Top 10 CCHS students honor most influential teachers

It's easy to see why Culver Community High School principal Albert Hanselman each year calls the Culver Chamber and Kiwanis Club's Top Ten senior dinner "one of my favorite evenings." Once again, those students and their families gathered at the Pretty Lake Trinity Methodist Church's reception hall to enjoy a voluminous array of food before each student stood to honor the teacher who had most impacted his or her academic career.

Hanselman, who honored the students' parents prior to the start of the proceedings, also noted that longtime event organizer and high school teacher Donna Schwartz would be retiring after the end of this school year, thanking her for her role in the banquet's success.

Up first was student Clare Hartman, daughter of Richard and Lisa Hartman. A member of the Art and Spanish Clubs, Business Professionals of America (BPA), a class officer and cheerleader, and participant in the basketball, softball, and volleyball teams, Hartman plans to attend Ball State University in the fall to study either architecture or accounting. She chose current Culver Elementary School 6th grade teacher Todd Shafer, who previously taught the same grade at the Monterey Elementary School.

Noting three of the top ten students present that evening had attended Monterey Elementary, Hartman recalled fond memories of the Shakespeare play the class performed ("And yes, I still remember some of my lines," she said. "And I still have the script."), adding the play was performed on Friday the 13th.

Students "became detectives through the Westing Game party," she said, "sales men and women through the Monterey Mall; we became architects when we decided to build a haunted house, and became teachers when he picked a student to give answers to our spelling workbook pages -- (Mr. Shafer) would act like that student acts in class."
She added students "learned many lifelong skills we will continue to use."

Shafer recalled the day Hartman told him he'd been chosen as her influential teacher.

"I wasn't having great day. She made the day brighter.

He described Hartman as a trustworthy, responsible student who welcomed newcomers to the class.

"This may sound corny," he said, "but there's always stuff in the news about teaching and public schools, and how bad they can be. It's neat seeing the future we have in these kids up here. Clare's future is very bright."

Senior Michelle Elam, daughter of Donald Judd and Katherine Elam, participated in National Honor Society, Academy Super Bowl, Art, Science, and Spanish Clubs, band, BPA, choir, the literary magazine, nursing assistant classes, was a class officer and member of the CAVS Service Club, and played basketball and soccer. She plans to attend Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne or Ball State to study nursing.

Elam described CCHS science teacher Theresa Hammond -- whom she chose to honor -- as someone who "keeps everything fair; there's no bias. The rules apply to you, though I'm not saying she's only one like that."

She also said students could "always count on Mrs. Hammond for a good laugh or good motivation. I will always be grateful to her."

Hammond said she and Elam "connected right away" from Elam's first day in her class. Afterwards, she said, the two regularly greeted one another in the hallways. When Elam began taking CNA classes, Hammond said she wasn't sure if Hammond's classes had an impact on that choice, "but I'd like to think I did."

Elam has been Hammond's Teacher's Assistant this year and has passed her CNA test, "which is not an easy thing to do. She's been accepted to the nursing program in both those schools, which is not easy to do," she added.

Elizabeth Rainey, daughter of Jerry Rainey and Cindy Rainey, has been a member of Art Club, BPA, Spanish Club, and a class officer. She plans to attend Indiana University to major in computer tech and programming.

Rainey chose to honor CCHS Chemistry teacher Patrick Hahn, who recently joined the school's faculty. Explaining she's "not a great chemistry student," Rainey expressed gratitude for Hahn's making time to help her with AP Chemistry when she needed it.

"He taught me I need to ask for help when I need it, which is something only I can do for myself, but it will help me in the future. I was always challenged and interested in his class, and it's been a great experience."

Hahn, a graduate of Penn High School (Mishawaka) and IU, said last year he was "lucky enough to join the Culver Community staff," thanking Hanselman and the rest of the school's administration, as well as Rainey. He also recognized the other students being recognized at the event, for challenging themselves.

He described Rainey as a "quiet, little young woman" who sought chemistry help during resource time and who he found to be "extremely hard working." He also learned Rainey practices Tae Kwan Do and has earned her level three black belt recommendation. Hahn advised her to manage her time wisely in college and become involved in student organizations, not fearing to ask questions of the professor.
He also smilingly urged her to "take the opportunity to watch the greatest college basketball team," a reference to his alma mater and her future destination.

Erin Bau, daughter of Rhonda Brust, was part of National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society, Art, Science, Spanish, and French Clubs, was a Girls State delegate, was a member of the Cavs Service Club, the Culver Youth Community Organization, and played soccer and volleyball. She plans to attend Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

She said her chosen teacher, English and Speech teacher (and Bau's soccer coach) Luke Biernacki, "has been there for me" through high school. Noting she admires the teacher's honesty, Bau lauded him for his sense of humor and convincing her to speak publicly as a Speech coach, which led to her winning an award.

"There were a lot of hours and hard work, but it was so much fun," she said of her Speech experiences. "...Thanks for so many life lessons."
Biernacki described Bau as "an extremely confident person; whenever she sets her mind to a goal, she will achieve it. The way she carries herself leads the student body by example...her unending determination is one of the qualities I admire in her. "
Hanselman added that, while many students shy away from friendliness to the school principal, "Erin always has that smile (and) she says 'hi' every day to me."

Up next was John Ahlenius, son of John and Jean Ahlenius, a participant in National Honor Society, the Academic Super Bowl, Art, Science, and Spanish Clubs, the Caval Crier staff, as well as being a Boys State delegate, camp counselor, CAVS Service Club and CYCO member, and athlete in the baseball, football, track, and wrestling programs. Ahlenius intends to study agri business at Purdue University this fall.

Though he pointed out that "so many of the people here tonight have influenced me in various ways," Ahlenius said he chose to honor CCHS teacher Theresa Jacobson, whom he said "finds a simple, fun way to teach each lesson in government and econ, and I enjoyed our interaction in her class, answering questions...I know all the knowledge I gained about good economic decisions will help me in my career in agri business."

Thanking event sponsors for the "free meal," Ahlenius quipped, "Though thanks to Mrs. Jacobson, we know there's no such thing as a free meal!"
Jacobson said learning she'd been chosen as Ahlenius' honored teacher "was the highlight of my day," adding she wondered at first if his omnipresent smile was a sign of an ornery or mischievous temperament.
But, she added, "He is just a genuinely happy guy with a freakish amount of energy! He made me think of government and econ in a new way. His helpfulness, enthusiasm, and respectful attitude are greatly appreciated."

The son of Mr. and Mrs. Troy Schultz, Tucker Schultz participated in National Honor Society, was a Boys State delegate, a member of the Spanish and Science Clubs, CYCO, and the basketball, football, and track teams. He plans to attend IPFW to study pre-dentistry.

Schultz chose to honor his 4th grade teacher, Don Darda, who teaches in the Winamac school system, though he's a former Culver Community student (and in fact brought along his old Culver Cavaliers letter sweater for the occasion).

"Sometimes the right person enters your life at the right time," said Schultz. "Mr. Darda is one of those teachers you never forget. He is energetic, uplifting, and enthusiastic. He thinks outside the box and wants his students to do that, too...he made me feel self-confident and made learning fun."

"Elementary age students come to school with wide-eyed anticipation," said Darda. He recalled Schultz's understanding "the deeper meaning of our projects -- he saw bigger pictures."

One example cited was the 4th grader's discovery of "loopholes in our classroom tax system," according to Darda. "He kept most of his M&Ms!"
It makes my heart happy how he empowers others to do their best," Darda added, "to be successful."

Angel Okray, daughter of Cindy Gibson and Michael Okray, was also a National Honor Society participant, as well as a member of Art, Science, and Spanish Clubs, BPA, the Caval Crier staff, the book club, CAVS Service Club, Key Club, and was cross country manager. She plans to study biology at Indiana University or the University of Southern Indiana.

Honored by Okray was Rochester teacher Trevor Brown, who she said taught her in 7th grade Literature and again as a freshman in Global Perspectives.

"He made a great impression on everybody," she explained, adding that his efforts in her education while at Rochester "prepared me for Mrs. Benner's (CCHS) term papers...he really prepares you for the next level."

She also smilingly recounted his creation of his own "holiday, "Mr. Brown Appreciation Day," though in lieu of presents, Okray and her friends opted to toilet paper his house, a practice they've continued annually ever since.

For his part, Brown chuckled at recollections of starting out teaching 7th grade girls as a new, 22 year old teacher who "suffered through a lot of eye rolls!"

He also said Okray came to class daily well-prepared and with a smile.
"She was willing to challenge herself to achieve the highest level she could," he said, adding he takes the annual toilet papering ritual as "a sign...of mutual respect and a fun-loving attitude. I think it's important to have fun with the kids. If you're not having fun (as a teacher), you should be doing something else."

Senior Collin Stevens, son of Ryan and Tina Stevens, participated in both National Honor and National Junior Honor Societies, was a club member in the areas of Art, Science, and Spanish, joined the Academic Super Bowl, represented the school at an iPad conference, was a student leader in the freshmen IGNITION program, part of the CAVS Service Club, and played baseball, basketball, and football. He will head to Purdue this fall to study Computer Science.

Stevens explained he'd heard of how difficult his honored teacher, Vickie Benner's classes were prior to having her as a teacher. Acknowledging Benner's classes are challenging, Stevens pointed out the English and Humanities teacher also "did activities to advance students' knowledge. She's one of the smartest teachers and smartest individuals I know.

"She's the most dedicated teacher I've had in school," he added, noting Benner is at the school building at 6:45 a.m. and until 5 or 6 p.m., "working to better her students for the next level...she'll respect you if you respect her. If you don't, you'll feel the wrath of Benner!"

After describing how honored she felt upon learning Stevens had chosen her, Benner said she began to wonder if he should have instead chosen to honor a coach, as successful as he was in his various athletic endeavors.

"Honestly, I am the antithesis of an athlete," she smiled. "But it dawned on me that my responsibility was to let you all know about the other Collin. You all have seen him on the football field of basketball court, but not in room 306. He is the same superstar in the classroom as in the game."

She went on to describe Stevens as a dedicated student academically and in areas of leadership, as well as an "all around nice guy.

"So, even though I can't recite the number of points he's scored in a basketball game, I know a good student and a person of quality when I see one, and Collin is both."

To add to Stevens' sports trophies, Benner also ceremoniously hung an academic-oriented medal around his neck before leaving the podium.
Next up, Micah Budzinski, son of Victor and Rebecca Budzinski, was described as a participant in National and National Junior Honor Societies, the Academic Super Bowl, Art, Science, and Spanish Clubs, a Boys State delegate, Caval Crier staff member, recipient of the President's Education Award in 2009, a member of CYCO, and an athlete in the basketball, football, and track programs. He plans to study Engineering at Purdue University in the fall.

Budzinski said his chosen teacher, 7th grade math teacher John Browder, "showed me what school's about (and) made things serious but fun. He taught he there are more things to learn than just numbers in math...he also prevented me from running with the wrong crowd. I was friends with some kids who didn't really do the right things. He separated me from them as well as he could, and gave me the potential to be here today."

He also described Browder as "hilarious" in class.

Browder displayed that trademark humor in noting Budzinski himself didn't notify his honored teacher of the award. Instead, he learned via a group email from Hanselman.

"We seemed to have a bond," Browder said, in a more serious tone. "I'm sure he'll be a great contributor to society."

The final student presenter, Allen Betts, is the son of Destiny Tillman and Scott Schrimsher, and a participant in National and National Junior Honor Societies, Academic Super Bowl, Band, Caval Crier, a club member in Art, Spanish, and Science Clubs, CYCO, CAVS Service Club, and the school's baseball, football, track, and wrestling programs. He intends to study at IU to major in pre-med.

Expressing his appreciation to all the teachers, Betts said his honored teacher, Math instructor Mike Buschman, was an "easy choice."
Starting with Buschman's role as Betts' 8th grade track coach, "eventually he would become one of my best friends," said Betts, noting he learned as a freshman that the teacher had been one of his uncle's best friends in their youth.

"We talked a lot during and after school," he added, noting, "We can talk about everything."

Betts noted Bushman taught him math most of his high school career, and also helped Betts become his best as an athlete.

"I owe much of my success in the classroom and in athletics to him. He has been there a lot for me through good times -- such as conference and sectional championships in wrestling -- and bad times."

Buschman, after thanking Browder for sending student to the upper levels after "getting their butts kicked (which) pays huge dividends," described Betts as "extremely intelligent and well spoken. He can throw with both hands, is great at math, writes articles for the newspaper, and is a heck of a guitar player...he has high standards and it's important to him that he meets those."

Buschman said Betts' efforts to make it to the state wrestling tournament didn't work out, but instead of "feeling sorry for himself," Betts continued coming into the wrestling room to make sure younger wrestlers were getting better, an indication of Betts' character, said Buschman.

-Editor's note: Marena Fleury, who is among the top ten graduating seniors but was not present at the banquet.