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Grabbing the bull by the horns

Community gathers to honor Connolly at retirement party

May 16, 2007

Bruce Connolly was called a visionary leader who focused on ensuring a strong education for all children during his more than decade-long tenure as the head of Brown Deer schools.

The outgoing superintendent also was described as a hippie Irishman with a need for speed during a roast held to commemorate his 11 years with the district May 12.

A highlight of the evening came when former school principal and School Board member Joe Klucarich, wearing a bright green sport coat, roused the crowd with quick one-liners and quips regarding Connolly.

"He always reminded me of a Texas longhorn steer, a point here and a point there and a lot of bull in the middle," Klucarich said in his deep bellowing voice, as he pointed in opposite directions.

List of accomplishments

Current and former board members, administrative staff, teachers and parents packed the Crystal Room at the Four Points Sheraton in Brown Deer to celebrate Connolly's career.

"We wish you all of the best. We will never forget you, your leadership and your many contributions. We are honored to have worked with you," said Barb Fleming, the district's spokeswoman, who served as board president when Connolly was hired in 1996.

Former School Board member Sharon Kundinger listed a number of accomplishments during Connolly's tenure including the development of the district's first strategic plan, an energy-saving project with Johnson Controls and a natural gas purchasing program.

"Bruce is a brilliant educational leader. Over the past 11 years, Bruce has demonstrated a strong understanding in handling all aspects of running a school district," Kundinger said. "Bruce consistently demonstrated respect for our students, staff, community and the board."

She also noted Connolly was responsible for maintaining class sizes and staff while the district did not increase taxes, a successful stadium renovation project and shrinking the district's achievement gap.

Poking fun, on a serious note

Instead of a retirement speech, Connolly opted to poke fun back with a barrage of one-liners during a PowerPoint presentation.

"Mark Twain once said, 'In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards,'" Connolly said.

"Kevin, I just want to remind you that life is not a box of chocolates," he said to the youngest board member, Kevin Wisth. "It's more like a jar of jalapeños. What you do today might burn you tomorrow."

On a serious note, Connolly took time to thank several administrators from the area who he worked with in the past.

"They are all courageous people. They made a difference in my life. Each of them taught me valuable lessons," he said.

Connolly soaked up the needling and trips down memory lane as he sat with his family at a table in the front of the banquet room.

'Saved by the luck of the Irish'

Longtime colleagues also joined the roast to commend Connolly on his renowned career as an educator.

"When I first met Bruce, he was this young snotnosed teacher with golden locks down to here," said Terry Tamblyn as he pointed to the middle of his back.

Tamblyn taught with Connolly in Sterling, Ill., one of his first teaching jobs in the 1970s.

Several local lawmakers, included Sen. Alberta Darling and Milwaukee County Supervisor Joe Rice attended the event and lauded Connolly's contributions to the community.

"There is a special elevated place in heaven for those people who serve on school boards," Rice said. "There is probably a (more) special corner of heaven for school district superintendents and administrators."

"The working relationship that Bruce and I developed through the years was extremely effective. It was as good as any relationship I have had in my professional career," said former board member Joe Hatchell, the master of ceremonies. "Through the years we faced many challenges. It was funny how many times we were saved by the luck of the Irish, and a glass of Guinness never hurt."

Trip down memory lane

Former board member Mike Christopulos, who organized the event, turned the clock back for the audience and told of the Midwestern boy who would one day lead their school district. The boyhood was spent giving sermons in church, trapping muskrat and enjoying one day as the Boy Scout mayor of Davenport, Iowa.

When Connolly was 16 years old, he spent three days hitchhiking 900 miles to Colorado, got a job and drove a truck back to Illinois. In a separate incident he spent four hours in a Rock County jail for driving 100 mph.

"He didn't get a ticket … his dad, Clyde, talked to the policeman and he talked him out of giving Bruce a ticket," Christopulos said.

Connolly's dad bought him a Buick Grand Sport when he was 17 years old.

"Bruce took it for a spin, went downtown, he stopped and had a few beers and he got a big cigar," Christopulos said.

Finished with the cigar, Connolly tossed it out the car window as he drove up the driveway of his home.

"Unfortunately, the wind was so strong it blew the cigar back in the car," Christopulos said. "The car was on fire."

Brendan O'Brien can be reached at (262) 446-6602. His e-mail address is bobrien@cninow.com.

At a glance

WHAT: Brown Deer School Superintendent Bruce Connolly retirement party

WHERE: Four Points Sheraton, Brown Deer

WHO: about 130 people attended the event held May 12

NEXT STEPS: Connolly retires Saturday, June 30; Deborah Kerr will assume the role of superintendent Sunday, July 1

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