Mary Kay Dance’s whole life has been entwined with Marian High School in Mishawaka, from her own 1970 graduation to her retirement in June from being Director of Admissions. “The Marian High School community has been such an integral part of my life for so long,” she said, “that I am truly sad to be retiring.” Her only consolation is that she’s staying in the area, where she’ll continue to run into former students and colleagues. Besides her 33 years at Marian, Dance has taught in other schools for a total of 46 years of service to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
Dance’s replacement, Margy Kloska, has been learning the ropes alongside Dance throughout the school year. Kloska calls Dance “literally a Marian icon” and points out that Marian is unique among diocesan high schools in having increased its enrollment every one of the past 10 years.
Administrative Assistant Deb Powell calls Dance “the face of Marian. Some have even said that she is the ‘Mother Mary’ of Marian. I have never met anyone more devoted to Marian. She’s been a friend and mentor to me for the last 20 years. I admire, respect, and love her dearly, and I will miss her terribly.”
Powell continued, “People consistently say that she played a huge part in their decision to send their kids to Marian. She welcomed every single person to the school with a genuine, caring attitude, and it didn’t end once they enrolled. She checked on the students throughout their four years and was always willing to help them out or offer an encouraging word.”
Mark Kirzeder, who just finished his time as Principal at Marian, said, “Mary Kay Dance has been a blessing to the Marian High School family. As Director of Admissions, she greeted every prospective family with a warm, genuine, and enthusiastic smile. She never hesitated to spend her precious time giving tours of the school, answering questions, or providing whatever parents needed to assist them through the admissions process. As a colleague, she represented the love of Jesus to all she interacted with on a daily basis. She truly embodied the Marian mission: ‘living the example of Jesus Christ as teacher and servant.’ She’s had a lasting impact upon our school, and she will be greatly missed.”
The oldest of four children, all Marian grads, Dance can’t remember when she didn’t want to be a teacher. She gathered her siblings and neighborhood children to play school, and she supervised younger students while the good Sisters at St. Jude School, South Bend, took a break to eat the lunch her mother prepared for them. When she was a sophomore at Marian, she started teaching 5th grade CCD.
When she enrolled in 1966, Marian was welcoming only its third class. Tuition was $150 a year, and uniforms were wool skirts and jackets for the girls, sport coats and ties for the boys. Boys and girls were taught separately for the most part. One exception was the French class, where Mary Kay Lawrence met Steve Dance, who became her husband on November 24, 1973. Plans haven’t yet been made for that golden anniversary celebration.
Indiana University South Bend granted Dance’s elementary education degree in 1974 With Highest Distinction, her GPA marred only by a B in music theory. She returned to St. Jude to teach 3rd grade and then middle school science and religion, while her husband Steve taught junior high social studies at his elementary alma mater, St. Matthew, South Bend, remaining there until he retired only a few years ago. She spent a dozen years at St. Jude, with time off for the birth of their two children, Sarah and Benjamin, also Marian grads. A year teaching 1st grade at St. Anthony followed. A humorous memory from this time period was receiving a 10-year certificate from Bishop John D’Arcy. Through a clerical error, the award said 20 rather than 10. Bishop D’Arcy smiled at her and said, “You haven’t been teaching 20 years!”
While Dance was still at St. Jude, she was invited to enroll in a new diocesan program to earn a Master’s in Theology from the University of Dayton by taking weekend classes in Fort Wayne. However, she had just started this program when Father Daryl Rybicki, then principal of Marian, called her at Christianson Furniture, where she had a summer job. She knew Father Rybicki from St. Matthew’s and he was confident her CCD experience and fidelity to Mass attendance would equip her to teach theology at Marian. What Dance thought was an interview for the position turned into a description of her new responsibilities. Beginning in 1990, she was happy to share her faith with freshman, junior, and senior students. In the 1996-97 school year, she won the Light of Learning award. Bishop D’Arcy asked her to address all the honorees about the value of a Catholic education. She spoke clearly about looking for God-given talents in every individual and grace-filled moments in every situation, doing everything “for the glory of God.” After that, she was often called upon to write or deliver talks.
In 1998, Dance’s son suggested she apply for a newly-vacated position at Marian, Director of Public Relations and Admissions, and then-Principal Joe Brettnacher hired her. While continuing to teach freshmen, she added the role of promoting Marian to parents and students trying to decide where to attend high school. In that role, she made several helpful changes. Instead of scheduling evening meetings at Marian’s partner elementary schools, she invited families to “Meet Marian” events at the high school. She organized Shadowing Days for 8th-graders to get a taste of life at Marian and she enlisted Marian students to share why they had chosen Marian and what it was like for them. It was these students who coined the phrase “Marian family” to describe the welcome and support they experienced from peers and faculty.
Dance’s other duties have included conducting personalized building tours, supervising the high school placement test for 8th-graders and organizing orientation for new students. She also edited a monthly newsletter for parents, “The Marian Alive,” helped with commencement activities, and worked with other faculty and administrators to write Mission and Vision statements, as well as taking part in the School Improvement Plan process every five years. “I lived that vision and mission before, during, and after the statements were written. I was available all day and every day to fill in wherever needed,” Dance recalled. She also enjoyed attending Marian athletic contests. “I was always busy, but I loved every minute.”
Frequently asked what is distinctive about a Marian education, Dance points to the family atmosphere and the holistic approach to education – academic, spiritual, physical, social, emotional. She thinks 700 students is just the right size, small enough so students are individually known by name, yet large enough that a variety of electives can be offered.
Dance said the hardest part of her job has been honestly talking with parents whose children look like they will struggle rather than succeed at Marian. She said it’s also hard to bid farewell to colleagues who retire or move on to other positions. The best part, she said, “Working with Marian students!”
And now it’s time for the Dances to be able to spend more time with their children as well as their daughter’s two sons and their son’s two daughters in western Ohio. Another bonus, “sleeping in from time to time!” But Dance intends to be “on call” as needed at Marian. She expresses gratitude for all the support she has received from the diocese where she has so happily served the educational mission for 46 years.
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