Deb Cline, teacher at Ashland’s Our Lady of the Lake School, is celebrating Earth Day with two of her first-grade students. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Asked what she will miss most about teaching, award-winning Catholic school teacher and Ashland resident Deb Cline answered, “Every day is different. I enjoy the conversations and being around a group of kids that are eager to learn and happy to share their faith.”

Cline, who is even called “Mrs. Cline” by close friends, will retire from Our Lady of the Lake this summer after 41 years teaching. She graduated from Northland College in 1982 and after a few substitute teaching jobs she was hired at St. Louis in Washburn, where she taught for 25 years until the school closed in 2011. She then worked for a short time at a local preschool and coffee shop until her pastor stopped by one day and encouraged her to apply for a first-grade opening at Our Lady of the Lake, where she has taught ever since.

“Both of my schools were wonderful,” Cline said. Calling them the “cheery little school(s)” she has called her “home away from home” for many years, Cline knew that now was the time to move on to a new stage.

The move has been prompted by another new stage in her life.

“You can’t say Mrs. Cline without Mr. Cline,” she stated. “We’re a pair.” But on May 13, one year had passed since her beloved husband succumbed to the cancer that he fought for a few years prior.

Cline thought the article about her retirement should really be about him. “He was kind of a guy,” she said with a grin describing her husband as very kind, talented and having multiple interests. He was passionate about history, enjoyed gardening, woodworking and model railroading. As a boy he was a Cub Scout, then Eagle Scout, and as a father, Ron lead the groups the Clines’ two sons joined.

Originally from New Jersey, Ron Cline chose Northland College after seeing a brochure because he wanted to move closer to the outdoors. He and Deb were married the weekend before they graduated in 1982. The first part of his career was spent working at Northland, in admissions and then financial aid, before he got his teaching certification and then spent 25 years himself as an earth science teacher for Ashland Middle School.

Cline has fond memories of sharing their classroom experiences at the end of the day, including fights at the pencil sharpener – an occurrence in both first grade and middle school. She said that as far as she knows, her husband is the only person the middle school was closed for so that students would be able to attend his funeral.

First diagnosed with multiple myeloma, Ron underwent stem cell transplants and came through many treatments. Although first coinciding with the Coronavirus pandemic, he continued teaching from the extra bedroom at home.

“He was always such a great patient,” Cline praised. “Very kind and considerate. He did everything the doctors asked him to without complaint or questioning.” Pausing, she added, “because he really loved his family very much and wanted to stick around.”

Admitting that marriage and relationships take work and that they have moments that aren’t so happy, Cline affirmed, “Marriage is definitely worth the work you put into it … you do it together.”

It was one year ago in April that the rapid decline began, with Cline not returning to the classroom after Ron’s death except for the outdoor Mass on the last day of school, which was offered for him. She expressed her immense gratitude for colleagues who stepped in to help with her students and end-of-the-year reports. School was the last thing on her mind, and she acknowledged how “God provided” through the prayers and support she received.

“I couldn’t see past one day at a time,” Cline shared.

As hard as it was to return to school last fall, Cline’s fellow teachers encouraged her.

“I have absolutely given my best to all my students,” Cline said. “The older I get, the more experience… the more fun I’ve had as a teacher. With all these years of experience under my belt, it seems like I can just have fun while we’re learning and incorporate different things.”

Cline has taught two generations of students now, given that her first class first-graders are now in their early 40s. She is glad to have kept in touch with a handful of them over the years as well as keeping connections with her own elementary school teachers from Ashland. Rita Kovach was Cline’s third-grade teacher, and they still get together.

After retirement, she plans to travel some with friends and hopes to visit her sons whom she described as “definitely modern, city men.” Patrick lives in New Jersey with his family, and Timmy lives in Chicago with his spouse. Cline has also taken up sewing and has found working on projects at a local sewing school to be therapeutic and give a sense of accomplishment.

Commenting on what she has seen both change and stay the same in the field of education, Cline clarified that her only real experience is in small Catholic schools. The first thing she noted are the security changes limiting access to school buildings.

“When I started, we had parents in the hall all the time picking up and dropping off students, walking right to the door of the classroom, visiting teachers… It was a more family-oriented,” she commented. “Now family interaction is more intentional… a sign of the times,” Cline said, adding that it’s not entirely a bad thing because events and gatherings are planned that allow for a different kind of interaction.

She said that trends in education “kind of loop around. Things that are buzz words today have been in the past.

“Education is ever evolving,” Cline noted and confirmed that the students are always learning. “They just want to be heard and seen and cared for. That has never changed.”

Cline put on her 15th and final “Camp Cline” for the “Week of the Young Child.” She turns her classroom into a sort of campground complete with a tent and play horse. On Earth Day, students were encouraged to bring in an historical item to examine and learn about. There was a Western Day, Science Day with experiments and a cardboard carnival other classes were able to also enjoy. God’s Colorful World Day included various spiritual elements and the week ended with silver dollar pancakes for snack and enjoyment of the their imaginary campsite.

“At some point it needed to be time” to retire, she said. “I’m blessed to have had this as my career and vocation,” Cline concluded. She stated how impactful it was to have received the distinguished Kohl’s Award and Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, “recognition that I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”