Five longtime employees of Riverside Elementary School District 96 are retiring this year, including Barbara Johnson, Jean Mathis, Mary Orlowski, Deb Potempa and Hollywood playground supervisor Marie Rerucha. 

Rerucha has been the playground supervisor at Hollywood School for 26 years. During that time she has been a beloved figure for a generation of Hollywood students.

“She comes across as really kind of a gruff character, but the kids know,” said Kim Hefner, the principal of Hollywood School. “She makes them laugh. She looks out for kids when they’re sad.”

In addition to supervising the kids at recess, Rerucha, who worked two hours a day, did copying and laminating for teachers.

Barbara Johnson, a resource teacher at Hollywood School, has taught in District 96 schools for 30 years, working in special education. She began her teaching career in 1984 at B.J. Ward Middle School in Bolingbrook, and in 1987 was hired to be a cross categorical teacher at Central School where she taught a self-contained special education class for many years. Johnson spent two years at Ames School and has been at Hollywood School since 2011.

“She did a terrific job with our students with special needs,” said former Central School Principal Janice Limperis. “[She is] an extremely talented, patient, caring, very loving person.”

In retirement, Johnson, a Brookfield resident, plans to volunteer more at the St. Barbara Church food pantry and at the church itself. She also plans to travel, read, write and spend time helping make the world “a brighter and kinder place.”

Jean Mathis has taught art at Central and Hollywood Schools since 1990. She found out that District 96 was looking for an art teacher from Orlowski, who was a friend. Mathis had taken some time off from teaching after teaching high school art at the Latin School in Chicago from 1976 to 1982. 

Mathis is known for installing confidence in her students and for insisting on creative artwork. There was no tracing allowed in her classroom.

“I have enjoyed witnessing the students become artists before my eyes, starting in kindergarten,” Mathis said. “I always tried to instill confidence in my students, so they feel capable and creative.” 

Students and parents appreciated her constant praise and encouragement.

“I think Mrs. Mathis is very encouraging and supporting of the efforts that students make,” said Wendy Docktor, the parent of a Central School first-grader.

In retirement Mathis plans to travel to Italy and she will be working on children’s book in collaboration with a son, who is a glass maker and artist who lives in Ohio.

Mary Orlowski, a second-grade teacher at Ames School, is retiring after 27 years teaching in District 96. She started out as a reading improvement aide at Ames for three years and then taught kindergarten there for 10 years. She then switched to teaching first grade for five years, including one year at Blythe Park School, before becoming a second-grade teacher.

“I feel that Mary Orlowski embodies all that is good about our profession,” said Ames School Principal Todd Gierman. “Mrs. Orlowski is a true nurturer of children’s futures and will be greatly missed at Ames.”

Prior to coming to District 96, Orlowski taught in Burbank and Chicago Ridge. 

Deb Potempa, a seventh-grade science teacher at L.J. Hauser Junior High School, is retiring after 26 years of teaching there. Prior to coming to Hauser she taught at two other junior high schools, a middle school, and Macomb High School.

In addition to teaching regular science classes Potempa at Hauser taught health and animal science. She regularly taught enrichment classes in summer school such as Dinosaur Dig, Super Science, and Harry Potter Science. 

Potempa also served as a sponsor of the Creative Crafts and Super Science Clubs at Hauser.

She always strived to make science fun.

“I just remember her being always so kind and nurturing. … She was always so child centered, so student centered,” said Hefner, who once taught English at Hauser. “It just amazed me.” 

In retirement Potempa plans to continue teaching science in the summer gifted and talented program at Dominican University. She will also travel to Carbondale to watch the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

“My identity is a teacher,” Potempa said. “A role I have thoroughly enjoyed throughout my life. I will miss working with students and staff.”

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