ST. FRANCIS — A self-described “accidental educator” is now the chief operating officer of the National Catholic Education Association.

The NCEA named Patrick Lofton, an associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee since 2011, as its executive vice president on June 3. He succeeds De La Salle Christian Brother Robert Bimonte, who becomes the organization’s president. Both appointments are effective July 1.

“NCEA was never on my radar. I was approached in early April and asked if I would have any interest in applying for this. When I was approached, I literally laughed out loud: ‘I’m not the guy you’re looking for; I’m not qualified. There are people out there who have much more experience, much more knowledge, many more skills than I have,’” he said.

He applied with encouragement from his wife of 24 years, Sheri, and their three daughters: Colleen, 22; Mikayla, 19; and Lizzy, 15.

“We’ve talked as a family about how God works in our life,” Lofton said. “And when this opportunity came about, all of my girls and my wife said, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You’ve got to see where this takes you.’”

Once offered, it was not an easy decision to accept the job, he said, because he was concerned about leaving unfinished work in the archdiocese.

“I talked with Bishop Don (Hying) a couple of times about this opportunity. I told him I felt great guilt. He told me there was always going to be unfinished work, and guilt was not a good reason not to pursue a great opportunity,” Lofton said.

MU influences change in career plans

Lofton, 47, began undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee as an applied voice major, but switched to broadcast journalism when he discovered that the former “was not my calling.” Going into broadcasting presented challenges, too.

“The prospect of going up to Superior or Eau Claire to start a TV career was not very attractive,” he told your Catholic Herald June 6. “So I ended up going to Marquette to get a master’s degree in mass communications with an emphasis in advertising. At that point I thought maybe I’d teach at the collegiate level and go on and get a Ph.D.”

He worked for Marquette in student affairs administration for six years, including stints as a residence hall director, training resident assistants and coordinator of the judicial process for campus infractions.

“That is where I was presented with the idea of making a career of working in Catholic education,” Lofton said. “It was at Marquette that I really found a passion for working in Catholic education.”

Because his parents could not afford to send him to Catholic schools, Lofton, a native of Racine, was a regular attendee in the faith formation/CCD classes – what he termed “the other side of Catholic education” – at his parish, St. John Nepomuk, for 12 years.

“So, to be at Marquette, and really to understand the intersection of faith and knowledge and how those two can go hand in hand, developed in children’s minds and hearts, really became an interest to me,” he said of his first Catholic school experience.

Stay-at-home dad becomes educator

In the early ‘90s, after Sheri finished medical school and residency, the couple, with two children and plans to have a third, moved to the Minneapolis area. He had anticipated working in higher education, but a job didn’t materialize.

“So we made the decision that I’d stay at home. I was a stay-at-home dad for five years,” he said. “It was while I was at home with our kids and they were in pre-school that I started volunteering a lot and I started working with younger kids.”

Lofton’s Marquette experience prompted him to focus on education in the lower grades.

“I handled a lot of student discipline in the residence halls; it was very apparent to me when I talked to young people about the mistakes they had made, the choices they were making, a pattern had been set by the time they were 10, 11, 12, 13 years old,” he said. “By the time they got to college it was really hard to teach an old dog new tricks so I thought maybe I should really be putting my emphasis with younger kids – to help them be morally developed and well rounded.”

He enrolled in a post baccalaureate program, earned his teaching license, and had several job offers. He accepted one, but, according to Lofton, an advisor and his mentor teacher thought he was principal material. Lofton taught elementary school for eight years, eventually becoming the middle school coordinator. He was a principal for five years, but his advisor for his principal’s license told him, “You should think about being a superintendent,” so he studied for that license, too.

Short stint in Milwaukee

Two years ago, when the opportunity to return to his home diocese arose and with it working with Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and his friend for more than two decades, Lofton accepted it. During that time he has focused on school leadership, particularly training 32 new principals.

 “I look at these 32 young professionals and am very optimistic about the future of our Catholic schools as long as we continue to cultivate leadership to take over from those people who have given their lives to the church for so many years,” he said.

Cepelka said she is going to miss working with and relating to Lofton – personally and professionally, but she sees the NCEA position as one for which he is prepared.

“This an opportunity to give him the challenge I think he’s ready for and also to have the national landscape of Catholic education impacted, not just by his skills, by the depth of his faith,” she said. “In no way is that a trivial aspect of what he brings to his work. For him, work is ministry. He will work ministerially for Catholic education at the national level.”

As for his work at the NCEA, Lofton talked about connecting not only with superintendents, but with principals and teachers. He also spoke about the NCEA’s work with seminaries, pastors and religious education programs, in addition to Catholic schools.

“The exciting part about this – it’s about building tomorrow’s church,” he said of the job. “I look at NCEA as an opportunity to look to the future, whether it’s how do we create more sustainable, viable Catholic schools that are going to grow and serve more students to how do we grow our religious education  programs to the support we provide our churches and schools so that people are drawn to them.”