By K.D. Norris
Godfrey-Lee Public Schools inducted six new members into its Hall of Fame late last month, and while the most Rebel-rousing acceptance speech was given by — no surprise — long-time football coach and educator Thomas DeGennaro, the district’s hall of fame is for more than only athletic personalities.
The induction ceremony, which took place prior to a boys basketball game on Jan. 20 at Lee High School, also included a war hero, a university professor, a long-time school board member, a school band leader and a woman who gave back to the school system almost up to her last day.
DeGennaro — who has served as teacher, principal and now, again, varsity football coach — was the final of the inductees to speak, and he spoke clearly about what it means to be a Lee High Rebel.
“I have been grateful to work with some of the toughest kids in the United States,” DeGennaro said. “To be a Rebel means you are willing to stand up against the establishment. You have to be willing to put yourself on the line when you stand up. Our kids here do this every day.
“They overcome obstacles that would unimaginable to surrounding districts. Many of our students are immigrants, or children of immigrants, much like my grandparents … These students overcome language, cultural and other challenges that stall most students learning process. Not only do they overcome these obstacles, they excel. … The establishment loves to keep these kids down, but they rebel. They are Rebels.”
DeGennaro’s history in the district includes taking a position on the Lee High faculty in 2002, teaching U.S. History and Geography as well as a variety of other elective social studies courses. But it is on the football field where he did most of his teaching. In 1998, he took over the Rebel football program and coached the first Lee football team ever to make it into the MHSAA playoffs, when his team went 8-2 in the fall of 2006. After an eight-year absence from the sidelines at Lee Field, he returned this past fall and has begun the process of rebuilding a program that has not experience much success since his last season in 2007.
Starting in 2007, the Rebel Hall of Fame selection committee, comprised of members of the Board of Education, district administration, faculty, alumni and the Godfrey-Lee community has selected alumni, staff and other individuals associated with Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in recognition of their achievements and contributions.
The six new members joined forty-two other individuals and one athletic team in the Hall of Fame. David Britten, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee School District, was master of ceremonies of the event.
This year’s inductees also included Staff Sgt. Daniel Hayes, Lee High School class of 2004; Dr. Carl J. Bajema, class of 1955; Dennis E. Groendyke, class of 1979 and Board of Education member from 1999 to 2016; Christine Vettese, district SIG Coordinator for 2010 to 2013; and Robert Hill, high school band director from 1967 to 1981.
Douglas Greenwold, class of 1960, was also selected but requested to delay participation in the induction ceremony until 2018.
Personal stories of dedication
Staff Sgt. Hayes is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan military operations where, with the 101st Airborne Division, he earned the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat in Iraq in 2006. He was later personally awarded the Silver Star, the third highest decoration for valor for gallant actions and devotion to duty, while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. In 2011, he sustained another injury and earned a second Purple Heart. His award was accepted by his aunt.
Dr. Bajema, after graduating from Lee, earned his Ph.D. in zoology from Michigan State University and retired from Grand Valley State University with the designation of Professor Emeritus in 2007 following a forty-three year teaching and scientific research career. He was also the recipient of the 2009 Distinguished Volunteer Service Award from the Historical Society of Michigan.
And his wife, reading from a statement and speaking for him due to a medical condition that hampers his ability to speak clearly, revealed a little of Dr. Bajema’s own history.
“When I learned I was to receive this Rebel award, I dug into my archives for my report cards, I actually had all my report cards,” Claudia Bajema said, as Carl waved an old report card for the audience to see. “Well, I can assure you that anyone viewing those would not conclude that I would be given one of these prestigious awards.
“I left my mark on the high school in an unconventional way. For several years following my graduation … my lab mate and me were given as an example of how not to do experiments. … we were in a hurry and failed to read all the instructions on how to conduct an experiment … (and) a chemical reaction caused an explosion, a volcano of sorts, leaving a very nasty stain on the ceiling.”
Groendyke, Board of Education member from 1999 to 2016, is a lifelong resident of the district who chose to raise his own family of seven children here and watch them attend Godfrey-Lee schools, according to supplied material. He concluded his service this winter following 17 years, including four-and-one-half years leading the board as president. A strong supporter of athletics, he has provided many hours of volunteer coaching for baseball and softball, including weekend clinics for youth during the school year.
“I love this district, I love the people in it, most of all I love the children,” Groendyke said. “My heart will always be here.”
Hill was Lee High band director from 1967 to 1981, where he yearly took a “sometimes unruly” group of teen musicians unifying them into well organized marching and concert bands, according to supplied material. A visible teacher and mentor, he could be seen leading his bands at every home football and basketball game, believing that the band was central to inspiring young athletes and building school pride. His musical talents also carried him to perform with the Grand Valley State University faculty orchestra.
“This high school has, and always will, have a very special place in my heart,” Hill said. “I will always remember the joy of teaching students.”
Vettese was district SIG coordinator from 2010-13. She died in 2015. When Lee High School needed help with academic improvement to get off a state list of low-performing schools, she came out of retirement from East Grand Rapids schools and applied her many leadership, curriculum, and personal relationship skills to serve as a principle leader in that effort, according to supplied material. Through her advocacy, guidance and dogged persistence, she helped secure grants in excess of $3.5 million dollars over the three years to support the work of teachers, administrators, and students.
Her sister, Roberta Burke, accepted the award.
“I know if she were here today, she would say … its all about the students, and how to get them to be the best they can be,” Burke said, pointing to the heavens. “I know she is looking down right now and saying ‘bravo’ ” for what the district has accomplished.