Outside of the Classroom: Remembering Ken Harris

by Julie Mecikalski

Last week, sadness struck the New Lisbon School District community as one of their beloved high school teachers passed away unexpectedly. As with other past tragic situations, the people in the New Lisbon community gathered to comfort one another and celebrate the life of a truly remarkable man. Ken Harris died on March 27 after an illness that took over his body. The irony is that Ken was the kind of man who did not let anything get to him or get him down for long; however, this time, he lost the battle.

On March 29, hundreds of people gathered in the New Lisbon High School Gymnasium for a memorial service in Ken’s honor. Students past and present were in attendance with two former students flying in from as far away as Ohio and Oregon. Attendees were given opportunities at the top of each hour to approach the podium to talk about memories of Ken.

Some students wrote and spoke about the man who made a positive impact in their lives. Ken’s colleague and best friend, Scott Lenz, read a passage; and a choir of students—past and present—as well as Ken’s co-workers sang two songs. Several of Ken’s family members were also in attendance even though a memorial service will be held in Ken’s hometown area later this month.

The gym was decorated with all of the Facebook messages sent by people who were inspired by Ken over the past 29

years. Some of the comments made by former students included:

"He always had a funny comment to share, advice to give, and knowledge to impart.—Justin Giebel I will miss his guidance, advice, debates, disagreements, and our laughs". —Amber Zielke Lowe

"You could have never known this man, yet if you read the (Facebook) comments you would get a crystal clear picture of who he was and what he meant to so many"—Jason Clark

"He also listened to us when other adults did not and helped raise us to think for ourselves."—Cally Rockwell Edwards

The rest of the comments were just as endearing. It was hard to read them without tearing up. Past students stating how much they will miss him, how much he meant to them, how much they learned from him, and how they appreciated that he never gave up on them.

Ken was born in Michigan. He lived there for 23 years prior to moving to New Lisbon in 1989 when he was hired to teach high school science. Although Ken spent more than half of his life in Wisconsin, he was a staunch Michigander. Ken was a devoted fan of the University of Michigan sports and the Detroit Lions. “Go Blue!” was his mantra. But that was not Ken’s only love. At the memorial service, Ken’s sister, Kerri Milarch, stated, “Although Ken was never married, he had over 1000 kids.” Kerri also spoke how Ken would call her and talk on and on about his students and the great things they were doing.

Ken was highly intelligent. He taught the advanced-level sciences such as Chemistry, Physics, Anatomy and Physiology, Chemistry 2 and Physics 2. He enjoyed humor and used it frequently in his classroom. No-nonsense would describe Ken as he did not tolerate things he considered a waste of time and was outspoken to the point he told things straight out. Everyone always knew where Ken was coming from. Ken loved science and he loved sharing his love of science with his students. Labs and projects were big in his classroom. Physics students learned to construct hovercraft and later try it out at a local hotel pool. A favorite among his physical science students was to build and launch bottle rockets.

Potential was something Ken saw in most of his students. He had no problem throwing stuffed panda bears at students who were not paying attention (that was a common theme at the memorial service and numerous pictures of pandas were hung around the gym). Ken had no problem shouting at students to tended to slough off, and he was most frustrated with the students who had the ability to move on to greater things, but tend not to have exhibited much effort. Ken pushed students to excel and encouraged them to reach and dream big.

In spite of his “tough guy” persona, Ken really was like a teddy bear to many people. He inspired, praised, coached, and raised high standards for his students. But Ken also helped many students who felt they had nowhere else to turn. For those students, he encouraged, listened, mentored, and loved—he loved all of his students.

Ken and his 29 years at New Lisbon Schools helped produce many remarkable adults. Those who had studied under Ken have become doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, law enforcement officers, pharmacists, microbiologists, med-flight nurses, etc. Those who did not pursue a science-related career noted that Ken influenced them in many ways such as helping instill desire and passion for what students wanted to do in life and how they could influence others.

Past students felt comfortable contacting Ken when they struggled in their college classes and noted how Ken would explain things so they could understand the college material better.

Former student Daniel Haschke commented, “Out of all my science classes, I did worst in Physics; it wasn't because he taught it, but because I struggled with learning some of the most basic laws of physics. He noticed it was because I needed to learn from where laws derive and how to prove them that way, and because of that suggested I look into studying logic.

Two years later when I signed up for my first college classes I was looking for a class to fulfill my "Quantitative Reasoning" credits which is usually filled with a math class, but noticed Elementary Logic was on the list. Not long after I left my music degree to pursue philosophy instead thanks to him. I still work in music today, but studying philosophy was integral to learning more about myself and becoming who I am today.”

Last week was a very difficult week for staff and students at New Lisbon Schools due to the loss of an exceptional teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. Ken’s physical presence is gone now, but over the past 29 years, he has laid out the most extraordinary legacy for generations to come. One last positive note on the impact made by Ken Harris. A fundraiser was held starting March 28 to raise money for a college scholarship. It started out with a goal of $2000 which was met in under an hour. The goal has been increased several

times and at press time—in only six days—the amount raised for future scholarships is just under $15,000.

Ken’s sister, Kerri, informed all of the attendees at the memorial service, “Ken would not want you to be sad. He would want you to go on and do great things.” And because of you, Ken, many have and many more will in the future. Thank you, my friend, for your love, encouragement, inspiration, and all things you have shared with all of us. You will be missed.