Building Lifelong Fitness: Long-Time St. Mary P.E. Teacher Reflects on Her Career

Mrs. Lindley St. Mary MokenaFor the past 24 years, Anne Lindley has become synonymous with “gym” class at St. Mary School in Mokena. Now, she has reached that distinguished season in her career where some of her current students are children of former ones, and certain grandparents remember her from parent-teacher conferences.

To anybody who had physical education (P.E.) at St. Mary from 1996 to the present, however, she is known simply as Mrs. Lindley.

“I am blessed to have taught with so many dedicated teachers, staff, and principals over the years and to have had the support of my husband, Kris, and sons, Keenan and Blake,” says Lindley, who is now semi-retired. “I always said being a P.E. teacher is great because you teach the students year after year and watch them grow. It’s also hard because the kids become like your own, and it’s tough to say goodbye when they graduate.”

Indeed, Mrs. Lindley is a motherlike figure to many of her students. For some, she has been there from the moment they first walked into kindergarten, to their eighth-grade graduation, and even to their return to St. Mary as parents and employees. It’s fair to say she remembers all of her roughly 1,000 students, and she still keeps two massive binders with everybody’s fitness records going back to the 1990s.

A Mokena Girl

Lindley herself has been part of the St. Mary community since childhood. She attended the parish school in the late 1960s and early 1970s and has memories of her parents hosting then-pastor Father Cecil Koop for dinner.

After graduating from eighth grade, she attended high school at Lincoln-Way Central where she fostered her love of fitness. “I started teaching swimming as a summer job during high school. That’s when I began wanting to become a gym teacher because it’s the only subject where you get to move around.”

After graduating from Eastern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, Lindley got a job at Stagg High School in Palos Hills, where she taught health for two years. She then spent several years teaching P.E. in the Frankfort school district.

During this time, she was married at St. Mary Church and had twin boys. Lindley and her husband, Kris, decided to send the boys, Keenan and Blake, to St. Mary School, and she got a job offer to teach P.E. there that very same year. “I took the job at St. Mary because it was the best choice for my family, and it was really neat to return to teach at my alma mater,” she explains.

Teaching at St. Mary

Throughout her entire teaching career, Lindley’s goal has been developing lifelong fitness habits in her students. “I want every kid to find a fitness activity they love doing so that they continue to stay active throughout their lives.”

Mrs. Lindley teaching
Mrs. Lindley teaching at St. Mary in 1999

For that reason, Lindley designed her fitness units with variety in mind. Students learn and play basketball, volleyball, pickleball, bowling, shuffleboard, floor hockey, cup stacking, skating, and much more.

She even developed a fun way of teaching students how to open padlocks. “I wanted them to learn before they got to high school and had lockers, so I turned it into a game,” she explains. “Students compete in the ‘Lock Olympics’ to see who can open their padlocks the fastest, and we then hold a ‘finals’ round every January during an assembly. The kids always have so much fun that they don’t even realize they’re learning.”

Mrs. Lindley jumping ropeFor the past 20 years, Lindley has also championed the “Jump Rope for Heart Program,” which teaches children the fitness benefits of jumping rope while raising money for the American Heart Association. “Since starting the program, St. Mary School has raised more than $167,000 for the American Heart Association,” reports Lindley.

Her career at St. Mary was not a cakewalk, however. During the Fall of 2003, Lindley and her colleague, Gloria Janousak, were appointed acting principals of St. Mary School when the principal went on sick leave. “Everything that could have happened to a principal happened to Gloria and me that year,” recalls Lindley.

At that time, St. Mary was undertaking its school expansion project which caused several logistical challenges throughout the year. Aside from that, Lindley had to help the school cope with the deaths of the school principal, the former pastor-turned Auxiliary Bishop James Fitzgerald, and a student. She also faced sudden scares like a building gas leak and minor school bus accident—thankfully, no one was hurt in either event.

“During that year, I learned that I didn’t want to be a principal full-time, but the challenge provided me with the experience to better support the current principal in her role,” reflects Lindley. “I can see issues from both perspectives now—that of a teacher and a principal.”

A Memorable Career

Over the course of 24 years at St. Mary, Lindley has witnessed many changes. When she started, the Motorola flip phone was the latest gadget, floppy disks were used for storage, the Chicago Bulls were NBA champions, and P.E. class was held at the old St. Mary gym, which is now the STEAM lab.

In all that time, though, some things have not changed. “I always love seeing that smile on my students’ faces when they accomplish something they’ve worked hard at, whether it be the kid who wants to improve his mile run time or the one working hard to do a pull-up,” says Lindley.

Not long ago, Lindley had the privilege of seeing one of her students save a life using a skill learned in health and P.E. In a story reported across Chicago media outlets, St. Mary School eighth-grader Abby Johnson used CPR to save her father’s life after he had a heart attack. Abby had just learned CPR a couple weeks prior in Lindley’s health class.

“Sometimes you wonder if you’re making a difference in your students’ lives,” says Lindley. “When my student saved her dad’s life after learning CPR in my class, I truly felt like I had.”

From a personal standpoint, Lindley is grateful for the opportunity to have taught her twin sons for nine years at St. Mary. “To see my boys at their eighth-grade graduation was very touching,” she recalls. “Kris and I both feel that St. Mary prepared them well for high school and beyond.”

Lindley and family
(Left) Anne Lindley and her sons when they were students at St. Mary. (Right) Anne Lindley pictured with her husband, sons, and daughters-in-law in 2020.

To Retire or Not to Retire?

When 2020 began, St. Mary was preparing to say goodbye to Mrs. Lindley, who had planned to fully retire at the end of the school year. Then Covid-19 happened.

“We were all sent home on March 13th due to the pandemic,” recalls Lindley. “Everyone thought the shutdown would last only 2-3 weeks, but as I left the school that day, I had a strange feeling that we wouldn’t be coming back this school year.”

She was right. Schools never resumed in-person teaching and there was never a true sense of closure, especially for the eighth graders who missed their typical graduation activities. “It was awful and sad,” says Lindley. “I didn’t want to leave this way.”

Fortunately for Lindley, a part-time position opened late in the school year. She was offered and accepted the job, which involves teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth grade P.E. on Mondays and Tuesdays.

“I’m so happy for the opportunity to come back and eventually close my career properly,” says Lindley. For her current students, returning this Fall in an age of social distancing brings much uncertainty. But one thing is certain. Seeing the smiling face of their P.E. teacher standing in the doorway will help assure them that everything will be alright.

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