Hearts and souls of Notre Dame

Three teaching legends talk Notre Dame Prep and Notre Dame High School.

It's been 10 years since we published an article on three of Notre Dame's most revered teachers in what was then just the second edition of IRISH magazine, the Notre Dame Alumni Association's publication for graduates of Notre Dame Prep, Notre Dame High School and their heritage schools. Since then much has changed, including, sadly, the death of Hal Rice in 2013. Norm Kotarski and Ken Parent, however, well into full retirement, continue to be regular visitors to the Pontiac campus of Notre Dame.

So, in a #ThrowbackThursday, but on a Monday, we are offering up this article once again for those who may have missed it the first time around. Enjoy!

Hearts and souls

(from the Fall/Winter 2008 edition of IRISH)

Norm Kotarski, 65, Ken Parent, 62 and recently retired, and Harold (Hal) Rice, 75, truly can be called the hearts and souls of Notre Dame High School and Notre Dame Prep.

Between the three of them, they’ve spent 110 years teaching young men and women at both schools. They recently sat down with the editor of IRISH magazine to discuss those years and what it means to be educated at Notre Dame.

IRISH: How long have you been teaching at Notre Dame Prep?

KOTARSKI: Twelve years.

PARENT: Three years.

RICE: Twelve years, from the fall of 1996 until the just-completed 2008.

IRISH: How long did you teach at Notre Dame in Harper Woods?

KOTARSKI: 14 years.

PARENT: From fall 1969 to spring 2005 — 36 years.

RICE: June 1963 to June 1996 — 33 years.

IRISH: Who was principal at NDHS and NDP in the year you moved to NDP?

KOTARSKI: The principal at NDHS was Rick Kuhn, and the principal at NDP was Fr. Leon ‘65 (NDHS).

PARENT: Mike Reece ’78 (NDHS) was the principal at NDHS during the last year of the school’s existence. Fr. Joe Hindelang ’68 (NDHS) was the principal who hired me at NDP.

RICE: At NDHS, it was Rick Kuhn and at Prep, Fr. Leon, who asked me to be assistant principal and later vice principal.

IRISH: How long have you been teaching in total?

KOTARSKI: I have just completed my 44th year in education, and I still love it

PARENT: Thirty-nine years; 36 at NDHS and three at NDP.

RICE: Counting this past year, 51 years.

IRISH: Where did you teach before NDHS?

KOTARSKI: I taught at Saint Andrew High School in southwest Detroit for 16 years.

PARENT: I came to NDHS straight out of college (Boston College, 1969).

RICE: St. Sebastian, Dearborn Heights. Third grade first year and then seventh for the next four years. My first experience in teaching was to those third-graders; I was the fourth teacher to teach those 56 nine year olds. A challenge, but it was great!

IRISH: Why did you decide to become a teacher?

KOTARSKI: Actually it was the principal at St. Andrew who called me after I graduated from Wayne State University and asked if I would be interested in joining the staff of my alma mater. The rest is history.

PARENT: It’s a long story but I’ll make it short. When I entered the seminary, part of the training included teaching for two years between philosophy (undergrad) and theology (master’s). I chose to come to Michigan to teach at HW Notre Dame. Immediately, I fell in love with teaching — and eventually, coaching.

RICE: It was not my first choice. I majored in history and poly-sci in hopes of working for the government. After finishing my BA and starting a master’s at Wayne State, I got a position with the MESC as an administrative assistant. It was the most depressing job I ever took. There was a recession going on and I wasn’t able to help literally hundreds of people seeking jobs. In the midst of that, a pastor (St. Sebastian) began a search for a teacher, and after an interview with him, on December 8 (feast of the Immaculate Conception), I took the job. I later went on and received credentials and an MA in History from U of D.

IRISH: Where did you grow up and attend grade school and high school?

KOTARSKI: I grew up in southwest Detroit and attended St. Andrew schools, K-12.

PARENT: I grew up in a small farming community in Maine called Hamlin. The local big town was Van Buren. The Marist Fathers ran the public high school (for boys) at the time. And a group of nuns ran the local public high school (for girls) across the street. The nuns also ran the public grade schools.

RICE: Grew up in Detroit, east side (area of Harper and Gratiot) in an all-Italian neighborhood. I attended some public school early, then Patronage of St. Joseph where I had Felician nuns. In the sixth grade, my parents moved to Warren Township on a small farm at 12-1/2 Mile and Dequindre. I completed grade school in Warren and attended Warren High School.

IRISH: Do you have an idea when you might be fully retired?

KOTARSKI: I “semi-retired” one year ago on July 1, 2007. As long as my health holds on and the school can use my services, I would like to continue challenging students to read, discuss, and write about good literature.

PARENT: I have always worked full time until full retirement now.

RICE: I stopped full-time teaching (and administration) in June 1999 and have taught three classes a day since that time. I have no firm plan for full retirement at this time, but it certainly is on my mind.

IRISH: How has it been teaching at Notre Dame Prep?

KOTARSKI: You know, I can honestly say the same good things about both schools, NDP and NDHS: great kids, interested parents, extensive academic, athletic, and social programs, and a very dedicated staff.

PARENT: Phenomenal academic program, driven by an excellent teaching staff. Very good athletic success for such a young school. Outstanding band, choral and drama programs.

RICE: The kids are wonderful. That is not to say the guys at NDHS weren’t also great — they were. We have a dedicated staff here, and on the young side (of course they would be in the eyes of a 75 year old!). But they are dedicated, spend lots of time with kids, are willing to take on the challenge of the International Baccalaureate program. We have some wonderful women administrators here, too. Kim Rose (now Anderson) in attendance and discipline — just a very fair, kind gal; Donna Kotzan, vice principal (and married to an NDHS grad).

IRISH: Did you have any favorite “era,” or time that you enjoyed more than others at NDHS?

KOTARSKI: The mid-eighties were really a jumping time at HW Notre Dame. The students were all involved in activities, and it was a pleasure to work with a great faculty.

PARENT: No one era stands out in my mind. But I remember the ‘70s fondly as the “years of my youth.” Those were exciting times. The Vietnam War was thankfully coming to an end. And the “make love, not war” hippies abounded. Long hair, leisure suits and polyester shirts were where it was at!

RICE: I think the era of Conrad Vachon’s principalship. Never a dull moment. I have to mention, though, that the late 60s and early 70s were the most difficult for me, as the Vietnam War claimed many of our guys. I was also dean of discipline and those were protest times. (hair, wide pants, Banlon shirts!)

IRISH: What do you miss about NDHS?

KOTARSKI: I guess the thing I miss most is the spirit among the young men. It seems that nothing was done half way by the boys. They went all out for games, Irish Week, and even such activities as forensics. I remember the many members of the forensics team and the great trips we made to Chicago, to Fort Lauderdale, and to several other cities for the National Catholic Forensic League tournaments. We had good times and good competition. Even at local competitions, the boys would pile into the van on early Saturday mornings and review their scripts just one more time before facing the judges. On the way back there was always a lot of self evaluation, good-natured ribbing, and even a song fest. Good times!

PARENT: The camaraderie, above all else. As the school population shrunk, one of the positive aspects of the school was that it was a much closer, tight-knit community. Each student knew most of the other students in school, not just his classmates. This was also true for the staff and parents. There was a real “family” feel to the school.

RICE: The people. So many great kids I got to know in debate, coaching track; years in sports medicine. Buddy teachers — Vachon, Bob Kelly, Sister Rosemary, Tom Kelly and his wife, Gini. Plus a host of priests, many of whom are now gone. Also miss working with Doreen Vermiglio, Dolores Lynch and so many more.

IRISH: Can you name the other faculty members (or staff, etc.) who were at both NDHS and NDP?

KOTARSKI, PARENT, RICE: Here is what our collective memory tells us: Joe Spada, Fathers Strasz ‘70 (NDHS), Hindelang, Leon, Bro. Louis, Fr. Gonzalez, Bill Raymond, Roy Johnson, Eddie Cackowski (R.I.P.), Larry Sigel, Kim Rose (now Anderson), Sylvia Mulrenin, Ken Engler ‘61 (NDHS), Kirby Smith, John Parthum ‘63 (NDHS), Dwayne Holmes, Tony Borton, Bill Welliver, Tony Block ‘80 (NDHS), and us, of course. A couple of alums on staff are very active: Greg Simon ‘89 (NDHS), Mark McGreevy ‘76 (NDHS) (teacher Marist Academy), Mike Kelly ‘73 (NDHS) and Andy Guest ‘84 (NDHS).

IRISH: Aside from the Marist connection and the name, what do you see as the common “threads” connecting both schools?

KOTARSKI: Number one thread is the “great kids.” They want to have fun, and they know why they are in school. Visit a pep rally for the enthusiasm; visit a classroom for spirited discussions; visit the cafeteria for all the small talk that never seems to end. The students at both schools were very much aware of the philosophy of the school, and at both schools the name Notre Dame is very special. Alumni from both schools are pleased with the education they received, and if they worked hard with the knowledge they acquired, they are happy and successful. I think a teacher never really knows success unless students come back and express their appreciation. Teachers have received a lot of thanks from students at both schools. That’s a great thread of success.

PARENT: The Marist mission—the same philosophy of teaching. “With God, we form Christian people, upright citizens and academic scholars.” I see the same rigorous curriculum, the same high standards and expectations for a college-prep school.

RICE: Clearly the curriculum. But it has even been much improved since I first came to Prep, especially with the addition of the International Baccalaureate program and the host of A.P. programs. Also the strong spirit of Harper Woods Notre Dame is here at Prep, and it shows especially during Irish week!

IRISH: What do you see as the advantages of attending a Catholic high school?

KOTARSKI: Catholic high schools have reputations for producing good people and good scholars on a very high level. Beginning the day/class with prayer has a calming effect on the students. The opportunity to participate in retreats, masses, and other religious services gives the students that extra phase of a whole education that they just wouldn’t get in the public school. There is more to a complete life than a good academic record and an outstanding athletic performance.

PARENT: It sounds so cliché, but a Christian values-laden education can’t be beat. Students learn how to put into practice what they are taught in school, at church and at home. Discipline is much less an issue in Catholic schools. Self-discipline is the standard.

RICE: Like NDHS, we have an active “faith-filled” life at NDP. Students are doing so much Christian service (over 10,000 hours this past year). I don’t know that all students appreciate the beauty of their Catholic faith, or the freedom to express it, but it is a marked advantage from our perspective.

IRISH: Can you provide any anecdotes, stories or memories from back in the day at NDHS that still resonate with you?

KOTARSKI: Teaching English classes with the masters, Conrad Vachon and Bob Kelly, was always a real trip, if you know what I mean. Those guys knew their stuff, were laid back, and really knew how to get the best out of the students. I enjoyed both of those guys; we were good friends, and I still think about them both. There are so many good things and good people to remember. Sometimes Hal Rice and I come across something that makes us reminisce about the good days at NDHS.

PARENT: To name only a few: Raffle ticket drives. Fr. Bryson’s “sock hops” and rock concerts in the gym with Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and others. Senior proms at Greenfield Village and the Grosse Pointe War Memorial. A school with no bells. Attending hundreds of games, meets and matches. The spring ritual of throwing students into the pool behind the rectory. Irish Games. Senior pranks at graduation time. Senior trips to the Bahamas and Jamaica. Fall and spring festivals. Bleach burn-outs in the dip by the caf. Seniors running through Regina after Irish Games. Dave Coulier’s ‘77 (NDHS) gut-splitting comedy improvs for the students. Homecoming games and dances. Volunteer days at the Capuchin kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, and other needy places.

RICE: For fear of recalling embarrassing situations, I will always remember the streakers at Dominican High School (“our boys”); the mooners from both N.D. and Regina, the exciting competitions such as the one when N.D. played Brother Rice for homecoming, and lost the game in the last seconds on a Rice field goal, only to go into the gym for the dance and face a huge poster showing N.D. defeating Rice by a field goal. Or the time I was teaching a sex-ed chapter in psychology and when I finished, one gentlemen came up to me and said, “Boy Mr. Rice, that was bad!” It was.

IRISH: Any “Conrad” stories?

KOTARSKI: Conrad Vachon, Bob Kelly, and I would play golf once in a while; Kelly was the only golfer, but we always had a good time. By the time I arrived at HW Notre Dame, I think Conrad had mellowed, so any stories I have are all second hand. Bill Raymond hired me during his first year as principal.

PARENT: No real stories, but I remember riding with Conrad in one of his “souped-up” cars. You really did take your life into your own hands with him behind the wheel.

RICE: (laughing) Well, we took the track team to a Saturday meet downriver and the coaches stopped at a Howard Johnson Restaurant for breakfast. Conrad didn’t like the way his eggs were done and called the waitress over and demanded to see “Howard.” She was flustered and we were doubling over. Or the time coming home from the Central Michigan Relays. Conrad was behind me in his green Mercury with Doug Brown ‘70 (NDHS) in the front seat (I believe) and all of a sudden I didn’t see him in the rear-view mirror. A few seconds later he came out of a ditch on the left and was now ahead of me. We couldn’t believe it! Or the time we were on our way from state final in Saginaw and decided to stop in Frankenmuth and have a chicken dinner, without a reservation. We showed up at Zehnders and all 20 of us went in and Conrad told them our name and that we had a reservation. They got flustered and said they could not find the reservation, at which time Conrad became indignant. We were promptly seated! I can tell you no other teacher had a greater impact on my teaching style than he did. Great man.

IRISH: What were some of your thoughts at the time you found out NDHS was closing?

KOTARSKI: Sad, sad, sad. However, I think just about everyone saw it coming. Nothing good can last forever, and I’m glad that HW Notre Dame kept its excellent reputation as a very positive influence on the thousands of young men who passed through its corridors. I thought of all the history of a great school and of all the service that it rendered to the community for so many years.

PARENT: I knew that, inevitably, the school would have to move or close because of the changing demographics around the school. Most of the feeder parishes had closed their schools and it was increasingly difficult to recruit new, qualified students. With an active group of alumni and parents willing to step forward and pursue moving the school eventually, the future seemed hopeful at the time.

RICE: Because of the suddenness, I was angry. I knew the situation had slowly changed with feeder schools closing, enrollment falling, and neighborhood changing, and the opening of De La Salle in Warren creating more competition. All these played into a financial situation that was becoming strained; but to suddenly have it closed the way it did just seemed wrong. It was probably inevitable that it would happen, but it could have had a much more Christian approach to it.

IRISH: What are your thoughts on the connection of NDHS to NDP?

KOTARSKI: When NDP first opened, there were some negative attitudes that were promulgated by some of the very people who should have tried to create closer ties with NDP. But the transition that some of the NDHS students made to NDP went very smoothly. They were welcomed; they wore their jackets, one of them even became athlete of the year in his first year. The last of the transfer students graduated this year. No distinction was made, and they seemed well adjusted and happy. Students adjust to change much more quickly than do the adults. Those students who transferred to the Prep are alumni of Notre Dame.

PARENT: Initially, there weren't very strong ties between the two schools for various reasons. First, there was confusion in the minds of many people, especially the alumni, because both schools bore the same name. Did that mean they were one school, in two parts? Did that mean that the older, more established school (NDHS) was supposed to support the new NDP financially? (Many grads thought that a gift to NDHS meant a gift to NDP.) Some NDHS alumni think that if NDP wants their support, NDP’s name should become Notre Dame.

RICE: Naturally, because of my close feelings about thousands of NDHS grads and the hundreds I have accumulated here at Prep, it is painful for me to see strained relations. These are all good people; that is the shame of it. If only they would talk to each other, communicate, and be willing ultimately to share so many good things between them. At Notre Dame Prep, I have taught sons and daughters of NDHS grads and it is always something I treasure.

IRISH: How do you think we can get the two schools’ alumni groups to work more closely together?

KOTARSKI: I think that like in many things, communication is key. How do you get people who displayed so much anger very publicly to moderate their emotions and at least come together to talk? There are many, many Notre Dame High Schools throughout the country; I bet they all sing, “Notre Dame our Mother. . .,” and I bet they all “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. . .” The history of each school will always exist; it is the philosophy that is carried forward by those who lived it in the past to those who live it in the present. It just seems sad that the students who gained so much from that philosophy can’t bring themselves to personally help those who are part of it today.

PARENT: I think the first step is to get the NDHS alumni to truly understand what we are trying to do. What type of communication will best appeal to them? Does it take an attractive looking magazine like this? An e-mail? A postcard? The question is — what will they read, if anything? And will they respond to our inquiry?

RICE: I think the most important way to start to clear up things is to talk. Get everyone together and talk. Clear up the rumors and misinformation.

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org