When Becki Essner’s two children, Josh and Katie, started school, she didn’t tell them about the famous “Three R’s.” Rather, she reinforced the importance of the “Three A’s”: academics, athletics, and the arts.
“That was always my motto, and I think it’s made them well-rounded people,” said Essner.
Of those fundamentals, the arts have always been her favorite; some of Essner’s dearest memories of high school involve the spring musical.
“Ms. (Cynthia) King’s first year (teaching) was my freshman year at Notre Dame, and I fell in love with the performing arts that way,” said Essner. “The musical that year was Fiddler on the Roof, and I was one of the two younger daughters. Our big moment was skipping across the stage with the line: ‘We’re going on a train and a boat!’”
The next year, Essner began working on set construction for My Fair Lady, and “fell in love” all over again. So much so, her junior and senior years were strictly spent on technical crews, despite the structural challenges of the stage in the previous high school building.
“The lighting board was at best an antique, even back in the ‘70s,” said Essner, with a laugh. “But Ms. King’s gift is what she can do with a stage. She created magic with what she had, and she still does. We had to build an extension to bring that stage out nearly six feet because it was just so shallow, and we needed more space. Things have definitely changed.”
After graduating in 1976, Essner went on to pursue a degree in education at Southeast Missouri State University, and continued with graduate work in special education and learning disabilities. Her first teaching job was in Oran, MO as a learning disabilities instructor, and she later served as a part-time homebound instructor for the Cape Girardeau public school district.
Essner returned to the Notre Dame community when her son enrolled in 1999. She assisted with various projects around the new building before former principal, Brother David Anthony Migliorino, OSF approached her with a job opening.
“He asked me to consider becoming an art teacher part-time. It sounded like fun!” she said.
Essner accepted, and began teaching visual art in the fall of 2003. In 2004, she established Notre Dame’s chapter of the National Art Honor Society (NAHS).
“[Brother David] gave me his blessing and I took off with it. It became something really neat. The artistic talent we’ve had go through Notre Dame just in my time there is incredible,” said Essner. “It became my biggest commitment.”
As openings became available, Essner taught several other classes, including Junior Composition and English II. In 2005, she developed Study Skills: a program aimed at helping students who struggle academically.
“I had been working with a couple of kids and when word got out, the group grew,” said Essner. “They were able to successfully complete the Notre Dame curriculum and rigorous standards, and it evolved into the strong program that it is now.”
In addition to her “extracurriculars” of NAHS and student spirit boosters Blue Crew, Essner worked with the spring musical every year in various areas, especially the makeup crew.
“When my son was a freshman and got a little part in the play, I was ecstatic. I just jumped in and did whatever Ms. King needed,” said Essner. “If she needed someone to sit in the stairwell (to supervise students) that night, I sat in the stairwell. For a time, we even made chicken and dumplings for the cast and crew on the night of dress rehearsal.”
In retirement, Essner is excited to travel with her husband, Tom (‘77), and visit with their children and grandchildren. But she said she will always be one of the biggest cheerleaders for Notre Dame’s visual and performing arts.
“Notre Dame will always be with me. I dearly loved high school, and I was honored to teach there,” said Essner. “And I think the arts are such a beautiful part of life; no person’s life is complete without having the arts in it in some way, shape, or form.”