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4 educators receive special honors at regional banquet

Regional Superintendent Christopher Dvorak (left) hands out plaques and gives congratulations to educators honored at Thursday's Excellence in Education awards banquet at Celebrations 150 in rural La Salle.
Regional Superintendent Christopher Dvorak (left) hands out plaques and gives congratulations to educators honored at Thursday's Excellence in Education awards banquet at Celebrations 150 in rural La Salle.

Wallace math and STEM teacher Kathy Ferko was elated for the second time this week during the regional Excellence in Education awards banquet.

She was one of four educators specially honored Thursday with the Excellence in Education award, along with Seneca Grade School physical education teacher Betty Novotney, Putnam County Principal Ronda Cross and Mendota Elementary School teacher Alice Fritz.

While the honor brought her to tears of joy, she shared a story of another excitement from earlier in the week with hundreds of fellow educators from La Salle, Marshall and Putnam counties in attendance at Celebrations 150.

"I was lucky enough to have a picture of a student who received her nursing degree and who, as a sixth-grader many years ago, was in my class, and she was failing," Ferko recalled.

"By the time she was in eighth grade, she just turned into the most awesome student."

Ferko, whose STEM program takes a hands-on approach to learning, said it was work the student put in between home and school that made the difference.

" ... and her wanting it," she added. "Her mom showed me this picture this week and her and I just started jumping up and down, and I always believed in her.

"And I think that if every day you just always believe in a kid, they really need that."

Short videos were created for each of the honorees by Ottawa filmmaker Tyler Amm and shown at the banquet. They featured footage of the educators at work and interviews with colleagues. Additionally, the honorees receive a $150 dinner certificate and $250 for their classrooms.

Prior to the four special awards, top educators, support staff, and retiring educators and support staff were honored for each district in the region.

Assistant Regional Superintendent Matt Winchester said retiring educators and support staff recognized Thursday totaled 1,397 1/2 years of service. Leann Wilcoxen, of Dimmick, retired after 45 years in education; Jane Duncan Wamhoff, of Lighted Way, after 44 years; and Nancy Hepner, of Streator Elementary, after 43.

Putnam County educator Steve Johnson was recognized posthumously, with his wife and daughter receiving his plaque.

Excellence in Education honoree Novotney has taught for 23 years, 18 of them at Seneca. Noting she's considering retirement soon, her colleagues complimented her continued energy in the video. She also organizes Seneca's Sept. 11 tribute.

"This is a community," Novotney said. "I look around and I see there's so many of us that truly do care. So often education gets to be tough after a while, but it's those little faces we see each day that keeps us coming back."

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