'Mr. Central' bids adieu after 46 years of teaching

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2011 - 11:05 PM

Jack and Judy Schlukebier

The student was a few minutes late for her broadcast journalism class, so she slid into the room and quietly took a seat.

"We're not interfering with your busy social schedule by holding class, are we?" snapped teacher Jack Schlukebier. "Good."

As the newscast began, "Schlick" paced as though it was going out to the world, not just the students of St. Paul Central High School. After it was over, he offered a quick, "good job everybody."

The girl who arrived late asked Schlukebier if he would be there next year. "No. Because I don't like you." She smiles broadly.

Up in the control booth one student sighed. "I can't believe he's going. It will be so weird without him."

He is called "Mr. Central," and "the soul of the school" by students and staff. He's also called grumpy, wise, loving, gruff, sarcastic, temperamental and "the best teacher in the world."

Schlukebier will be leaving Central High after 31 years -- and 46 years teaching in the St. Paul school district. He's one of the longest-tenured teachers in the system, and by all accounts, one of the most beloved.

I visited Schlukebier's classes on two of his last days at Central. In one, he introduced me as a reporter doing a story on terrorists inside the schools. At the next, he deadpanned that I was doing a piece on juvenile delinquents.

Tallinn Cavanaugh, a student in Schlukebier's journalism class, said he spent most of the year trying to figure out when Schlukebier was being sarcastic, or just honest. "Then I thought, maybe he was never being sarcastic."

"If you don't know him on a personal level, you might not like him," said student Alexandra Leaskas. "But he's like a grandpa to me."

Central High "is not going to be the same without him,'' said Ashley Neisen.

That's because Schlukebier has so many roles at Central that they have already spread his duties to three teachers. Besides teaching English, journalism and broadcast journalism, Schlukebier is senior adviser, oversees the newspaper and yearbook, shoots photos at all school events, and takes seniors on almost anachronistic outings, such as bowling and snow tubing. He orchestrates the graduation ceremony and insists it has to be "classy," and shows it by wearing a tux.

A proud German, he holds a famous Oktoberfest party at his house and blocks off the street. Jack and his wife, Judy, were high school sweethearts, and have attended more than 20 proms at Central together.

"Nobody spends more time or attends more events than Jack," said Brian Reinhardt, a fellow teacher. "He's built the community of Central."

"He's firm, he's tough, he's exacting," said Principal Mary Mackbee. I asked her how he seems to get so much from his students. "He badgers them," she said with a laugh. "But they never leave his class."

Teri Lentsch, the assistant principal, said simply that Schlukebier "makes high school what it should be."

During a break Friday, Schlukebier sat in his van in the parking lot, smoking Borkum Riff as he contemplated 46 years as a teacher. Kids are smarter, in many ways, but the number of dysfunctional students is growing, he said.

"That does not bode well for schools or society. It's not about money, it's about willpower."

What will he miss?

"I think the challenge of figuring out how to make all this work," Schlukebier said. "I had to be better than Jay Leno, the Internet and MTV, and I had to do it every day. It was an intellectual challenge, a psychological challenge, even a spiritual challenge.

"But there was not one day in 46 years that I wasn't excited to go to school," he said. As he mused about how he might come back on contract for a few projects next year, you could tell leaving will be painful.

When Schlukebier took the stage for his annual address to incoming seniors Friday, the students stood and chanted: "Jack! Jack! Jack!"

When he spoke, his "little demons" went silent.

"Forty-five people who sat here last year didn't make the (graduation) walk last night," he boomed. "Will YOU be there?"

Wooooooooo!

"Seniors say, 'We rule the school,' but you don't rule crap," said Schlukebier. "But you can lead. Decide if you want to lead, or follow. If you don't want to do either, get out of the way."

Wooooooo!

In one of his final poetry classes last week, they were studying the song "The Boxer," by Paul Simon, and its use of metaphor. A student peeked at a cellphone. "Put that away," said Schlukebier. "Let's not have this. This is ridiculous."

They talked about the ending of The Boxer. The protagonist is battered and worn, and he's quitting.

"What does it mean?" asked Schlukebier.

"He's leaving, he's going home," said Michael Burton. "But he's still a fighter. He's still going strong."

There is a brief pause.

"Good observation," said Schlukebier.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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