A lot has changed about Pius XI High School since 1950.
At that time, the school had just moved into a new building, necessitated by the rapid increase in enrollment. Later that decade, the student population would reach its peak of several thousand, necessitating even more expansion. At the front of most classrooms were Franciscan sisters and Pallottine priests. Fr. Joseph De Maria was still at the helm of the school he helped found in 1929.
One thing about Pius that hasn’t changed since that year, though, is Ed Drexler.
The longtime Wauwatosa resident and 1944 Pius graduate has been on staff at the school since 1950. Drexler, a parishioner at Gesu, celebrated his 90th birthday and 66th year as a science teacher this year.
He’s not one to gravitate to the spotlight, and the media attention surrounding his recent 90th birthday celebrations at Pius – which included the designation of March 25 as “Ed Drexler Day” by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett – is finally, mercifully drawing to a close, and he can return to focusing on what is truly meaningful to him: his students.
“I’m not working,” he joked. “I’m going to school.”
In an interview with the Catholic Herald at his residence at San Camillo Retirement Community, Drexler described his career in Catholic education with a mix of warmth and candor.
“I feel the biggest change are the kids,” he said, looking at his career. “I think I like the kids today a lot more.”
He paused and considered this. “I never disliked them, but … I think I’ve become a better teacher than I was when I started and for many years after I started.
“A good friend of mine was a guidance counselor, and he started the same year I did, in 1950. One time, I don’t know how it came up, he said, ‘What do you teach?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know I teach biology.’ He said, ‘Have you ever thought about teaching kids?’
That seemed to strike something. And I realized there’s a lot more to teaching than the biology.
“When I say I like the kids better today, I think it’s because I realize what my job really was and is.”
Came to Pius on a $50 scholarship
Drexler was born in Stratford, just north of Marshfield in the La Crosse Diocese. When he
was 3 years old, the family made its way to Milwaukee so his father, a butcher, could seek a new job while the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression.
Drexler attended Pius on a $50 scholarship from the School Sisters of St. Francis. At the time, the school had only recently begun to offer instruction for high school seniors, and was still located in the grade school building at St. Vincent Pallotti.
Drexler graduated in 1944 as one of a class of 76 students and entered the Navy, serving in the Hospital Corps as medical support for the Marines. He was halfway across the Pacific Ocean in August 1945 when “we get the news that this thing called the atomic bomb had been dropped,” he recalled. “And then (Japan) surrendered, which was fortunate, because we were being sent to Okinawa … for the invasion of Japan.”
After being released from the military, he majored in education at the University of Wisconsin. During his senior year at Madison, he returned to Pius to catch the school musical – “Cyrano de Bergerac” – and ran into his old principal, Sr. Loyola. He asked for her signature on some paperwork he needed to complete to begin applying for jobs.
“She said, ‘Are you looking for a job?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Well, why don’t you teach here?’ That was it.”
It was his first and only teaching job. Pius didn’t only figure prominently in Drexler’s professional life – he met his wife Shirley, the older sister of one of Drexler’s students, just one year after being hired. Shirley worked for a decade as the secretary to the school’s principal Pallottine Fr. Lawrence McCall. She died in 2015.
Man of science, man of God
Though his original intention as a freshman in college was to become a doctor, education was in his blood. His grandmother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse and his mother also worked as a teacher. Three of his children and one of his grandchildren have made teaching a five-generation hallmark of the family.
Drexler said he enjoys the study of biology, particularly human genetics, which he teaches three days each week. He is also the author of the school’s textbook on the subject.
His religion and his love of science, he said, complement each other.
“I don’t think any real thoughtful religious can honestly say there’s a big chasm between science and religion,” he said, adding that he begins every class in prayer.
“I insist that whatever I pray for, they agree with,” he laughed. “They respond by saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ And the first week, you can hardly hear them. So I keep saying, ‘I’m gonna pray the entire class pretty soon if you don’t respond with a louder voice.’ And now they do.”
Anne Haines, director of faith formation at Pius, told the Catholic Herald she, Drexler and several other colleagues meet every morning to share the day’s Scripture readings, prayers and petitions. His “humble and gentle spirit, as well as his wisdom,” she said, “is a blessing beyond measure.
“Every school needs the presence of elders to remind us of what is important and to humble us,” she said.
“His compassion is evidence of him living the Gospel message to his colleagues and all in his care,” said Pius counselor Suzanne Lovinus.
Helped create TAC room system
Drexler has previously served Pius not just as a teacher but as an administrator, vice principal and even interim principal for one year. His colleague in the science department, Patty Hupfer, praised Drexler for helping to create the school’s TAC (teacher advisor contact) room system, which integrates freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors into individualized homerooms.
“The idea is that every kid is known by at least one teacher as a total human being,” Drexler explained of the system.
Hupfer called TAC “a cornerstone of Pius.” She runs TAC 204, of which Drexler is co-teacher (or “TAC buddy”) and said he can always be relied upon to bring doughnuts to the group.
“People mention how he works so hard, comes to school every day, is always a part of things here,” she said. “He’s always reading and sharing stories with others. He’s active and loves to just sit and talk with us all.”
Samantha Barragan, a junior in Hupfer’s and Drexler’s TAC room, called Drexler the class’ “TAC grandpa.”
“Mr. Drexler is a lovely human being to have in our TAC,” she said, “He has such a kind soul and heart.”
Drexler also has the distinction of having taught several of his colleagues who now work as teachers, including Roger Radke, a 1974 Pius graduate and current social science department chairperson. “As a former student, things he taught me and warned us about in biology class 44 year ago (like antibiotic overuse) are now coming true,” said Radke.
Colleagues and students turn out for birthday celebration
Drexler’s Pius community turned out in force to show its appreciation for him in commemoration of his 90th birthday, which took place on March 25. On the Monday before, Hupfer and her TAC students surprised him by throwing a celebration, complete with members of Drexler’s family and a representative from the mayor’s office, who also happened to be a Pius grad.
Pius Chief Development Officer Angela Reilly also made a post on the school’s Facebook page encouraging former students to send Drexler birthday cards, which resulted in a mail haul of over 150 birthday greetings for him.
Drexler said that, at some point, he may step down from actively teaching – but that certainly doesn’t mean he wants to retire.
“Oh, I’m going to keep going there (to Pius),” he said. “There’s no way I’m not going to go there.”
“One time I asked him, ‘Do you ever think about what life would have been like if you hadn’t gotten that $50 scholarship in 1940 to come to Pius as a student?’” said Hupfer. “He said, ‘I hate to even think about it.’”