“The Pied Piper” played one last tune for Jo Culnane Saturday, May 18.
Students at Blessed Trinity Catholic School put on the play in honor of the longtime teacher. The occasion marked Culnane’s final time at the helm of a play after 44 years as a Catholic school teacher and theatre director in Richfield.
Culnane headed up the school’s theatre program and taught middle-schoolers – mainly eighth-graders – Latin, English, literature and religion. From the comments left on Facebook and the school’s website, the diminutive Culnane, who doesn’t talk about her age, will be well-remembered for the lives she impacted and for some of her endearing quirks.
“Best teacher I ever had! Brought me closer to my faith,” Allie Thomas remembers. “She would always say, ‘Are you a privileged character?’”
Culnane explained the life lesson: Privileged characters are “people who think they can do things that aren’t allowed for anybody else.” She continued, “Some kids think they are, but not very long.” That may be because they would quickly gain admission into Culnane’s “privileged character club,” in which she would have students in during lunch to talk about the forces that make them feel so “privileged.”
Culnane, a native of south Minneapolis and University of Minnesota graduate, began her teaching career in Murdock, Minn., about 2 hours west of the Twin Cities. It was there, Culnane said, that she first directed theatre. She quickly ascended the ranks, serving as principal for a year at the age of 23.
“I always knew I was going to teach,” Culnane said, noting the occupation is in her blood. Her mother and father, both teachers, met on the job.
Culnane and her husband, the late Edward Culnane, eventually settled in Richfield. Edward became a sales representative for M&M’s candy and Jo stayed home taking care of four children. But one day, staff at then-St. Peter’s Catholic School came to her for help.
“She said, ‘After one day, you can go home,’” Culnane remembers. “I always tell students, ‘I never asked for the job; they asked for me.’”
Culnane has kept in touch with many past students. “I get a lot of letters from kids,” she said.
Do you believe in miracles?
Faith is a common theme in many former students’ postings, and that is no accident.
“I make no bones about the fact that I believe in miracles,” Culnane said. “There are two ways to live your life: Believe nothing’s a miracle, or everything’s a miracle.”
Lesley Basco, who graduated from Blessed Trinity last year, noticed that faith.
“She tells us stories about angels and miracles,” Blanco wrote in a comment solicited by the Blessed Trinity communications department, “but she doesn’t realize that her love, faith and trust in God and her students is a miracle itself.”
Looking back, Culnane’s thoughts focus on the life lessons she taught.
“They learn there’s goodness in the world and if they stay with it, they’ll be happy people,” she said. “And they are. … There are quite a few of them who have really, really good jobs.”
Plus, “I’m very proud of the fact that three of the boys that I had became priests,” Culnane added.
In a phone interview, she pondered her message of positivity some more as she became self-deprecating. “My life has always seemed like kind of a fairy tale to me. Isn’t that dumb?” she asked. “Well, it’s kind of dumb; it sounds like nothing bad ever happens to me.”
It does; she just handles it a certain way, and asks others to do the same. Culnane has three grown children who are being treated for life-threatening diseases. One has multiple sclerosis and can’t walk, another has Parkinson’s disease and a third has brain cancer, she said.
“They just don’t complain,” she said. “I’m proud that they don’t whine about things. They’re never supposed to whine.”
All three of visited Culnane from across the country for her final play, where a town hires the Pied Piper to lure rats away with a magic pipe. He eventually uses the pipe to lure away children. The play features 29 eighth-graders and a chorus of 28 sixth- and seventh-graders.
“We’ve got a lot of very talented kids. We’ve got a lot of rats,” Culnane promised.
Leading up to the play, Culnane had scaled back her work at the school in recent years, taking on the title “Educator Emeritus.” Most recently her role was limited to teaching religion, Shakespeare and directing the school play. She still gives piano lessons, too.
As her career winds down, she is still getting used to the idea of retirement.
“Lordy, it sort of scares me,” she admitted.
It helps that Culnane is already in three bridge clubs. She will also continue giving piano lessons.
She knows one thing retirement activity she will avoid, though. “I know I won’t travel,” she said. Culnane says she used to travel extensively, but has seen enough of the world.
“I’m perfectly happy to stay at home and talk a lot on the phone to my kids,” she said.
A career remembered
Online comments revealed a number of lessons that have stuck with students. One anonymous commenter said Culnane helped defeat a bad verbal habit. In class, the student would always say, “OK,” before answering a question of Culnane’s.\
When asked for her thoughts on the comment, it sounded as if Culnane has exasperatingly made the correction for more than one student.
“Instead of answering my questions,” they go, ‘OK,’” she quipped.
Another who weighed in remembers Culnane’s stern style.
“I used to think she was too strict, but no; she is simply teaching her students a lesson,” Griselda Sanchez said via Facebook.
“Yes, I was strict,” Culnane confirmed. “When they come in the room, they’re supposed to come in quietly and sit down and read their books until class starts.”
It was a different aspect of Culnane’s style that stuck out to another commenter.
“We loved to see what she would wear to class each day,” Kathy Simonson posted. “She was so classy and stylish. She never wore the same outfit twice.”
Most of those colorful clothes were gifts from Culnane’s daughter, who lives in California, Culnane explained, adding she has a house full of the get-ups.
“One of the teachers said, ‘The kids like it when you wear those,’ so I just kept on wearing them,” she said.
And she kept on going for 44 years.
“I guess I always just loved kids,” Culnane concluded. “That’s all.”
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]