Paying it forward

Published 10:10 am Saturday, June 12, 2010

Helen Seline remembers the day a principal told her she cared too much about her students.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” the retired Glenville educator said.

This is the story of a teacher who cared at a time when a student needed a friend the most — and how that student is repaying the favor today.

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Karleen Kos, who grew up in Myrtle and attended Glenville Public Schools until graduating in 1982, admits her high school years were pretty challenging.

“My parents’ marriage had been quite strained for many years; they divorced when I was in ninth grade,” Kos recalled. “Later in my high school years they both remarried, and so we went through the typical stresses of parental dating and blending families. All of this was happening during a period when divorce was not yet very common.”

So, she was insecure and angry due to family issues, she said. “The whole situation meant that I was different — in a bad way — from my peers.  That, of course, is the scourge of any adolescent’s existence.”

She said another difference between her and others in Glenville was that she hadn’t an athletic bone in her body.

“That was pretty inconvenient in a small school where a lot of the extracurricular activities were sports-related. To make matters worse, I was a socially inept girl and I tended to irritate people with a ‘know-it-all’ attitude. The result of all this was that I didn’t feel I fit in with anybody anywhere,” Kos said.

Because it was a small school and so many of the extracurricular activities were sports-related, Kos said she always attempted to play on the teams.

“I was terrible at it, but it gave me an excuse not to go home and to pretend that I fit in,” she recalled.

Seline was one of the coaches, and she started out by keeping an eye on me, though I didn’t know it. As time passed she found ways I could contribute in a meaningful way to the teams without actually playing the sports, so that gave me a role and a way to fit in better. 

Seline was a single mom at the time; her husband had died suddenly a few years earlier.

“I found out that she would go home after our traveling games, spend time with her sons, and then sit up half the night working on the game stats so she could call them in to KATE Radio,” Kos said. “It was important to her that the girls’ teams got some air time in those early days, and she wanted the girls to hear their names on the radio in the morning. That struck me as so incredible — the devoted mom, the devoted coach, the devoted girls’ sports equality crusader all in one — and she didn’t even need sleep, or so it seemed.

“I admired that example, and I wanted to help,” Kos said. “So I started toting a flashlight to the games, and on the return bus rides to Glenville I would sit with her, holding the flashlight, and we’d do the math together. By the time we got back the stats were done. I was allowed to feel I was doing something important for her and the school and she got extra sleep.”

Kos said in that way Seline had the gift of making a person feel they were contributing uniquely, that they were valuable — and she did it in a nonpatronizing way. 

Another way Seline influenced Kos was in her capacity to listen. “At a time when nobody was listening to me, she would sit for hours after school and listen to me talk. I talked about my family, my beliefs, my aspirations and my worries. She listened and didn’t judge — although heaven knows I always knew where she stood and what she thought was right,” Kos said.

Kos gave the example of telling some long tale of some family drama. “She (Seline) would make supportive comments until I mentioned something I had done that was disrespectful or out of line. Then she would say, gently but firmly, ‘No matter how badly someone else acts, you should always behave your best.  Your behavior isn’t about them, it’s about you. How do you want to be seen?’”

Kos said throughout the years she never strayed from the mantra, “Families are important, Karleen.”

“Eventually my family came through its difficulties, but during the critical years when things were messy, Helen was the key influencer of my thinking. She helped me glue my worldview, my understanding of what is right, and my hopes for the future back together when everything was coming apart at home,” Kos said.

When it came time to go to college, Kos said she was totally overwhelmed.  “Neither of my parents been past high school, and they were not very encouraging about college — they seemed to think I was aiming too high for a girl from Myrtle. Not Helen.”

Another teacher had the students write an essay about their career aspirations, and Kos wrote about becoming a paralegal. 

“Helen read the essay, looked at me indignantly and said, ‘Why a paralegal?  Think about becoming a lawyer so you get the pay and respect you deserve for that kind of work!’ It had never occurred to me to think that high.

“I said I didn’t have the money for seven years of school, and Helen said, ‘There are always people willing to help a smart girl who is willing to help herself. You figure out what you want to be; the rest can be worked out,’” Kos said.

So she went to college. Throughout those years , Kos said Seline helped her financially numerous times and got her friends to help her.

Kos initially enrolled at Concordia College in Moorhead, but said she found that school too expensive after the first year. She eventually wound up at The School of the Ozarks (known today as The College of the Ozarks) near Branson, Mo. 

“Back in the 1980s anyone who was accepted there automatically received a full ride scholarship. It was just what I needed. Another Glenville resident, Fred Friedrichsen, then president of Citizens State Bank, had come across S of O on a vacation. He knew my situation, and he called me to tell me about this private, four-year liberal arts school. Back in those days getting an unsolicited call from the president of your bank was pretty scary business, and if anybody but the town banker had been telling me about a free college degree I’d have thought they were crazy.

“I’ll be forever grateful to Fred for doing that. He also gave me a car loan, sight unseen, when I was in my senior year and needed a vehicle to get to my job/internship. Looking back I realize doing that wasn’t exactly in line with banking rules, so I suspect Fred might have loaned me that money from his personal funds,” Kos said. “He was another Glenville guardian angel for me.  There were many others too; I was very blessed by how the Glenville-Myrtle community took me under its wing and by the people who gave me a hand and cheered for me.”

Kos said Seline allowed her to stay with her for a few months when she was between housing, spent hours with her on the phone, and came to visit her in the summers when she was in school. “When graduation day finally came, she packed a sheet cake from Albert Lea all the way to Branson, Mo., for the party,” Kos said. “I still don’t know how the frosting on that cake didn’t melt over the 550 miles in the car!”

At one point, Kos asked Seline, “How can I ever repay you for everything you’ve done?”

Seline replied, “You can’t. Just help somebody else some day.”

So when Seline retired from teaching in 1993, it occurred to Kos that the kids coming up in a school without her were not going to realize what they were missing.

“It would be a different place without her influence there. So I thought I’d like to find a way to make sure her name was still around that place and to continue her tradition of helping kids who were struggling through unusual challenges,” she said. The idea was a scholarship in Seline’s name — known as the Helen E. Seline Award.

“Unfortunately it was a few more years before I was in a financial position to begin the scholarship, but it was always my intent,” Kos said.

The first award was given in 2004, and at least one has been given each year since.

“Sometimes there are two awards — either because there are two worthy nominees or because a prior recipient is in need of more help and the funds are available. Except for the first year when the award was $750, the awards have always been $1,000. As time passes we will continue to evaluate the amount and increase it if possible,” Kos said.

She added that she does not choose the scholarship recipients. The award is administered through the Glenville-Emmons School and Community Foundation. “The people in Glenville are the best judges of who will most benefit from the award; I am just the funding source,” Kos said. This year there were two winners, Zach Ingbritson and Corwin Johnson.

In recalling when Kos told her about the award, Seline said, “There were so many emotions — excitement, admiration, gratitude and pride — thinking of what Karleen intended to do. She was going to give recognition to students who overcame uncommon obstacles to finish high school and also give financial assistance as they pursued new goals.

“Karleen is the essence of this award. She has done what this awarded recognizes — perseverance and achievement while overcoming uncommon obstacles,” she added.

Kos’ degrees are: a bachelor of science degree in psychology from School of the Ozarks, master of science in guidance and counseling from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) and her master of business administration from the University of South Florida.

Kos has spent her career working in nonprofit organizations with a variety of missions, but they were all aimed at making people’s lives better or helping them through their struggles. She started out as a counselor/front-line practitioner; over the years her roles evolved into senior management positions. Since 2008, she has served as vice president of member relations for The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering in Tampa, Fla.

“Today I serve some 22,000 members — individuals, not companies — who are the professionals working to discover and build the safest, most cost effective ways of manufacturing and delivering medicines to the world’s patients,” Kos said.

Today, Kos considers Seline one of her closest friends. “I would be living a very different life if Helen had not intervened when I was in high school — and I owe her my continued contact and friendship. The life I have today is due, in large part, to her influence and support. She’ll always be part of my success. Moreover, a lot of people from Glenville helped me back in the 1970s and 80s; through Helen they keep up on my activities also,” she said.

Kos said she looks up to Seline for her work in getting girls’ athletics started in Glenville, for being a volunteer Meals on the Go driver, for her involvement at First Lutheran Church and as a member of the American Association of University Women.

And Seline considers Kos one of her close friends as well.

“She had what I needed at that time in my life too,” Seline said. “It was my great good fortune the day Karleen walked into my classroom.”

She likes to quote fellow teacher, Don Leathers: “He always said, ‘You can’t just teach a subject. You’ve got to teach a student. You’ve got to realize that something may have happened before they got to your classroom.’”

For today’s graduates, Kos has these words: “At some point, if we are lucky, we all learn that we have very little control over anything but our own attitude and choices. I hope, for them, their journey to this truth is no longer than it needs to be. Once they discover it, I also hope they will be optimistic and resolved enough to make the choices that will better the world. We should all be somebody’s protector and cheering section. We can’t control the results, but we can impact what they are. 

“As Miep Gies (the woman who hid Anne Frank and her family) once said, ‘It is always better to try than to do nothing, because not trying secures complete failure.’”