minor, such as talking in class or chewing gum. Other students had weekly appointments.

Many of those troublemakers turned out just fine, perhaps thanks in part to Schmitt. Last year, about 400 of his fans joined a Facebook group called "I survived Mr. Schmitt."

Even on Facebook, we can't bring ourselves to use his first name.

***

In the late 1960s, Schmitt was the only person who ran after-school detentions. But after a few years, he told the teachers if they wanted to issue a detention, they should stay after school with the student.

The number of detentions suddenly dropped dramatically.

"See, I did kids a favor," Schmitt said. "I bet they don't even know that."

He still oversaw the detentions and knew which students received them. The most serious cases always ended up in Schmitt's classroom.

Sometimes they just needed someone to talk to.

Michael Sulkin was one of those kids. The 1990 graduate was one of Schmitt's regulars, racking up 50 detentions in one year.

"My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1987 and he fought cancer for three years before he died," said Sulkin in an e-mail. "During that time, my parents were constantly going to doctors' appointments and chemo treatment. My father died two weeks before graduation and Mr. and Mrs. Schmitt attended the funeral and also brought food over to house a few times near the end. Mr. Schmitt was the greatest influence in my life. Having him as my teacher in my early years has made me a better person."

Born in Germany, Frank's family moved to the United States when he was 13 years old. He grew up in Chicago and went to Holy Trinity High School. For college, he attended St. Edward's University in Texas because his parents couldn't afford Notre Dame University. He thought about joining the military, but his vision wasn't good enough.

So he decided to be a teacher and it's a decision he never thought twice about. Schmitt's wife, Mary, retired as a teacher from St. Mary's in 2000. The two have four grown children and live in Lake Zurich. Their grandson is a fifth-grade student at St. Mary's.

"Junior high, kids that age, are my favorite group in society," Schmitt said. "Everything is so dramatic and they're so honest and sincere. I wish everyone would just stay that way. Ya know, as adults we lose that."

Schmitt mostly taught seventh and eight grade math. Good grades didn't come easy to him when he was in school and he always saw himself in those students who tried really hard for average grades.

"I love that moment when they finally get it," he said.

The students aren't the only ones that will miss him. About 100 St. Mary's teachers threw a party for Schmitt on Wednesday at a banquet hall in Buffalo Grove.

Ron Lewis, a seventh grade teacher, often chaperoned school ski trips with Schmitt to Alpine Valley ski resort in Wisconsin. One time the bus broke down. While Lewis was figuring out a way to call the bus company, Frank took a peek under the hood.

"A few minutes later, he got back on the bus and said 'I fixed it, let's go,'" Lewis said. "With some two-cent widget, he fixed the bus."

Frank is looking forward to retirement. But admits it will be a little weird.

"Those 42 years, they just went by too fast," he said. "Maybe I'll come back and teach one class or something. I don't know. I can't imagine not being here."