By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Susan Roche wanted to be a Catholic school teacher as long as she can remember. Her school, St. John of the Cross, Roslyn, had a wonderful lay teacher in the second grade, and she wanted to be just like “Miss Claire.”
Skip forward a few years to 1961 when she was a senior at Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote. The archdiocesan schools were hiring girls right out of high school; they would received their college through evening and summer courses.
“Can you guarantee us at least two years?” asked Msgr. Francis B. Schulte, the archdiocesan superintendent of schools, at her interview.
“Yes,” she assured him.
Now a great deal more than two years later, Msgr. Schulte is Archbishop Schulte, Archbishop Emeritus of New Orleans, and Susan Roche is Susan Klunder, retiring after 49 years in archdiocesan Catholic education; the last 30 as the first lay principal for a Catholic parish school in the Archdiocese, Nativity of Our Lord in Warminster.
As chance would have it, her first teaching assignment was at St. John of the Cross, second grade, which at the time included sacrament preparation for first penance, first holy Communion and confirmation.
She loved to work with the little ones, but thought she would rather teach older children. After two years, when there was a fifth grade opening at Nativity, she applied and was accepted. Over the next 17 years she gradually moved up the grades, ultimately to eighth.
“My favorite grade to teach was eighth grade,” she said. “They are still little kids at heart, and they challenge you.”
As a lay teacher, Klunder had always worked with women religious; at St. John it was Immaculate Heart Sisters, and at Nativity it was the Sisters of St. Joseph. And of course the principal was always a sister. She was shocked when in 1980 Nativity’s pastor, Father Thomas Kane, asked her if she would be principal. He told her it was the St. Joseph Sisters who suggested her.
She has been principal ever since and has loved every minute of it.
“I never say I’m going to work in the morning, I say I’m going to school,” she said.
And not just any school. Yes, she could have gone on into administration in public schools, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
“I love Catholic school because you can talk about God,” Klunder said. “I’ve always wanted to be someplace where you can teach children about God and about our faith.”
Certainly many things have changed in schools since her girlhood and early days in teaching.
Technology and societal changes have created challenges.
“I think it’s harder growing up today. There is more pressure and things like cyber-bullying. We have to bring in anti-bullying speakers and anti-cyber bullying speakers.”
But, she said, “in a lot of ways kids are still kids. My greatest joy has been being with kids; they make you smile on the worst of days.”
Come September, Nativity of Our Lord School, with 470 students and expected to grow, will reopen without its veteran principal. Where will she be?
“I tell the students I’ll probably be on the beach with a book,” she said. “They tell me September is the nicest time at the shore.”
“I have lots of memories and they all revolve around the kids and the goodness of children,” Klunder said. “I hope in some way I can stay in touch with Catholic education.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.