Giving back is the theme Karen Goebel will key on when she introduces her mother, Sue Cawley, for her induction into the Portage High School Hall of Fame.

But giving back is a difficult thing to measure or explain, Goebel said, especially for a music teacher with four decades of experience in education, which her mother has. Cawley’s “extra work,” for example, involved fundraising for student trips, giving students rides to concerts, helping service organizations and helping church groups.

Compiling specific deeds doesn’t tell the whole story.

“She puts everyone else first,” Goebel said of her mom. “She always has.”

“That’s been a great lesson for me.”

Cawley (nee: Pomplun) is a 1961 graduate of PHS. She became a teacher in the Racine Unified School District, where she spent 27 years teaching general music at the elementary level and 13 years as a vocal instructor at Case High School.

She won Wisconsin PTA Teacher of the Year in 1995, while she worked at Case High School, and in the same year she was also selected as one of the YMCA’s Women of Distinction.

“That was a very good year,” Cawley said.

Cawley and her husband, Dave, both native to Portage, provide scholarships to two Portage High School students each year, one for a girl and one for a boy. The $500 awards are given in the name of Dave’s father, Kermit Cawley, the original owner of the city’s A&W Root Beer stand.

Sue Cawley, 73, still visits the area often, and she’s never one to miss a high school reunion.

“I see a lot of good things with Portage,” she said of her hometown.

What came to mind first, when she was asked about her accomplishments?

“Eleven of my students are now music teachers.”

‘Made learning fun’

Beth Smith, of Kenosha, had Cawley as her high school music teacher from 1985 to 1988. She credits Cawley with helping her “find the joy in music.”

“She was always positive — 100 percent of the time, positive,” Smith said, “always smiling, always made teaching seem fun, always made learning seem fun.”

Smith now teaches music at Mahone Middle School in Kenosha. She puts Cawley “at the top of the list” in instilling the necessary confidence in her and inspiring her to truly “love” music. Their friendship has carried on through the years, in Christmas cards and social media, Smith said. Cawley will even sometimes judge Smith’s students in solo ensembles.

In 2010, Smith was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, which Cawley also survived in the same time period. “She inspired me then, too,” Smith said, “with her positivity and encouragement of me, and that was well into my adulthood.”

“She’s a wonderful person.”

Music teachers very often inspire others to teach music, Cawley said. She recalled her own music teacher at Portage High school, from 1957 to 1961, Janice Jones.

“She was full of energy, always wanting to get things off the ground and do well,” Cawley said, her memories of Jones sounding very similar to Smith’s memories of Cawley.

“(Jones) spent countless hours of extra time for us kids,” Cawley said, “and she was certainly a role model for me.

“My goal was to be as good as she was.”

‘Passion to share’

Music teachers, Cawley said, often have a “big advantage” when it comes to influencing students. The main reason being the volume of students they teach.

“You get to know the kids, and you get to know the families,” she said of teaching music. “It almost seems unfair.”

Case High School averaged about 2,000 students, she estimated, involving about 160 teachers. Cawley taught six choirs a day at Case — “big groups with lots of kids.”

“It was exhausting but exhilarating,” she said.

Her most defining characteristics as a teacher, she thinks, would likely involve her “passion to share,” being “easy to communicate” with, and establishing “very close connections” with her students.

“I cared what they did outside of music,” Cawley said, noting that her daughter, Karen, was also a student of hers at Case.

“I would watch (my students) play tennis, soccer – I had a real interest in them as a person.”

Praise for Portage

Cawley — who along with her husband has three children and five grandchildren — was “surprised and humbled” to learn she’d be inducted into the Portage High School Hall of Fame.

Her bond with the high school’s class of 1961 is “very close,” holding luncheons each year, and four of her siblings also graduated from PHS. She and several others from the area recently took a trip to Ireland together.

Her connection to the area can’t be erased.

“I think the way the community has supported the schools is amazing,” Cawley said of Portage. “Thinking of when I moved to Racine in 1965 — until last year we didn’t have a new school built.

“But in Portage, I was in the last class that graduated from the old high school on DeWitt, in what’s now (Rusch Elementary). And two new high schools have been built in that time since I was gone.”

“The sports, the music, the drama — it’s just wonderful that a little town has accomplished,” Cawley said. “We talk about this a lot here (in Racine), how it’s our small towns that tend to support referendums and students (more so than in big cities).”

“Even if they don’t have kids in the school anymore,” Cawley added, “they continue to help out and attend. And be proud of that, because that really is something to be proud of.

“I have great memories of Portage. I had wonderful teachers.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau


Portage Daily Register Reporter