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Zegers leaves behind his life’s work in West De Pere

By Ben Rodgers

DE PERE – Just down the block outside of his office window, retiring West De Pere Superintendent John Zegers can see where his time as a student ended and where his career as an educator started.

The fact that his journey in education is ending so close to where it began isn’t lost on the homegrown superintendent.

“It’s not often you get an opportunity to come back and work in the places that have made an impact on you personally, and I’ve had that opportunity,” Zegers said. “I went back and taught at my old grade school, was principal there as well, had the opportunity to go back to Abbot Pennings High School and teach for eight years before they closed, and then to come back to De Pere and be one of the two superintendents was a dream come true for me.”

The 1974 St. Norbert College graduate is calling it a career on July 5, after 11 years as superintendent for the West De Pere School District.

This caps a 44-year career in education, with 20 of those years in parochial and 24 in public schools.

Since he started as a physical education teacher at Notre Dame in De Pere making $8,008 a year, Zegers went on to teach physical education and English at Abbot Pennings, moved to director of development and principal at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy, became principal at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Green Bay, and finally went on to become superintendent of the Waupun Area School District, before returning home to De Pere in 2008.

“To come back to your city where you grew up was truly the epitome of success for me because it was not an opportunity that I feared because I lived here already,” Zegers said. “I think that just raised the stakes for me to do exceptionally well, and I hope I haven’t disappointed anybody in the 11 years since I’ve been here.”

During Zegers’ tenure in West De Pere, Advance Placement offerings for high school students have increased, athletic facilities have been renovated, Hemlock Creek Elementary School expanded with a $4.1 million project that didn’t go to referendum, a guaranteed and viable 4K-12 curriculum was created and a $74.7 million referendum was passed by voters for the construction of a new intermediate school and renovations to the high school, middle school and Westwood Elementary School.

“I would certainly like to think we are in position for continued success,” Zegers said. “Nobody can do this job alone and we’ve had tremendous school boards in the past. We’ve got a strong administrative team, high-quality teachers, high-quality support staff, and not for one minute did I ever think that any one person was greater than the whole here in West De Pere.”

With the district preparing for growth, Zegers also made sure his replacement, Dennis Krueger, from New London, and incoming business manager Brian Walters, from Marinette, will have a smooth transition.

“At the present time we have extended contracts in health care and in some of our other insurance areas like property and causality, long-term disability,” Zegers said “We have an extended contract with Lamers, I hope to soon have an extended contract with Ambrosius Studios before I leave and all of those are so the new administration can come in and settle into their job without having to worry about those large contracts moving forward, because they are already going to receive a state budget that’s going to be late the way it sounds.”

Looking back to when he started, Zegers said one person believed in him and that had showed him his path in life.

“The one thing that was really special was that I began my administrative career taking Joan Kilister’s place (at Notre Dame of De Pere in 1991), who was there for many years, and to have her endorse me for that really gave me a vote of confidence that administration is where I should be,” he said.

Zegers also is quick to point out that his success as a leader isn’t because of himself, but rather what has been around him.

“I’ve been so fortunate because I have had great support from my parents, my family, and the platform and the foundation that I lived and led by is faith, family and job, in that order,” he said. “I will not take for granted one minute that God has put me in places that I’ve been successful because of my faith, because of the support of my family, certainly my wife and my two children.”

His wife Jean has been by his side since 1975. It is their two children Scott, 38, and Jenny, 34, that inspired him and his wife to give something back to a student in the district every year moving forward.

“My goal in working in education, I want to give back, I want to see a difference,” Zegers said. “I was wondering how I could give back to a school district like West De Pere that has given me so much. So beginning next year we created the Zegers Family Scholarship Fund, and we’ll be awarding a $1,250 scholarship to a graduating senior who has interest in education or health care. Because it’s been so important in our lives, that will go on in perpetuity. I’m extremely proud of being able to give back to a community that has given me so much.”

Now, with his long road in education ending, his district prepared for the future and a scholarship set up in perpetuity, Zegers said he has a cushy part-time job lined up for retirement that fits right in with one his favorite pastimes.

Zegers will be a part-time starter and ranger at Royal St. Patrick’s Golf Links in Wrightstown.

He and Jean also plan to spend some time this winter in Arizona and spend time with his son in New York and daughter in Madison.

“I’ve been blessed,” Zegers said. “It’s been a wonderful ride and the toughest part of it will be walking away. There comes a time in everybody’s career when you need to hand off the baton and now is the time for me.”

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