Volunteer: Mary Kroening, Naperville Settlement
Sandy Stevens firstname.lastname@example.org February 18, 2013 1:50PM
Mary Kroening, who retired from Clow Elementary School in 2005, now is a building interpreter volunteer at Naper Settlement. | Submitted
Updated: March 21, 2013 6:16AM
In the 17 years she taught fifth grade at Clow Elementary School, Mary Kroening developed a keen interest in history.
“And I’m a storyteller,” she said. “I’d pretend to be a famous person in history, and the kids just ate it up.”
When she retired in 2005, she decided, “I wanted to retire to something, so I thought about what I have a passion for.
“I loved teaching, I loved kids and I loved history and hands-on things, bringing things alive. I thought Naper Settlement would be a good place to go and learn and share some stories.”
And that’s exactly what Kroening, 69, has been doing ever since.
“I started in the schoolhouse and the halfway house (farmhouse), where I could interact in first person with the guests,” she recalled. “But it seems I’m usually put in the school, where I can be a schoolmarm — with my stick.”
Coincidentally, her own grandfather operated a one-room schoolhouse near the Minnesota border, and his bell from that school always sat on her desk at Clow.
“I guess it’s preordained that I would be in a one-room schoolhouse,” Kroening said.
A Naperville resident for 39 years, she volunteers as a Naper Settlement interpreter two to three times a month, each time for a shift of about four and a half hours. During the school year, she typically educates classroom groups.
“In the summer, it’s whoever comes through,” she said.
Sometimes Kroening gives visitors background information on what to expect once they go into the one-room schoolhouse of 1893.
“Then I morph into the serious schoolmarm for about 15 minutes,” she said.
Most often visitors are surprised by the schoolroom’s lack of facilities, Kroening said. As “Miss Persnickety” takes them through lessons in penmanship, arithmetic and reading, for example, they must sit two to a seat and write on a slate.
“Some of them actually think that would be a good way to learn!” Kroening said.
She noted that visitors come from all over the world. “Someone visiting from Copenhagen asked why our schoolhouse is called the Copenhagen Schoolhouse, and I was able to find the answer and tell him why,” she said.
(The original schoolhouse, built in the 1840s and used as a school until about 1922, was located at the southeast corner of Route 59 and 83rd Street. Along with a small church and a couple of farms, it made up the community then known as Copenhagen to Danish immigrants.)
Kroening stressed, however, that the lessons go both ways, that she’s constantly learning through her interactions with visitors.
“Someone might say, ‘My grandmother went to a one-room school’ and go on to reveal a new fact or idea,” she said.
She said the biggest surprise in her work has been students’ transformation once they enter the schoolroom.
“They can be all crazy nuts outside (the schoolroom),” she said. “I don’t know if it’s different surroundings or the different approach, but they are outstanding in their behavior, and they really respond well.”
The wife of John Kroening, mother of twin sons Brian and David, and grandmother of six, Kroening also makes her own costumes for her settlement roles.
“I figure when they wear out, I guess I’m done,” she quipped.
“I believe so strongly in the value of this museum,” she said. “It’s a grand place to go, either as a volunteer or a guest. I keep learning.”
Nominate a volunteer by emailing columnist Sandy Stevens at email@example.com