A trophy inside the junior high classroom of John Keane perhaps best exemplifies the influence he has had on his students during his 45 years of teaching at St. Matthew School in Oak Creek.

John Keane leans over to talk to one of the eighth grade students in his St. Matthew School, Oak Creek, classroom on Jan. 23.Presented to him by former students, along with their high school teacher, the trophy reads, “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious; to make one idea spark another. Thank you for providing the spark. St. Matthew Alumni, 2002.”

The trophy is a testament to how well prepared and interested Keane’s students are when they reach high school. Keane will retire this June after 45 years in the classroom. He has spent his entire career at St. Matthew School.  

Some things have changed since Keane started at St. Matthew’s in August 1969. The hand-cranked Ditto duplicating machines have been replaced by state-of-the-art photocopiers. Chalkboards have been traded for Smart Boards. Nuns have retired and lay teachers now educate the students.

One thing has remained constant, however. Keane loves teaching at a Catholic school. He said he learned the value of job satisfaction from his father, formerly a well-known attorney in Milwaukee. As a teenager, on a ride home from school at Marquette University High School, Keane recalled his father explaining that he got up every morning and loved going to work and hoped his son would have the same good fortune.

“For the past 45 years, I have had the best job possible. Every morning I have looked forward to coming to St. Matthew School and interacting with the students,” he said in a letter to his students and their parents stating his plans for retirement.  

Keane chose to work in a Catholic school because he considers himself a true product of Catholic education. He attended St. Robert School in Shorewood, followed by Marquette University High School, and the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. He ultimately earned his degree from Marquette University. Currently, he teaches social studies, literature and religion in sixth grade through eighth grade.

Generations of families have been woven into the fabric of Keane’s history with the school. St. Matthew principal, Julie Barber, worked with him as a teacher for 12 years, six of those years in junior high. Keane had two of Barber’s three children as students and their sons were law school classmates.

Two current teachers at St. Matthew’s had Keane as a teacher.

“I have never met a person more dedicated to his job, school and parish,” said Barber of Keane. “He models care and compassion and he expects that of his students. He created many of the school’s traditions.”

One of those traditions is called the eighth grade crossing. All eighth grade students receive a wooden cross that they wear for a month at the end of the school year, starting with a trip to Washington D.C. until graduation.
Faith is the cornerstone of his teaching philosophy.

“Everything we do in the classroom has to refer back to Jesus and how he would want us to live our lives. We must teach as Jesus taught,” explained Keane.  

In addition to having faith at the forefront of his teaching, Keane believes learning should be fun. Sue Breen, second John Keane quizzes his St. Matthew School, Oak Creek, eighth graders during class on Jan. 23. Keane, who has taught at the school for 45 years, plans to retire at the end of the current school year. (Catholic Herald photos by Ricardo Torres)grade teacher and former student of Keane, described his teaching style.

“Mr. Keane knows how to present his subject matter so it is always the student’s favorite class,” she said. “He plays a Jeopardy!-style trivia game with his students and he makes learning fun.”

Another teacher, Amy Kozlowski, St. Matthew’s first grade teacher, was also a student of Keane. She described Keane as “a motivator, a leader and a role model to his students. He makes sure the students are prepared for high school.”  
Keane fondly recalled a time when the fun was at his expense.

“About 20 years ago, my class said, ‘Mr. Keane, it’s time to go to lunch.’ I looked at the clock and it showed noon. I took my class down to the cafeteria and returned to my classroom. Another teacher stopped by and asked, ‘Where is your class?’ I replied, ‘At lunch.’ My co-worker laughed. It was only 11 a.m. and my class had changed the clock. They got me good. They also had the cook and the principal in on the joke.”

In addition to teaching, Keane heads up the annual eighth grade trip to Washington D.C., Mardi Gras celebration, National Geography Bee, intramural sports and field day. Preparation for the trip to Washington D.C. starts with his seventh graders learning about the Constitution and continues throughout eighth grade.

Outside the classroom, Keane is an avid Marquette University basketball fan. He is a season ticket holder, missing only four games since 1969 due to knee surgery.

While his years at St. Matthew have been filled with much joy, he has been through some difficult times, too. In 1974, he married Carol Henderson, a speech therapist at St. Matthew. They had three children, Sean, Bryan and Kristen, who also attended St. Matthew School.

In 1989, Carol was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died the same year. During this tragic time for Keane, he found solace in “the spirit of faith, prayer and support of the St. Matthew’s parish and school community. This support left an indelible mark on my family and me. We will be forever grateful.”

In 1992, he married Joyce Buzzell, the mother of one of his students.  

Keane will take the trophy home in June, grateful for all of the sparks that he ignited in his students. He joked that there are many Catholic teachers who have taught for more than 40 years, but most of them had the first name, “Sister.”

He and his wife plan to spend their retirement visiting out-of-town grandchildren, traveling to Glacier National Park, spending some winter months in Florida and playing golf. A retirement party for Keane is planned for June 6 at the Oak Creek Community Center.