By Andrew Neff, Bangor Daily News Staff (This story appeared in the Bangor Daily News on August 27, 2011)
BANGOR, Maine — Joe Sekera began to make his mark on John Bapst Memorial High School 43 years ago.
Almost 150 friends, co-workers, family members, former students and admirers gathered at the school’s auditorium Friday afternoon as Sekera’s name actually was marked on the school with the unveiling of the Joseph W. Sekera Auditorium.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was dumbfounded,” said a visibly emotional Sekera, who became choked up while addressing the crowd at the end of his special retirement ceremony. “To put my name to this place, one of my two favorite rooms in the whole building, means so much to me. I’m moved by this.”
The man who was the school’s principal for 30 years and also served as teacher, athletic director, coach, adviser and director of alumni relations during a 43-year career oversaw the school staving off mandated closure and the school’s varsity football program surviving almost certain termination.
“I call it tenacity, but my wife calls it stubbornness,” Sekera said with a hearty laugh.
The school has not only survived but expanded, adding an international student program and increasing its enrollment to the current robust figure of 472 students. And the football program mirrored the school, going from the chopping block and an annual doormat team in its conference to a regular playoff contender and state champion three years ago.
Not bad for a school that the Catholic Church ordered closed in 1980.
Instead, Sekera led an effort to reconstitute the school as an independent, private school with a new board of trustees.
“I was optimistic. I knew it could be done, but was afraid something would fall through the cracks because there was so much we had to do to be accredited and ready to operate,” said Sekera, who graduated from John Bapst in 1962. “They guaranteed me we needed nine months to get ready. We only had nine weeks and they told me there wasn’t a chance in hell we could get it done in time.”
John Bapst couldn’t play a more central role in the lives of Sekera and Marie, his wife of 43 years and fellow Bapst graduate.
All nine of the couple’s children attended and graduated from the school.
“No, I had no idea what I was getting into when I said, ‘I do’,” Marie Sekera said with a chuckle. “I get very emotional thinking about our involvement with this school. There’s no separation between our home and this building. If I wanted the kids to see Joe on some weeks, I’d bring them here.”
Marie said she came to develop a nickname for the school, at least for the first half of their marriage.
“I have to tell you that I used to refer to this place as his mistress, especially in the beginning when it was just reopened,” she said. “I mean, the man slept in the boiler room on nights when it wasn’t working and would shut off. If the toilet wasn’t working, he’d come in and fix that too.
“I can’t say it wasn’t hard putting the kids to bed alone night after night, but when Joe was home he was home, and it relieved me of a lot of doubts knowing what he was doing was so important.”
Sekera spent the last three years of his education career teaching math, his first love, and serving as director of alumni relations.
All nine of Sekera’s children attended Friday’s ceremony. Some came from as far away as California and each related favorite stories about their father, some of which involved them getting in trouble with both Joe Sekera the father and Joe Sekera the school principal.
Youngest son Michael called Joe “The father of John Bapst Memorial High School.”
“They couldn’t do anything better than this, to have his name in this building, because his spirit will always be here,” Marie Sekera said, blinking back tears. “He has purple blood in his veins. It goes beyond having a regular job or even loving your job.”