MILWAUKEE — Capuchin Br. Bob Smith resigned as president, principal and CEO of Messmer Catholic Schools on Thursday, Nov. 15, according to a press release from the three campus, K-12 school.
Br. Bob, named principal of Messmer High School in 1987, and appointed president and CEO of Messmer Catholic Schools in 1995, told students, parents, faculty and staff, alumni, donors and friends in a letter dated Nov. 15 that his decision was the result of complications from a serious neck/spine surgery three years ago.
“After recovery, I have had symptoms recently that made it necessary to revisit my surgeon, and after conversations with friends, family, my Capuchin Provincial, colleagues and members of our Board of Directors, I have come to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of Messmer Catholic Schools that I resign as President, Principal & CEO,” wrote Br. Bob, a Chicago native elected in 1999 as the second African-American to the Provincial Council of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph in its 142-year history.
Br. Bob said in the letter that he’s humbled and proud to have contributed as a teacher, coach, administrator and leader at Messmer, which had a couple hundred students and few resources when he began more than 25 years ago.
“Today we are a school system of three campuses and over 1,600 students with growing ethnic diversity, enviable daily attendance rates and graduates who attend some of our nation’s best colleges and universities,” he wrote. “We send into the world students who not only know how to read, write and hold a job but who also have a set of values that will enrich them, their families and our community. Their everyday demonstration as people of God is a continuation of what built our great country.”
Br. Bob, who was at the school through Wednesday, Nov. 21, said the decision didn’t come easily, and that he will offer his advice to the board and transition team any time they need it as they work to find a replacement.
“I ask all people of good will to support Messmer’s board, administrators, faculty and staff as they lead this transition to keep this great system moving forward and to fulfill its vital mission,” he wrote. “Please keep me in your prayers as I take some time to rest, deal with surgery and renew before my next chapter in life.”
Br. Bob plans to take some time to visit family in Georgia and Chicago before having his second surgery sometime next year as he won’t be able to drive and will have physical therapy during the months of recovery that follow, he told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Br. Bob said he’s grateful for having the time he did at Messmer, a school he knew little about when Br. Booker Ashe, Br. Bob’s uncle and a founder of the House of Peace, a Capuchin ministry that serves Milwaukee’s central city, asked him to teach a theology class.
“I expected to be there for one semester while I was finishing a master’s degree in administration. The irony is, that until last week, I never left,” Br. Bob said.
Br. Bob said his ideas on education take after Archbishop Sebastian Messmer’s, an early supporter of education for all people, regardless of religion.
“He just thought that it was important that all people get a good education for life, and I think as I look at what I do and believe in, that’s it – it’s giving people the skills to be good people whether they get a Ph.D. or whether they become famous, those things aren’t as important to me as them being good, honest, fair citizens….,” he said, adding that watching teachers teach and support kids through situations like death, fires and divorce have taught him, too.
“I learned multiple things every day of the week, and I couldn’t have read a book or watched a movie or dreamed of ever having an opportunity like that — that’s something that I know is the hand of God that has blessed me to have had this kind of a chance and especially for so long.”
Peter Salza, local attorney and secretary of Messmer’s board of directors and leader of the Save Messmer initiative that was active in the mid-1980s, told your Catholic Herald Friday, Nov. 16 that Br. Bob’s news brought sadness to him and many others at Messmer.
“Bob and I are dear friends, and I always looked at Bob as the face of Messmer, and I just think a lot of people are very sad that we lost an icon there,” he said.
Br. Bob’s resignation is a “great loss,” but the school and individuals involved in it are very strong, according to Salza, who works on the board with board chair, School Sister of Notre Dame Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, Mikel Holt, Al Mattacotti and Bill Goldammer – treasurer.
The board’s main focus is to formulate a team of between 10 and 20 people within a week or two that will analyze how to transition into the next phase of the school, deal with Messmer’s loss of a dynamic individual in the public and begin the nationwide search for a strong and suitable replacement or replacements who will succeed like Br. Bob, he said.
“He put Messmer on the national map, because I think under his leadership, not only did we become a strong influence in the City of Milwaukee and State of Wisconsin, but nationally,” Salza said, explaining that at least two presidents, one from each political party, invited Br. Bob to speak in Washington, D.C., about the success of Messmer, a school known for providing high quality education to a diverse, urban population.
Salza said the team and board will take an active role during the transition period in overseeing the operation of the school, comprised of three campuses – Messmer High School, established in 1926; Messmer Preparatory Catholic School, which became part of Messmer in 2000; and St. Rose and St. Leo Catholic School, which became part of Messmer in 2007.
They will also take their time in the search.
“Our position is we’re in no hurry, because we have a pretty good structure in place right now to keep things afloat until we get this replacement,” Salza said. “But we’re not in any hurry at this time because we want to make sure that whoever the person is, that person is going to succeed – so, we’re going to be cautious.”
Since news of Br. Bob’s resignation, Salza said the board decided to cancel “Snapshots in Excellence,” Messmer’s reception on Nov. 29 where details of the 2013 Portraits in Leadership Scholarship Dinner would have been unveiled.
“We’re going to cancel that and regroup,” he said. “Again, that will be part of what the transition team will have to deal with.”
Daunting as the tasks ahead may be, the school will go on, Salza said – many thanks to Br. Bob.
“We have very strong leadership and I think Bob has created such a strong foundation that we’re going to build off of it and we’re going to succeed. …” he said. “We are all very confident that our future is very bright. He has created a lot of avenues for us that are not going to – they’re not going to close up just because he’s gone, so thanks to him, we have a lot of resources available to succeed.”
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said in a written statement to your Catholic Herald that his prayers go out to Br. Bob and the Messmer school community during the transition.
“Because of the good work accomplished by the school leadership, the board, the faculty and staff, alumni, donors and community supporters, the future for Messmer is bright and full of hope, with great new possibilities for families and students who benefit from a Catholic education,” he wrote.