By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN They prayed together. They served together. And they learned together.
In Tony Kielkucki’s 36 years teaching at Holy Trinity School in Winsted, relationships with students, staff, and alumni extended far beyond the confines of the classroom.
“This place is like having another family,” said Kielkucki, who came to the school in 1980.
Three other teachers have been with Kielkucki his entire Holy Trinity career (Marv Ebensperger, Tom Snell, and Jim Brown), and Brown is godfather to Kielkucki’s daughter.
Kielkucki will retire the end of this school year, but he plans to stay connected through church and as a substitute teacher.
“It wasn’t an easy decision [to retire], because I like teaching and I like the kids,” he said, noting that he’s also looking forward to spending more time with family.
Throughout the decades, Kielkucki has had many titles social studies/religion/physical education teacher, principal, football coach, master of ceremonies at homecoming, mission trip leader, community volunteer, cancer survivor, deputy secretary of state, and state representative, to name a few.
Those who’ve had Kielkucki as a teacher, though, simply know him as “Mr. K.”
“Even some of the students from my first graduating class in 1980 still insist on calling me Mr. K,” he said.
Being a longtime teacher has given Kielkucki an opportunity to see many students grow up and become fruitful members of the community. He especially enjoyed parent/teacher conferences, where he’d visit with former students whose own children now attend Holy Trinity.
Serving the church
When Kielkucki was a high school student himself, he had originally planned to become a priest. He grew up in east St. Paul, and attended a high school seminary. He continued his education at the University of St. Thomas, earning a degree in sociology and social studies.
After 2.5 years at seminary in St. Paul, he shifted his focus and decided to look for a teaching job at a Catholic school.
“I always knew I was going to do something for the church,” he said.
Kielkucki’s first teaching position was at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and School in Excelsior.
“I was there two years,” he said. “I taught social studies for seventh and eighth grade, all religion classes, and adult education.”
He was then asked to teach religion and physical education in Mound, where he stayed almost three years.
“During that time, we moved to Winsted,” Kielkucki said, explaining that his family chose the area due to affordable housing.
Teaching and leading
About a year after the move, he began teaching religion at Holy Trinity. Kielkucki later became dean of students, followed by three years as a fill-in principal.
Rather than continue on the path to an administrative license, Kielkucki was eager to get back into the classroom.
“I really missed teaching,” he said.
He went back to his high school civics and social studies classes, and later began to consider getting involved in government in a new way.
He ran for state representative, and served four terms from 1996 to 2004. The demands of the job required substitute teaching help for part of the year, but Kielkucki stayed involved at Holy Trinity as much as he could.
As a state rep, Kielkucki served on five committees, and was also elected as assistant majority leader.
“That was a good experience for me,” he said. “I learned a lot, not only about government, but also about the state of Minnesota.”
Kielkucki also served as deputy secretary of state for two years a full-time position.
“That was the only time I was away from Holy Trinity,” he said, noting that he got to visit Washington, DC a number of times.
In that position, Kielkucki specialized in helping to improve the voting system.
“The election has always interested me,” he said.
When Kielkucki got back to his classroom at Holy Trinity, he had a wealth of real-world experience to share with students, and showed them bills he had worked on, as well as video archives of debates on the house floor.
Outside the classroom
In addition to spending time with students in class, Kielkucki coached football at least 23 years, and has been part of several mission trips at Holy Trinity.
“This will be my 17th mission trip,” he said, speaking of the school’s upcoming visit to Cairo, a poor river community in the southern part of Illinois.
Kielkucki’s wife, Lavon (who teaches at Holy Trinity Elementary School in Winsted and at St. Pius X in Glencoe), and their daughter, Katie, also help organize the trips.
Kielkucki’s summers are also busy volunteering at Winstock Country Music Festival, which raises money for Holy Trinity School.
“I used to be in charge of the ticket booth for Winstock, and now my son Marcel is taking over,” Kielkucki said.
All three of Kielkucki’s children are graduates of Holy Trinity High School, and they head back to Winsted for Winstock each year. The oldest, Mike, lives in Excelsior; Marcel resides in Iowa, and Katie makes her home in Rochester.
Kielkucki also has five grandchildren, and he’s looking forward to having more time to travel to their extracurricular events. He’s excited to do more fishing, too, and to try some new volunteer activities.
Not that he won’t miss teaching at Holy Trinity, though.
“I enjoyed coming to work each day,” he said, adding that he even went to school while undergoing radiation treatments for adrenal cancer six years ago.
The only extended time he was away was during the cancer-removal surgery and recovery period.
“I wasn’t supposed to make it,” he said, noting that this type of cancer is rare, and is typically aggressive.
Fortunately, Kielkucki beat the odds and is now cancer-free. When he asked the doctor why he survived, Kielkucki was given several reasons he had one of the best surgeons in the country, his body was able to handle the chemotherapy and radiation, he had a positive attitude, and he had many people praying for him.
“The whole school came together and prayed,” Kielkucki said, adding that everyone at Holy Trinity also signed two large cards for him, and he received many encouraging notes by email.
Kielkucki noted that his faith, and support from Holy Trinity, helped keep him strong while battling cancer.
“When you teach at a Catholic school, it isn’t just a job it’s a way of life,” he said.
Farewell reception May 29
Anyone who would like to congratulate Tony Kielkucki on his successful career and wish him well in retirement is welcome to attend a reception Sunday, May 29 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Holy Trinity Church social hall in Winsted.
Next fall, Kielkucki’s position will be split by various teachers, including one of his former students, Katie Jones, who currently serves as student life coordinator.