It’s picture day at St. Gertrude School in Krakow, and Clem Genteman is ready.
Walking down the hallway at St. Gertrude School wearing a collared purple shirt, a multicolored tie and a big smile, Clem Genteman’s personality makes it clear that he belongs at school.
Genteman, Washington, who is known for his bright, colorful ties and larger-than-life personality, has been educating children and enhancing their lives for more than 35 years. He spent 25 years teaching at St. Vincent de Paul School in Dutzow and has taught full and part time at St. Gertrude for the past 10 years.
But he doesn’t just teach. Genteman also organizes and attends the pro-life trip at St. Gertrude each year and hosts foreign exchange students.
Genteman, 74, grew up in North St. Louis, the son of Clem and Flora, nee Hilke, Genteman.
He attended De Andreis School, which is now closed, in St. Louis. The educators there had a profound impact on Genteman. So much, that he knew he wanted to be a teacher.
“They impressed me so much, how dedicated they were. They gave me a good example, and I followed through on it,” he said. “I’ve never regretted my choice.”
After high school Genteman earned a degree from then-Webster College, now University, in Webster Groves.
His first teaching position was eighth grade at Our Lady of Sorrows School in South St. Louis.
When he started, there were about 1,000 kids at the school.
It was at the school that Genteman met his wife, Judy, a physical education teacher.
The couple were married Aug. 4, 1962. Fifty years later, Genteman said the best advice he can give newlyweds is to communicate.
“When you have the communication, I think the love stays there,” he said. The couple’s children have tied them even closer, he added.
The Gentemans have four children, three daughters and one son — Lisa Kleekamp, Lynn Pohl, Jennifer Olsen and Paul Genteman. They also have 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Now that their children are grown and have children of their own, the Gentemans have hosted a foreign exchange student for each of the last five years. This year, the couple is hosting a student from Milan, Italy — Tomasso Rescigno, who is a senior at Washington High School.
The Gentemans have hosted male students from Europe, Germany and Mexico.
To keep up with foreign exchange students once they go home, Genteman signed up for Facebook and embraced technology.
“It’s tremendous!” he said, adding that he keeps in touch with all of the students.
“I don’t think I’m too old (to host foreign exchange students). The kids keep me young!,” he said. “I just want to give another kid a chance to see what life is like in the United States.”
Genteman also has used Skype, a video chat accessed through a computer or laptop, to talk to students’ parents.
Always a Teacher
After 12 years at Our Lady of Sorrows, in 1972, Genteman heard about an opening for a principal at St. Vincent’s.
“I thought it was an opportunity,” Genteman said, admitting that his friends thought he was crazy at the time. After all, he was coming from a city school with more than 1,000 kids to a rural school with fewer than 200 children at the time. It was a three-room schoolhouse.
The family, living in St. Louis, had never been in a rural community. Despite all of that, Genteman was offered and accepted the principal position. The family, with all four children, moved into the convent on the school grounds.
In addition to administrative duties, Genteman taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade in the same classroom.
Judy Genteman also taught at the school when three of the couple’s four children were enrolled.
Teaching three grades at once proved to be the most difficult aspect of the job, Clem Genteman said, adding that trying to teach all of the students at their own level was not an easy transition from teaching a class full of the same grade.
“Oh, was that a wide awakening,” he said. “It was a learning experience, but it was a beautiful experience.”
Under Genteman’s guidance, the school grew from a three-room schoolhouse to about 160 students and eight classrooms and Genteman became a full-time principal.
During his tenure at St. Vincent, two additions to the school were made, including a new gym and an “unbelievable, beautiful,” new classroom building that was constructed in 2000.
Genteman also started reunion celebrations for former St. Vincent students who graduated more than 40 years ago. Each year a new class is invited to attend the celebration.
Teaching “a Privilege”
Genteman said it’s a privilege that he’s taught thousands of children and is most proud that he taught his own children and several grandchildren.
“They’re so bright. We’ve given them the opportunity to succeed at a far greater possibility than we were able to 40 or 50 years ago,” he said.
At St. Vincent’s, Genteman began traveling each year to Washington, D.C., for the annual pro-life march. At that time, the trip was organized by St. Francis Borgia Regional High School. The march, held each January, brings people from all over the country to march in support of the pro-life agenda.
When Genteman started teaching at St. Vincent, students didn’t go to Washington, D.C. Genteman organized the first pro-life trip for the school eight years ago. All eighth-graders and parents are invited to attend the march.
The first year, the school took one bus. They rode to Washington, D.C., marched in the parade and rode the 18-hour trip back immediately after.
“We said we would not do that any longer,” he said.
Now, the trip has transformed into a three-night trip with the entire eighth-grade class. In addition to marching in the pro-life parade, which is always the biggest highlight, students visit historical sites and museums.
“The kids get a beautiful sightseeing tour of American history in a nutshell,” he said, adding that he enjoys giving insight to the kids at such a young age.
“We’ve saved so many young babies,” he said.
During the trip, Genteman said he has the opportunity to see the kids differently than in the school setting.
“I love taking the children to Washington, D.C. It’s a fantastic opportunity. I see them in a completely different mode and see how they interact with each other.”
Participating in the pro-life trips, Genteman said, makes him excited for the future generation.
“They’re going to be gems,” he said. “They have so much to give. This generation is very intelligent. They can do anything they want to do and there are so many motivated to do the best they can for themselves, their society and each other.”
This year, 34 students will make the trip and march in the Jan. 25 parade. Genteman also helps raise funds to offset the cost of the trip.
After 25 years of teaching, Genteman was ready to take off his tie. In 2002, he retired from St. Vincent’s School.
The school organized a party and celebrated the Gentemans’ service to the school. In honor of Genteman’s 25 years with the school, a scholarship fund was set up in his name. The money is used annually to help keep students in the Catholic grade school.
At his retirement, the Gentemans were given a cruise. He also was gifted a large binder packed full of class pictures and letters from students. The letters expressed thankfulness, favorite memories and even funny stories from former students.
One letter reads “What I received from the Gentemans and St. Vincent’s is confidence to believe in myself and my abilities, basing my decisions and my daily life on Christian principles. By their example, Mr. and Mrs. Genteman have contributed to instilling these beliefs in many students over the years.”
Other students remembered accidentally kicking a ball through Mr. Genteman’s window, being hit in the face with a cream pie by Mr. Genteman, and trying to pull one over on Genteman, which usually resulted in laughter from the whole class.
Genteman wasn’t the only one receiving a gift for his retirement, though. At his final eighth-grade graduation dinner, Genteman gave each of the boys one of his ties.
Retirement, however, didn’t last long. After only about six weeks, Genteman said he couldn’t stand being retired.
When an opening came up for a teacher who was out on maternity leave at St. Gertrude School, Genteman offered to substitute teach.
He knew the principal, as he had hired him for his first teaching job at St. Vincent.
“Retirement wasn’t what I expected it would be,” he said. “I missed the kids. My whole life goes back to teaching.”
Genteman said he felt like he still has a lot to give, and receive through teaching.
“The kids really enrich me,” he said. “You feel like you’re in a position to make a positive influence.”
Now, Genteman teaches eighth-grade religion at St. Gertrude.
“I can’t stand being without kids,” he said. “I would miss coming to school. It’s just a joy.”
Genteman said teaching is more of a mission than a job.
As far as a second retirement — don’t count on it.
Genteman said he’s likely to retire “when the good Lord takes me.”
And when he’s gone, Genteman said he hopes people will say he did a good job for their kids.
“I would hope people would say ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ ” he said.
“Life has been so good to me,” he said. “I have a tremendous wife, a tremendous family and the opportunity to teach in Catholic schools. I have no regrets whatsoever. I don’t want to be any place else.”