There’s much more than music to retiring Evergreen Park teacher
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent May 16, 2012 11:52AM
Melanie Michalak, who is retiring after 30 years of teaching at Evergreen Park Community High School, packs up her office in the music department. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 18, 2012 8:02AM
Melanie Michalak is “going out on top” as a teacher, retiring from Evergreen Park Community High School after another successful year as its choral director.
As for what retirement holds, the possibilities seem endless. In addition to her educational achievements, the Tinley Park resident has been a world traveler, an author and an internationally known equestrian clinician and trainer.
“I teach horses to dance,” Michalak said.
Michalak has designed musical freestyles for the U.S. equestrian team and three other nations for the Pan Am Games and Olympics. Her entries have won the U.S. Dressage Federation’s “Horse of the Year” award four times, and she has coached U.S. Paralympics equestrian team members as well.
She has excelled at dressage — a form of training that focuses on honing a horse’s riding technique — after a car accident in 1992 left her unable to compete.
Still, it is as a teacher that she has touched the most lives in the Southland.
After 36 years of teaching, including 30 at Evergreen Park High School, she is leaving “with as much joy and passion for it as when I began,” Michalak said. “What many people do not understand is the passion of a teacher. The teacher’s dream is to have every child discover that special talent within and to be proud that he or she has something to share.”
As a music and English teacher and also Evergreen Park’s choral director, Michalak has had a distinguished career that includes having her choirs invited to sing in Hawaii and at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. As recently as March, the choir earned “an almost perfect score from all judges” at the IHSA Organization Contest, she said.
For Michalak, the achievements are about the students, not her.
“I’m very proud of what our kids have done here. They don’t get the credit, I think, that they deserve,” she said.
She applauds her numerous choirs for being able to perform in unfamiliar circumstances after leading them on concert tours to Canada, Italy and Spain. Her choral students have earned almost $1 million in talent scholarships since 1992.
Michalak said student musicians are “omnipresent,” showing up for numerous school events but rarely getting the attention of sports teams.
“In our area in fine arts, unless we blow our own horn — no pun intended — we really are limited in terms of PR (public relations),” Michalak said.
By nature, Michalak is not one who calls attention to herself. But her feats encompass athletics and education in addition to music.
As a young teacher, she was invited by DePaul University to supervise a lab school program while working on a double master’s degree in Polish Renaissance Choral Literature and choral music education. And she has written more than 50 books and articles on music and music interpretation.
Her response to her many honors was often, “How did they pick me for this?”
Michalak may question, but others do not.
Deb Baumer, a 23-year colleague and friend, said Michalak is the kind of teacher who is “able to find excellence in each student.”
“She never expects more from her students than she expects from herself,” Baumer said. “She’s the kind of teacher that comes along once in a lifetime.”
Michalak has tried to give her students once-in-a-lifetime memories, choosing educational trips at places around the world rather than recreational choices.
“No theme parks,” Michalak said. “I wanted it (the experience) to be rich.”
Among many special moments, she said one that especially stands out was when the Evergreen Park choir was asked to sing from the pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on the 39th anniversary of his death as the remaining members of King’s “Kitchen Cabinet” listened.
Another was when the choir became the first non-native choir to sing in Queen Liliuokalani’s Church in Hawaii.
“I still don’t get how these things happened, but you know, you have to be open to the universe,” Michalak said.
It seems Michalak has done that for many years.
From the time the 3-year-old Michalak embraced the audience’s laughter when she “kicked too high” and “fell on my butt” as the newsboy in “Gypsy” at the Drury Lane Theatre, to the day she accepted a college professor’s decision that she should change her major from art to music, Michalak has parlayed life’s turns of events to her advantage and passed the benefits on to her students.
“I live in a ‘field of dreams.’ If you expect excellence, they will achieve it,” she said. “I’ve never been disappointed.”