Janet Nendze, who retired from Melrose Park Elementary School in May after a 39-year teaching career, accepts praise and thanks from family members and former students during a July 9 surprise party. | Shanel Romain/VFP
Friday, July 14, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Tony Favela, a 1996 graduate of Melrose Park Elementary School, still talks fondly of his physical education teacher, Janet Nendze, who retired in May. That’s partly because of what she did for him during his eighth grade year.
“I got into a lot of trouble in eighth grade,” Favela recalled during a surprise party held for Nendze on July 9 at Miller Meadows Forest Preserve in Maywood.
“I couldn’t even walk across the stage during graduation. They told me to come pick up my diploma on the last day of school in the principal’s office,” Favela said.
“A couple of days before graduation, Ms. Nendze was like, ‘Go buy a disposable camera and when you get your diploma, meet me in the gym.’ That’s what I did,” he said. “She borrowed a cap and gown and took a picture of me so I’d at least have that memory.”
Favela was one among dozens of Nendze’s former students, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who wanted to let the PE teacher of 39 years know how much they appreciate that she cared.
Former students of Nendze’s during a July 9 surprise party held for the retired teacher. | Shanel Romain/VFP
“When we had personal trouble at home and personal issues, Ms. Nendze was always there to talk to us, to give us advice, to assure us that everything would be alright,” said Rolando Villegas, who graduated from Melrose Park in 1998.
“She was more than just a gym teacher,” he said. “She was a friend, a mentor, a counselor, an advisor and a coach.”
Amelia Martinez, Class of 1985, remembers the time that Nendze intervened during a conflict between Martinez and another girl at school.
A former co-worker of Nendze’s takes a photo with the teacher and her former students. | Shanel Romain/VFP
“She pulled us into the girl’s locker room and was like, ‘You both need to stop this nonsense, you can’t listen to the he-said, she-said,’” Martinez recalled. “That moment will always stay in my head. From that day on, that girl and I became best friends. We’re best friends to this day.”
Despite the laughter that coated the warm summer afternoon, the Sunday gathering was prompted, in part, by tragedy. On May 22, a week before what would’ve been her last day of teaching, Nendze’s husband passed.
Nendze’s granddaughter, Alaina Gallaway, said that her grandfather had been in the hospital on and off, but that his death was still unexpected.
Former students of Nendze’s, including Elizabeth Salgado (far left), Amelia Martinez (second from left) and Veronica Montoya (far right). | Shanel Romain/VFP
“My husband would always say that he could hardly wait for me to retire,” said Nendze, who lives in Maywood. “I have sisters who live out of state and our daughter is in Texas. He looked forward to us traveling to see them. Right now, I’m taking things day by day.”
Nendze said that one of her three children (her daughter visiting from Texas) took her out to eat before springing the surprise. Many of her 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren were in on the act, making plans on Facebook weeks in advance (“they know I don’t do Facebook, I don’t have time for that”), and setting up in the park the day of the celebration.
Former students Thomas Martineck, Rolando Villegas and Tony Favela during the July 9 surprise party for their longtime gym teacher Janet Nendze. | Shanel Romain/VFP
The gathering allowed Nendze some temporary relief from a period of mourning that’s still in the early stages. There are more tears still to be shed, but on Sunday, it was all about laughter — and the memories.
Nendze said she grew up wanting to be a teacher, but her inspiration to teach PE, specifically, came from a gym teacher “I had and who I loved.”
“Back then, the gym teachers wore long skirts and we did a lot of the same stuff over and over again,” she recalled. “I had so much fun in gym class that I wanted to get kids to have that kind of fun, too. And I wanted them to be healthy while having fun.”
A former student embraces Janet Nendze, who retired in May. | Shanel Romain/VFP
Nendze, who started her teaching career in District 89 in 1977 (she started teaching at Melrose Park in 1980), said that when she thinks back on her teaching experiences, the fondest memories are often encapsulated in the little moments.
“When you see a child the first time they catch a ball and the smile that lights up their face,” she said. “When you’re coaching and someone had a great hit. I’m getting those flashback memories.”
Elizabeth Salgado, Class of 1997, had Nendze as a volleyball coach at Melrose Park (Nendze also coached softball and volleyball at Proviso East for over a decade, in addition to Little League softball). Salgado was the first third-grader at the school to play volleyball with seventh- and eighth-graders.
Janet Nendze with her some of her three children, 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. | Shanel Romain/VFP
“Our practices were in the morning and she would often come with a tray of homemade brownies,” Salgado said. “She was like a second mother to us.”
Former student Thomas Martineck said that he would often go back to visit Nendze even after he graduated from Melrose Park and enrolled at Proviso East High School.
“I went back there for years while I was going to Proviso just to talk to her,” he said.
“I did that, too,” said Villegas, Salgado’s brother, before explaining his motivation. “She cared. She didn’t give up on anybody. She went out on the limb for you, even if you messed up. She was there to straighten you back out.” VFP
For more local stories, ‘Like’ VFP on Facebook