Like a lot of kids, Nate Friday dreamed of pitching in the World Series or starting at quarterback in the Super Bowl.
“I was the prototypical athlete and that’s all I did,” Friday said of himself as a student at Dominican High Schoolin Whitefish Bay.
But those ideas began to change when he was a junior and was approached by a campus minister about going on a retreat.
Friday’s response was typical of a high school athlete.
“No, thanks. I don’t do retreats. I don’t do ministry. I’m a jock,” Friday said, adding, “He said, ‘You get to miss two days of school.’ I said, ‘When do we leave?’”
Now, 23 and a May graduate of Cardinal Stritch University, Friday realizes that retreat started a “mental shift” to include larger ideas of faith. He volunteered in campus ministry and became more of a leader in school.
Friday served as a volunteer football coach with the youth football league in which he had played and realized he enjoyed the art of teaching as he watched his players apply the knowledge he imparted.
“It was the coolest when years after I coached them they were the varsity starters,” he said.
After graduating from Dominican, he went to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to play baseball.
“There was not much other time for the other activities that I did in high school,” he said. “All day, every day it was either class, eating your meals, of course, and then it was either doing homework in a structured study hall with the team … other than that it was practice or working out or a team-sponsored event.”
Friday, concerned with the amount of time baseball and other required events consumed, sought a change.
From Stevens Point to Stritch
He looked to transfer from UWSP and a friend suggested Cardinal Stritch University. At first, Friday was hesitant, but he applied for the Franciscan Servant Scholars Program to become involved in campus activities.
“I actually went to Stritch more for that and baseball was kind of, ‘Oh, can I play baseball too? That would be great,’” he said. “Sure enough, I was able to do both.”
Friday went on retreats with campus ministry with the blessing of his baseball coach, Michael Zolecki.
“I just knew how important it was for the building of his faith,” Zolecki said. “I think it’s important for our students, even if they’re student athletes, to go and experience those events. It’s worthwhile to work around an individual’s personal schedule with those, because I know what they’re going to get out of those experiences.”
Zolecki said he knew he shouldn’t hold any of his players back from experiencing something larger than sports.
“It’s life changing for these student athletes,” Zolecki said. “It’s giving them a perspective. It’s unbelievable what the experience can do for their growth as a man or as a woman.”
Despite missing practices, Zolecki knew Friday was still in top performing shape.
“It may have been 9, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock at night after a full day of student teaching, after, probably going over to Glendale Little League and volunteering a little bit there or going to the church and working there … he went over and above all that stuff to stay up to speed,” Zolecki said. “That’s one thing at Stritch that Stritch encourages. Our athletes are in community service; we’re out in the community giving back.”
While playing baseball at Stritch, Friday continued to be involved in various community service projects sponsored by the school. He volunteered at Glendale Little League as “umpire-in-chief,” a position he’s held since he was 18.
Every year at Stritch, Friday went on a retreat, which would mean missed games. Even though his coach was OK with it, his teammates poked fun at it.
“They’d joke, ‘How was retreat? Was it better than the road trip we went on?’ Or whatever. And then they’d say, ‘Why do you go on retreat; what’s the purpose?’” Friday said. “I know they’re curious. I know deep down there’s a desire to come to whatever faith it is … there’s a little something there that interests them and maybe they need a little push.”
Actions speak louder than words
Friday recently completed a student teaching position at Golda Meir School, a Milwaukee Public School, where helearned to express his faith in a secular atmosphere. He’s begun working as director of youth formation and life-long formation for St. Matthias Parish, Milwaukee.
“The everyday little actions and thoughts that people don’t even know they’re doing it, and it is really is a faithful thing or you see God in that action,” he said. “It’s that same kind of idea, the word play is a little different.”
He’s noticed his students watching him, paying attention to how he reacts to situations.
“Just as the teachers are noticing what they’re doing and they don’t think we’re watching, we don’t think they’re watching us all the time and they really are,” Friday said. “We’re leading them way more than we think we are.”
In one case, he saw a student being bullied and put an immediate stop to it. The student he helped noticed and appreciated what he did.
“That night, she and her sister emailed me after school and said, ‘Thank you, so much. We appreciate having a teacher stand up (against) bullying,’” Friday said. “The fact that they’re in seventh, eighth grade and they have the perception, the confidence to send a teacher a (thank you) email….”
Friday was touched.
“Particularly with kids and middle school students, they pick up a lot more than we give them credit for,” Friday said.
Leaves piece of himself behind
Although Friday graduated from Stritch with a degree in secondary education and broad field social studies with a religious minor, he’s left behind a piece of art that will last for some time.
During a retreat with a group from Stritch, participants decided to create a group art project. Friday told them he could teach them to make stained glass.
At first, he was given awkward looks from the group because they didn’t know he took two stained glass classes at Dominican.
“I took it. My older siblings took it. I thought it would be interesting and fun,” Friday said.
The larger group split into several smaller groups. Under Friday’s guidance, they created individual pieces that would fit together as one piece that would hang in the campus ministry office.
“On retreat I helped each small group and they created this stained glass picture of a candle,” he said, adding it was the logo for the campus ministry office.
This event sparked a couple of projects. One was a smaller, personal stained glass piece requested by Franciscan Fr. James Gannon, associate director of university ministry, which Friday said he completed in a day.
The other was a piece that hangs in the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel on campus.
“I was honored,” Friday said. “I figured some small little thing in the corner, just to commemorate it.”
He was wrong.
Friday was asked to provide the stained glass that would hang above the entrance of the chapel. For a project that size, Friday said the process was different.
To complete it, he tapped Mary Gehr, his high school stained glass teacher who still teaches at Dominican.
“He just really enjoyed the class,” Gehr remembered of her former student. “He’s such an outstanding young man.”
When Friday asked for her advice on the large project, she gladly helped.
“I thought, knowing Nate, he’s going to get it done,” she said. “He asked me to come to the dedication, which was also pretty exciting.”
Gehr said stained glass “empowers” the artist in a way other art media don’t.
“There’s so many aspects to it as far as how to design it,” she said. “Once the kids learn the basics, they kind of take off. It’s always exciting to see them working on their own projects, because they’re all so individual and then for Nate to come back and do something that was a good size magnitude that was so exciting.”
Throughout summer 2012, Friday worked on the piece.
“I put two pieces of plywood over our pool table in the basement,” he said. “That was my work bench for the summer.”
Even after it was completed, the “most nervous” he was during the process was transporting it back to Stritch. It arrived without incident.
“I wanted to be nowhere near when they installed it,” Friday said.
The piece is a sun setting, or rising, depending on one’s philosophical perspective, over a river and a grassy plain.
It’s during a sunrise or a sunset that Friday sees the work of God.
“We can reverence and protect our physical creation around us; we have been given various gifts and talents by God,” Friday said in an email. “Whether it is the talent to throw a curveball, teach a student or simply being a good listener to a friend, we all have talents and gifts, and to reverence creation is to use them to the best of our abilities.”