Pius Class of 1959 Reunites at Three Pillars

Coletta & John Kopp, Kay Zimmer, Pat Kowalczyk, Suzanne Diesness, and Tom McElwee all have a couple things in common. For starters, they all live at Three Pillars Senior Living Communities in Dousman. They all have children, enjoy the Lake Country area, and Kay and Pat’s children even married each other!

But beyond that, they share one major common thread of life: they were all at Pius XI Catholic High School for the 1958-59 school year. Five of these six were members of the very large (over 600), well-revered class of 1959, and the sixth, Suzanne, was at Pius fresh out of college for her first year teaching job.

Three Pillars residents who live in independent living now and attended or worked at Pius High School
Back row L to R: John & Coletta Kopp, Tom McElwee. Front row L to R: Suzanne Diesness and Kay Zimmer.

So how did they come to end up all together at Three Pillars? Were they the best of friends? Perhaps participants and coach of the same sports team who remained so close through the years that they decided to move to the same senior community together? No, their story is one of serendipitous connection and reunion, so we couldn’t resist gathering this group to tell their story and have some laughs.

Pius Popes Recount Their High School Days
As they sit in the same room today with their yearbooks in hand, conversation and memories flow easily. They remember well how much they enjoyed school, their class, and time spent at Pius. They’re transported back to a time when they were the “Pius Popes,” proudly sporting their school colors of gold and white. A time when the guys had to wear dress pants and a nice shirt to school, while the girls had to don a white blouse and navy blue vest and skirt with kick pleats. A time when a stern School Sister of St. Francis might stop them at any time in the hallways to do a shoe-check, making sure no one tried sneaking their metal sole-protecting cleats into the building so as not to rough up the floors.

They all have a laugh remembering one particular teacher who was tougher than the rest, and Coletta was the only student any of them knew who was “lucky” enough to have her as homeroom teacher all four years! The group recalls happy memories of Homecoming, Sadie Hawkins, and Prom dances, and how their football team took the state title for their division that year, beating their number one rival, Marquette High.

The Pius XI class of 1959 was a good bunch, and though a large one, a group that has always valued staying in touch. This class has been especially great at holding reunions religiously every five years, with the majority of this group reporting they’ve only missed one or two.

Where It All Began
Thinking back to the history of their school and how it came to be the one they remember so well, they recall that in the 1950’s, Pius attracted much attention as an excellent private Catholic school; one strong in academics and building character among its students. It consistently gained popularity year after year, and enrollment steadily grew. Pius was so well-attended that city buses began to run routes to deliver students for school. The building soon outgrew its student population, so expansion was necessary.

Coletta, John, and Tom, who were at Pius all four of their high school years, recall wearing winter coats in class their freshman year, since the construction was ongoing into the school year. In the winter or during rainy weather, some unfinished walls let in water or a draft, but the students carried on. They laugh that they, “Didn’t think much of it – it made us stronger, I’m sure!”

The major expansion project was a team effort. They remember well that Mr. Drexler, an amazing Pius biology teacher, worked in the summer as a mason to help build the school. The students and their families did their part to help pay for the construction, as they vividly recall the school’s penny drive. Everyone was excited to participate, as they filled a huge circle on the gym floor with pennies. It was heaping, and as Coletta adds, “Plus, back then a penny was worth a nickel!”

By their senior year and Suzanne’s first teaching year, the renovation was finished, and the school boasted multiple levels across an expansive campus. Seniors got the main floor, with other grades spread among the other levels. Suzanne says with a touch of indignation, “Yep, there they all were on the main floor and I was downstairs in the basement, setting up my brand new tiny classroom to teach Spanish I and sophomore English.”

Kay, who had moved to Wisconsin from a small town in Iowa in time for junior year, says it took her two full weeks to figure out the layout of the school, complete with its multi levels and stairs. Coming from a high school of 32 total, with just 13 in her class, the school that housed her new class of over 600 was gigantic! “It took me two full weeks to figure out all the floors of the building!” she recalls.

Kay’s family moved to the Milwaukee area largely because her mother wanted out of their small Iowa town. When they couldn’t find just the right home with some land closer to the city of Des Moines, they looked further to the Milwaukee area. They found it in the town of Menomonee Falls, and away they went. Kay was pleased to enroll in the well-acclaimed Catholic Pius XI High school, where she could bus to and from school.

Pat Kowalczyk, who has now become acquainted with her former classmates at Three Pillars, didn’t know much about any of them while she was in school, except for some brief interactions with Coletta, who was involved in many programs and social circles. With a student body as big as it was, it wasn’t unusual to only know a subsection of the class, such as your homeroom. Many of the alum chuckle that even at class reunions as adults, they’ll hear a name and say, “Hmm, never heard of them.”

Admittedly, Pat recalls she was somewhat disappointed to attend Pius at the time. She had her heart set on attending Messmer, another nearby coed Catholic high school, but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her sister had gotten into trouble there, and her mother wasn’t about to let that happen again.

Today, Pat is close with Kay, her former Pius classmate whom she didn’t know back then. What connected them is none other than the love of their children. Pat’s son fell in love with Kay’s daughter, which is how they were introduced later in life. The kids got married, making Kay and Pat mother-in-laws to the spouses of each of their children. Small world? Absolutely.

So while not everyone in this group knew each other well during high school, others were close. Coletta and John, who are now married, were friends in the same class, but they weren’t an item in high school. However — Coletta and Tom were!

The group members who are gathered to reminisce all smile as they tease John, “Maybe you should leave the interview for this part where we talk about Coletta and Tom dating!”

Tom McElwee is pictured as part of the senior section of the 1959 Pius yearbook.
Tom McElwee is pictured as part of the senior section of the 1959 Pius yearbook.

Everyone knew, or at least knew the name of, Tom McElwee, a basketball and track athlete. Friendly and smart, he was on the senior prom court – and lovingly called “the jock” by his peers today. Later in life, at age 50, Tom took up running again, this time running marathons (eleven of them, to be exact), including the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon.

Coletta was involved in everything in high school, from chorus to pep club to float decorating to theater; and quite a bit in between. “If there was fun to do, I found those jobs! I preferred all things fun over academics any day!”

Back then Tom and Coletta caught each other’s eyes, dating a bit and enjoying many football games and sock-hops together. When asked, “Did you wear a poodle skirt to the sock-hops?” Coletta’s reply is unequivocal. “Well of course I did! Complete with three can-can slips that I sewed myself!”

So while Coletta and Tom didn’t end up being each other’s soul mates, Coletta and John did. In their Pius days, Coletta didn’t go unnoticed by her now-husband, who was busy in all the “hands-on” things he could do, like shop, metals, drafting, and electrical classes. They both remember well the time he offered to drive Coletta home after school, but she had to decline since her brother, Larry, was coming to pick her up, and he’d have had a fit if she wasn’t there. Their love would have to wait until after high school, which was fine by both of them, because it later blossomed into a strong marriage, wonderful children together, and a lifetime of happiness.

If you thought the romance and connection ended there, think again. Coletta and Kay were not acquainted during high school, but as fate would have it, Kay ended up falling in love with one of Coletta’s 12 siblings – her brother, the late Larry (the one who was picking Coletta up from school, when she couldn’t ride home with John). The rest of their story is history. Kay and Coletta became in-laws and remained close through all these years.

Working Hard and Playing Hard
In their high school years, aside from school and extracurriculars, everyone worked an after-school job. It was the norm and the expectation. “We probably owed it to our parents towards what they were paying in tuition for us to attend Pius,” mentions Tom. “We all learned the value of hard work at an early age,” he continued, and he continues that lesson today as he works for his son as a licensed Real Estate sales agent.

Tom brought out an old tuition receipt, which he shared for good times’ sake. When no one in the group could correctly guess their tuition that year of 1959, he told them. It was $120 for the year, payable by the quarter if preferred. If more than one student per family was enrolled, as was the case in Coletta’s family and John’s, they enjoyed a $10 multi-student discount. Quite the steal of a deal, they all agree, in comparison to today’s tuition, which is approximately $13,000.

Tom’s receipt shows a neatly typed list of annual tuition, plus a menu of additional fees for certain elective classes, circled if applicable. Tom’s shows an additional $5 for physics or chemistry, $0.25 for the student handbook, and a $10 graduation fee, to name a few. The group shares a grateful chuckle that no one in the room ever took the most expensive elective – Office Practice – which came with a staggering $25 per year price tag.  

So with tuition to pay and the hope that Mom would say “yes” to an occasional famous $0.20 “jimmy sundae” from nearby Gillis’ Custard or penny candy from Buzzy’s, their after school jobs were an expectation. On pay days, these hard-working students gave their earnings to their mother.

In fact, many of them had even been working somewhere such as the Truck Farm since they were as young as fifth grade. They’d be out bunching radishes and onions to sell in markets and to big grocery stores – and do their part earning income for their families.

For Kay, after she bused home from Pius each day, she grabbed supper at the bowling alley and then went to work as a cashier clerk at the A&P grocery store, which she enjoyed. Later, when she was lucky enough to receive a car so she could drive to and from college, that income was helpful to pay for fuel.

Coletta went straight from Pius to the Fruit Ranch, a well-known produce store, to work her shift before eating a late dinner at home afterwards.

Tom ended his school day and headed to the West Allis Fish Market, which was owned by a neighbor of his. The hours were convenient and it was close to his family’s home in West Allis. There, he busied himself cooking fish and working at the counter. As you could imagine, Friday was always a super busy day for his Wisconsin fish fry-loving customers!

For John, heading to work after school meant working “on the bench” with his dad, who was a jeweler. He learned a lot by watching and working side-by-side with him, to which he attributes his later success as a professional jeweler himself.

Today, in his Three Pillars apartment, while John is retired from working as a jeweler, you better believe he still has a mini workbench right in the spare bedroom. It’s not his full jewelry setup, but he can do quite a bit creating and fixing there. Back in high school classes, he made everything from lamps to hammers, but these days, his metalwork is more focused on repairs and tinkering. “Recently, I’ve fixed things like rosaries for Kay, and like to work on some of my ham radio’s electrical layout and antenna,” he says.

For Suzanne – better known at Pius in 1958 as Miss Kohnke, and after her Christmastime wedding, Mrs. Dries – she was past her days of after-school jobs and into her first official career position as a teacher. After earning her teaching degree from Marquette, she was pleased to get started at the well-acclaimed Pius High. While she may have occasionally passed Coletta, John, Kay, Pat, or Tom in the senior hallways, she spent her days teaching Spanish I and English to freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. She never had any of her fellow Three Pillars neighbors as students, yet it’s still fun to tease about her seniority whenever there’s a need to keep those young whippersnapper senior students in line!