by Cori Hilsgen
Not everyone can say they have been employed at the same place for more than 40 years, but Betty Pundsack can.
After 44 years of teaching, 42 at St. Joseph Catholic School, and two at St. Mary’s in Melrose, Pundsack will retire at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
When she decided to retire, she did not know her last year would be during a school closure with online distance learning experiences resulting from the Covid-19 virus pandemic spreading throughout the world.
Pundsack has remained a constant at the St. Joseph school by continuously teaching second grade during the 42 years. However, Pundsack has seen some changes during her years of teaching and has learned to adapt to those changes.
Having worked in St. Joseph for the past four decades Pundsack said she has learned so much from her experience of being among the residents of this “great town.”
“I have had the privilege to laugh and celebrate with you and to cry and mourn with you,” Pundsack said. “I have witnessed a few changes in this community, too. I recall going to Linneman’s after school to pick up the daily paper, having my car serviced at Stueve’s Garage, picking up goldfish at the little pet store on College Avenue and taking our students bowling at the El Paso. Even the school I’ve taught at has had changes. I first worked at St. Joseph Lab School, then at All Saints Academy-St. Joseph campus and now at St. Joseph Catholic School, all within the same building. A big change comes as my time as (a) teacher comes to a close. I‘m doing distance learning from my home via the internet. But through it all, the thing that hasn’t changed is the fabric of what makes the community of St. Joseph so amazing.”
Pundsack was honored on Feb. 22 at the school’s third annual Fellowship dinner.
Many past students share a common thread of stories about Pundsack such as her love of playing volleyball and softball, performing cartwheels, teaching J-Term bird classes, taking care of classroom pets and gathering pumpkins.
Most Catholic students who attended the school prepared to receive their First Holy Communion under Pundsack’s instructions and celebrated with a special meal afterward.
Under her guidance, students learned about caring for plants and animals and caring for each other.
Teachers and staff who have worked with her at the school also share some common stories about her sense of humor and thoughtful gestures.
Sixth-grade teacher Susan Huls remembers the year she started teaching at the school, 1990, that Pundsack was on a sabbatical. After hearing about Pundsack from other teachers, Huls said she was a little intimidated by the thought of this larger-than-life woman, who others admired and respected and who her students adored. Huls was excited to be able to work with her, even though she sounded too perfect to be real.
“When I finally met her the next fall, I immediately became one of her admirers,” Huls said. “Her big grin and easy-going ways made me immediately comfortable. She was very real.”
Later on, when the school began having all-school Masses and Huls began to play piano for them, she was amazed at Pundsack’s memory for the music they would be looking for.
“We would ask about a song, and she would say “Yellow ‘Glory and Praise,’ number 42” or “‘Gather’, number 368,” she would always be right,” Huls said.
Often during Mass, Huls would look at Pundsack for the right cues and was reassured to be able to look at her with a question in her raised eyebrows and know that Pundsack knew what Huls was asking and could answer with a mouthed answer or a nod or shake of her head.
Huls said Pundsack, music teacher Mary Schumann, herself and former principal Susan Scipioni (when she was working at the school), really became a team, and being a part of their team at Masses was one of Huls’ joys.
“You can tell that planning and participating in our school Masses is one of Betty’s greatest joys, too,” Huls said. “One of my favorite prayer services (instituted by Betty, of course), is our Emmaus Day after Easter. With the symbols of fire, water and bread, Betty helps the kids understand more about the Easter Vigil they might have attended with their parents. That morning as we gather in a darkened space, she lights a bowl with the Easter flame/flare (with a bit of Pundsack flair), then has the kids sprinkle us with water, sends a loaf of bread to each of our classrooms so we can tell our own ‘Emmaus stories’ and makes sure we each have a beautiful plant to symbolize the awakening from the tomb.”
Every year Huls has taken the sixth-graders to environmental camp, Pundsack has surprised her with a thoughtful, admiring card and a bag of goodies to tide her over. The bags have included tea bags, chocolate bars and Diet Coke.
For many years, teachers at the school have had an end-of-the-year prayer service, planned and led by Pundsack. During this service, they sang songs and shared their summer plans (Pundsack usually shared about sitting on her porch, considering the meaning of life). Pundsack would then give everyone some sort of summer token. One that Huls especially remembers was a mixed tape of old summer hits which included “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polkadot Bikini.”
Huls’ parents didn’t want her to listen to that song when she was young, so she said she thoroughly enjoyed that tape in her car all summer.
Huls shared that her son, Sean, who just completed medical school, wanted her to let Pundsack know she was his favorite teacher.
Fifth-grade teacher Tess Koltes said Pundsack’s birthday was two days after her oldest son, Andy’s birthday. After Pundsack taught Andy as a second-grade student, they commented on how close their birthdays were to each other. For the next 27 years, Pundsack remembered Andy’s birthday and would tell Koltes to wish him a Happy Birthday. On the day of Pundsack’s birthday, she usually served the staff at school a slice of lemon meringue pie, her favorite.
A few days before Andy’s wedding, Pundsack gifted Koltes with a Mom of the Groom bag. It was a small drawstring bag filled with sample containers of hair spray, deodorant, breath mints, gum, a couple of safety pins, a couple of Band-Aids and a nice note.
“She always celebrated the events which happened in her colleague’s lives,” Koltes said.
School administrative assistant Linda Heinen said Pundsack is known to have a fantastic memory, is very thoughtful and has a strong faith.
Pundsack estimates she has taught more than 800 second-graders at the school since 1978.
“I want to offer my appreciation and gratitude for being among you these many years,” she said. “I plan to still be close by but as with most things, it won’t be the same. There will always be a special place in my heart for each of you.”
Pundsack said she especially wanted to thank the following groups (past and present) – “the members of St. Joseph Parish, the parents of St. Joseph Catholic School, the wonderful students of our school, the teachers and staff of our school, the students and faculty from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, the Sisters of St. Benedict Monastery and the priests and monks from St. John’s Abbey, the faculty and staff at Kennedy Community School and finally the members of this truly unique community called St. Joseph.”
In 2017, Pundsack experienced a cardiac event at the school.
“Speaking of heart, literally, I owe my very life to the many persons who came to my aid on April 10, 2017, when I suffered a cardiac arrest just before the school day began,” she said.
“Three former students of mine, who are on the Fire and Rescue Squad for the city, the Police Department and two parents in the medical profession from our school worked to resuscitate and administer the (Automated External Defibrillator) while countless others prayed. I don’t remember anything from that morning until April 15, when I was told what had happened. It is humbling to live through an experience so life-threatening and know that I was given a second chance. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.”
Pundsack grew up in St. Cloud and attended St. Peter’s Grade School and Cathedral High School in St. Cloud. She received an undergraduate degree in elementary education and art education and a graduate degree in curriculum development from St. Cloud State University.
She and her husband, Gene, have been married 42 years and live on their “piece of paradise,” 40 acres near Duelm.
“Yes, I’ve driven all the way to St. Jo(seph) all those years and I think we’ve gone through four cars during that time, but also have had no accidents or speeding tickets,” Pundsack said.
Author: Cori Hilsgen
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people’s stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.