Everybody loves LaDonna
LaDonna Wessel took an
unlikely path into education, but left a lasting imprint on the hearts of students
She was the heart and soul of the school
by BRYAN ZOLLMAN
She was the rock for students to lean on. She was the glue that kept things together. She was the one to go to whenever there was a problem. In essence, she played the role of school mom.
LaDonna Wessel was more than just a high school secretary.
“LaDonna was not only the face of the school,” said Rachel Lawinger, a 2009 graduate. “She was the heart. She touched everyone’s life in a positive way. You’d never meet a kinder soul.”
Wessel retired earlier this month after 31 years with the Sauk Centre School District. It was a role she tiptoed into, but eventually cemented herself as an integral part of students’ lives. She was a stay-at-home mom to her two daughters when her church asked her to help a little girl from Laos who didn’t speak English ride the bus to kindergarten. She eventually served as a volunteer in Mrs. Lorraine Peschel’s kindergarten class.
“She is my mentor,” said Wessel. “She taught me so much. What a wonderful lady.”
From there, she never looked back. She was asked to be a playground supervisor where every 25 minutes she would take kids outside to play. Then she served as a library aide before being hired as the district printer for seven years. But her biggest role was yet to come. In 1999 she was hired to be the high school secretary for principal Erich Martens. It was the perfect fit for Wessel, a position where she flourished as the backbone of the high school for more than 14 years.
“She was the face that made the school feel like home,” said Nicole Terhaar (now Poepke), a 2006 graduate. “She always put a smile on my face.”
Wessel reflected on her move to the high school. It was a scary transition for a woman who had only worked with young children during her first 17 years. At barely 5 feet tall, students towered over her.
“I was so scared,” she said. “But those big kids taught me so much. I enjoyed working with them.”
One of the first things she learned was that respect was a two-way street. She knew that in order for the kids to respect her, she had to respect them first. She did so with the tough love of an old-school mom. In fact, she was like a second mom to many of them.
“I was just being me,” she said. “A lot of times students would come to me with things they were too scared to go to their parents with.”
She was a shoulder to lean on, but students knew not to cross LaDonna or try to take advantage of her generosity. One of her famous sayings was for students to get their ducks in a row.
“I would tell them the most important thing for them was their education,” she said. “Get that done first and then you can go out and do what it is you want to do.”
Over the years, she had many students who were on the bubble of graduating or not graduating. It was LaDonna who would often sit with these students and encourage them to get the work done they needed to in order to clear that first major hurdle of life.
“I went to bat with a teacher many times for a student,” said Wessel. “But we all wanted the same thing for the students. We wanted them to get their education. We wanted them to graduate. There was never a teacher or administrator in the school who wouldn’t go to bat for any of those kids. We worked as a village, all of us. We all wanted what was best for the kids.”
Wessel used different tactics than many of her peers. She was quick with a smile, but also quick with a snarl. She wasn’t one to sugarcoat anything.
“I would often tell the kids who were about to get out of line that if they didn’t straighten up I’ll smack ya,” she says now, laughing. “And if they brought too much drama into the office, I would simply tell them to get out. Looking back, I probably said some things that I shouldn’t have and probably should have had my hand slapped more than once. But they respected and listened. It was a tough love.”
LaDonna did more than just greet kids in the morning. She was in charge of many of the school’s biggest functions, including graduation and prom. She was also advisor to the student council.
“Graduation was my favorite time of the year,” she said. “To see those kids up there on stage acting so respectful and looking like graduates. It was a different way to see them. It told us that we did our job. We got them that far.”
Prom was also a favorite time of year.
“You get so used to seeing kids in pajama bottoms or sweat pants,” she said. To see some of those boys up there with tuxes on and the girls in their beautiful gowns…it was fun to see a different side of them.”
This year at graduation, Wessel was presented with an honorary diploma signed by all the graduating class of 2013. Although she has a diploma of her own, the students made her an honorary member of the Class of 2013 because they knew it was her last year at the school. Unfortunately, health issues were the deciding factor in her retirement. Diagnosed with breast cancer in January, Wessel decided it was indeed time to concentrate more on herself and her health.
“I planned on retiring, but would I have without the cancer diagnosis? I don’t know,” she said. “But with the cancer and the chemo it wasn’t fair to the kids if I couldn’t do my job 100 percent.”
A reflection of her relationship with students became clear when she went to them first with her diagnosis. While for so many years she was the shoulder for students to lean on during difficult times, now it was LaDonna’s turn to seek comfort from students. She told her student council before telling anybody else.
“There were a lot of tears and a lot of hugs,” she said. “They were so supportive. They truly cared.”
She then told the teachers. While she had developed a special bond with the students at Sauk Centre High School, she also had formed a lot of friendships with the teachers. But she had decided it was time to put LaDonna first, for once.
“My number one priority now is me,” she said. “It’s my health. It’s hard for me because I cared for so many kids for so many years. It’s hard putting yourself first, but I know I need to do it.”
LaDonna received a double mastectomy and is currently undergoing her third of 12 chemotherapy treatments. Things are going well so far as she hasn’t suffered any of the debilitating side effects.
“I’m just following what my doctors tell me,” she said.
At 61 years old, she and her husband, Joe, are making plans to travel and spend more time together. She also has seven grandchildren, who she looks forward to seeing more of. Because she rose at 5 a.m. every morning and was at school at 6 a.m., she wasn’t able to see as much of her grandchildren’s activities as she would have liked. Now she has that chance.
When asked if she will attend sporting events or other school functions, she hesitates. She isn’t sure she could handle going back inside the school. It just might make her feel the need to plop herself behind her desk and continue the role that meant not only so much to students, but to her as well.
“That was my life,” she said. “My life was working with those kids.”
But it was never a job. LaDonna loved every minute of her experience at Sauk Centre schools, from the confines of Mrs. Peschel’s classroom, to the playground, to the high school office. Along the way she touched the lives of so many.
“She was always there to put a smile on your face even if you were having a bad day,” said Eric Moritz, a 2001 graduate. “She had a huge heart.”
For many, she was more than just a secretary.
“She was like a second mom or a friend,” said Kayla Tabatt (now Bueckers), a 2009 graduate. “She was the heart of the school and will be greatly missed.”
BJ Welle, a member of the Class of 2013, and the student who introduced LaDonna as an honorary member of the Class of 2013, echoed those statements.
“She was a mother to the entire school,” he said. “She had the best attitude about anything and everything. I will never forget her and the impact she had on my life.”
Much like a favorite teacher or inspirational coach, LaDonna Wessel went above and beyond her duties to leave a lasting imprint on the hearts and minds of the students of Sauk Centre High School. She did so with kindness and a tough motherly love. And she loved every minute of it.
“I love those kids,” she said. “I always said that when I retire I want the next person to have as great a career as I had. Because I never worked a day of my life. It wasn’t a job. It was my passion.”