Ryan Scott Ottney
PDT Staff Writer
Every summer 2nd grade teacher Wanda Dengel, like all teachers at this time of year, cleans out her classroom at Notre Dame Elementary. This year is different. Looking through the letters written by her students over the years, and a faded ceramic plaque a student made for her 20 years ago, Dengel is packing up her classroom for the last time as she begins her retirement.
Originally from Croatia, Dengel’s family fled her home country after World War II because her father had refused to join the Communist Party and instead fought in the Yugoslavian Army, and they were afraid of reprisals for his decision after the war. They first moved to Italy when she was a very young child. The family lived in Italy for a year before moving to the United States, and changed the spelling of their name from “Krivicich” to the more Italian-sounding “Crivici.”
“My mother used to ask me if I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty, because I guess we were going past it and she had all of us look at it I don’t remember that, as much as all the lights in New York. All the bright lights which was so different from the small village in which I cam from. There were all these bright lights and that’s what I remember,” Dengel said.
She went into first grade at a Catholic school in Columbus and could not speak any English. Her parents were both attending night school to learn English and earn their citizenship. When they did finally become citizens five years later, their two youngest children — Wanda and her younger sister — were still young enough to also become naturalized citizens because they both went through public schools. The two oldest children, however, had to apply for citizenship on their own.
Dengel originally wanted to be a radiologist, but found her love of teaching while she was a junior in Catholic High School.
“The nuns in high school must have seen something in me. When I was in high school they had me teach a religion class on Sunday to those students who went to public schools,” she said. “Then my high school principal recommended me for a teaching scholarship. At that time there was a shortage of teachers and there was an accelerated program and that’s what they wanted me to get into.”
With the scholarship was the requirement that the student teach for two years in the Columbus Diocese.
“I loved it. Especially that experience teaching religion to children,” Dengel said.
She started teaching in 1966. She and her husband moved to Scioto County in 1973 where she taught in the county schools for three years. She finally arrived at Notre Dame Elementary as a volunteer in 1993.
“When our oldest son started school here, I volunteered to do some things to help teachers because I just wanted my child to have the same advantages that I was giving children in the inner-city schools and to any children that I taught. My teaching mantra has been, ‘Always set your goals high because it’s easier to come down than it is to come up.’ That has been not only the goal I set for myself, but for my students as well,” Dengel said.
After volunteering at the school, the principal offered Dengel a job teaching. She signed her contract on Friday, and open house was scheduled for the following Sunday, before the new school year started on Monday. It was so much, so fast, Dengel said she wasn’t sure she could do it. She remember driving home late Saturday night crying, after spending hours getting ready for open house the next day.
“I thought this was too hard,” she said. “Open house was Sunday and I didn’t feel like I was ready. I went home and I said to my husband, “I don’t know if I can do this.’ And as wonderful husband’s do, he said, “You’ll do it. I know you can do it.’ So everything came together.”
Twenty years later, Dengel said she has enjoyed the years she spent with the children and families at Notre Dame Elementary School.
“The memories that are most profound for me are those that have showed me that I have touched students’ lives. When I see a student that has internalized their learning, and they are so motivated that they go and do not just what you ask them but they go beyond because they are so eager to learn,” Dengel said. “When you hear those kinds of things, it makes you feel like you are doing the right thing. Because you never know. You hope to be a model for your students, but until you hear someone say something, you’re never sure.”
In her retirement, Dengel said she looks forward to sleeping a little later for a change; but she doesn’t plan on doing nothing at all. She’s looking forward to traveling, writing her family’s history, and said she is considering several new offers she would not discuss at this time.
Turning back to her box of letters, cards and books she has collected over the years, Dengel finds a card from the late Father William Patterson’s golden jubilee anniversary in the priesthood in 2001. The card read: “For all that has been Lord, thanks. For all that will be Lord, Yes.”
Ryan Scott Ottney may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 287, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Ryan on Twitter @PDTwriter.