It was 20 years ago that Joe Lis closed the door to his science classroom at S.E. Gross School for the last time. And while Lis, now 84 years old, no longer gets around as nimbly as he once did, his legacy at Gross School remains strong.
On Saturday, a crowd of more the 200 people, many of them former students (including a few who flew in from as far away as the West Coast), filled the S.E. Gross School auditorium to acknowledge the impact he had on their lives and to dedicate a plaque in his honor outside one of the school’s new science labs.
“This is the highlight of my teaching career,” said Lis during a phone interview last week with the Landmark. “I was never expecting it.”
The event was organized by former students seeking a more tangible way to say thanks to a teacher whose style was so memorable that even after 40 or 50 years they remember his trademark catch phrases, classroom props and unique lessons.
Cathy Colgrass Edwards, who along with Eric Sawchuk was one of the lead organizers, had Lis for eighth-grade science in 1959-60. She remembered the day he brought in chocolate-covered ants for kids to try.
“All those ideas and ways of learning were just so unique,” said Edwards, who admitted she didn’t like school as a kid — but loved Lis’ science class. “You paid attention just by accident if for no other reason.”
If Lis hadn’t been a science teacher, he might have been a stand-up comedian or an actor, because he loved the performance aspect of his job.
“The science room was a stage for me,” Lis said. “I performed, entertained and taught science.”
Intensely proud of his Polish heritage, Lis treated his homeroom each year to an end-of-year Polish Fest, where he’d boil links of Polish sausage over the lab’s Bunsen burners and serve pierogis.
“You could smell garlic throughout the entire building,” said Lis, who made sure to point out it was all in the name of science.
“It showed the diffusion of gases in the atmosphere and how digestion worked,” he said.
A pair of classroom mascots — Stosh (a cutaway torso) and Sasha (a full-size skeleton — helped Lis teach anatomy to two generations of students.
“A lot of my kids still tell me they know all the bones,” said Lis.
One of those students is Judy Golitko, who had Lis for science in 1967-68. She credits Lis for inspiring her to pursue a career in science as an X-ray technician and later in nuclear medical technology.
“I went into science because of him,” said Golitko. “He made it so interesting. He made everything fun. There was something about him that was different than any other teachers I had to that point.”
Lis grew up in a Polish neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago and attended St. Philip High School. He served stateside in the U.S Marines during the Korean War and then received a teaching degree from DePaul University.
In 1956, while trying to land a teaching job, he took a trip out to Brookfield to visit the zoo. Lis says he got lost and headed into the local grammar school to ask for directions. The person giving him directions was the district superintendent. During their chat, Lis mentioned that he had a teaching degree, and the superintendent mentioned the school was looking for a science teacher.
“He signed me up then and there,” said Lis, who would spend the next 37 years at S.E. Gross School. The school became the center of Lis’ life. It was at Gross School that he met his wife, Marlene, a sixth-grade teacher. He also taught his three daughters science at the school.
Saturday’s event included speeches by former students and also presentations by George West, who was representing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a proclamation read by a representative of the U.S. Marine Corps.
But according to Gross School Assistant Principal Ryan Evans, the most memorable portion of the event was an informal back-and-forth between Lis and his former students in the audience.
“It was nice to have the dignitaries, but the best part was when people got to stand up and shout out to him,” said Evans. “It was that dialog back and forth. As an educator, you want to hear from the kids you taught.”