Connie Link

She was an English teacher.  She was a hard-nosed demander of excellence.  She knew excellence when she saw it.  She saw potential when nobody else could.  She is a hero.  She is one of mine.

Of all the people in my existence to-date, she is one of the few that had a strong, positive hand in shaping who I’ve turned out to be.  There have been plenty of shapers, most of them in a generally negative role in my life.  She was not one of those.  As a teenager, she recognized that the gifts I’d been given were valuable, and told me so, and demanded excellence from me, when few in my life acknowledged the same.  She demanded that I write, and that I write well.  She required a level of writing from me that she didn’t require from those who couldn’t have met that standard, because she knew that I could.  She pulled myself out of me at a time in my life when almost everyone else was telling me to keep myself to myself.  She is a hero.  She is one of mine.

She was never moved at my anger at her unfairness toward me and others with my gifts.  I’ll never forget the look of "I don’t care what you think of yourself" that would instantly change her face from casual disinterest to steely, almost malevolent rejection of my objections to how hard she was being.  She taught us to write, and never rejected what we’d written, only how we’d written it.  At a time when I couldn’t tell the difference, she would leave my pages running blood-red with ink, and end it with "You can do better."  I hated it.  I needed it.  She was right.  She is a hero.  She is one of mine.

Poetry was something that… decent boys… didn’t write.  There was something wrong with boys that wrote poetry.  Piano was something for girls to learn to play.  Football and golf, motorcycles and handtools, those were things for boys to learn to play.  I wrote poetry.  I wrote essays.  I wrote music.  I played piano.  I sang, and spent time reflecting, and loved flowers, and watched clouds float by and never broke a bone and hated fighting and played with chemistry sets and microscopes and telescopes and studied the theories of the universe and had few friends and fewer social skills.  She saw that the only outlet I had was a pen and a piece of paper.  She told me that it was alright.  That I was alright.  She is a hero.  She is one of mine.

So I wrote when she required it.  I didn’t share it with anyone.  It wasn’t safe.  She never violated me.  So many teachers violated me.  She was not one of them.  Even when she was tearing my writing apart, she didn’t ridicule what I’d said, she didn’t scoff, or dismiss, or tell me I was wrong for thinking such things… feeling such things.  Of course, I was in many instances, but she was content to let me get it out so I could see it and understand myself, sometimes years later.

I wonder who I would have turned out to be had I not learned to out my feelings on paper.  Crippled is certainly what I would have been.  I was crippled enough as it was.  My high school years were very difficult for me, in many ways.  You couldn’t pay me to go back.  At the time, she certainly didn’t hold the title of "bright spot in this four-year abyss" as far as I was concerned.  But in retrospect, she was just that.  Years later, I was teaching classes at Illinois State University.  I was a contract lecturer.  I had an office in a closet off of another closet at the end of the world on the fourth floor of Stevenson Hall.  One evening as I was having office hours, I heard a familiar voice.  It was hers. She was teaching a class in the English department, and her office was close to mine.  We exchanged greetings, had a few words, and that was that.  After that chance encounter, I decided that I needed to thank her for the impact she’d had on my life, and so I wrote a poem to her.  I don’t think I still have a copy of it, but I remember it ending with something like "You helped me to know that it was ok / to be / me!"  I taped it to her office door. I saw her after that, and she told me with a beaming smile that it had made her day.  I’m sure it wasn’t the only time I’d seen that smile, but it was likely the only time I’d seen it focused on me.  I’m glad I did that.  That was many years ago, now. It was the next-to-last time I ever saw her.

Connie Link died two weeks ago, after a long battle with brain cancer.  I was only vaguely aware that she was ill.  I had no idea that she’d died.  Her memorial service came and went without me.  I learned of her passing today, surreptitiously. It’s an ache that I’m having a hard time finding the words to write.  It gives me joy to say that I knew her.  It gives me sadness to know she’s gone.  I hope that somewhere in her effects there’s a piece of paper with a poem on it written by a grateful former student that tells her of his appreciation for what she accomplished in his life.  I hope she looked at it more than once.  I hope she knows, even now… I’m proud to have been her student.  I’m proud to have known her.

They filled the gymnasium at the high school for her memorial service.  People from all over the country came.  She was praised and remembered with fondness, I’m sure.  I add these words to those spoken there.  She is a hero.  She is one of mine.

3 thoughts on “Connie Link”

  1. P.S. This is her obituary, copied from The Illinois Speech and Theatre website.

    Connie J. Link, lifelong educator, mentor, speech coach, and theater director died Wednesday, January 23, 2008 in Normal, Illinois, after a courageous battle with cancer.

    Connie was a 1964 graduate of Farmington High School where she began her long love for speech as the sole member of the Farmington High School speech team.

    She graduated from Eastern Illinois University in 1968 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Education where she also completed a Master’s Degree in English in 1974.

    Connie began her teaching career in 1969 at Tuscola before moving to Heyworth High School in 1971 where she taught, served as English Department Chair, directed theater and coached the speech team for 35 years. She was very proud to count among her former students, attorneys, professional actors, business executives, and numerous teachers at all levels. In 2004, she received the Marcella E. Oberle Award for Outstanding Teaching in Grades K-12 from the National Communication Association. In 2005, she was the Illinois recipient of the National Federation of High School’s Outstanding Speech/Theatre/Debate Educator Award. In November 2005, Heyworth High School dedicated their new theater in her honor.

    Connie was a tireless activist for her colleagues, serving as President of the Heyworth Education Association and leading the negotiation team. Likewise, she served on numerous Illinois State Board of Education committees for the English Language Arts.

    During her tenure, she maintained a highly successful speech program that produced numerous individual state champions and a third place team award at the Illinois High School Association State Speech Championships in 1995. The following year, she co-hosted the IHSA State Championships. She served as the IHSA State Chair for Individual Events and for her long service to the association and the profession, Connie was honored with one of the inaugural Distinguished Service Awards in 2007.

    Connie coached 80 students to the National Forensic League Tournament and had a national champion in Expository Speaking in 1990. In the National Forensics League, Connie was a three diamond coach, served as the Chairperson of Supplemental Events and organized an NFL workshop in Illinois for new coaches. She also served as the District Chair for the Greater Illinois District, and in 1996 was the recipient of the Ralph E. Carey award for distinguished career service.

    Connie taught as an adjunct at Illinois State University for five years, worked in their summer speech institute for over 25 years, and helped coach numerous ISU “speechbirds” to state and national success.

    Dedicated to the teaching profession, she mentored many student and new teachers. After retiring in 2005 from Heyworth High School, she continued to supervise student teachers for the Communication education program at Illinois State University.

    As a champion of speech and theater educators at the secondary, community college and university level, she was a lifetime member of the Illinois Speech and Theater Association, serving as President in 1990. She also held a variety of executive offices in ISTA including Executive Vice-President, Secretary, Membership Chairperson, Newsletter Editor, and Speech Education Chairperson. As a convention planner for the organization, Connie was instrumental in establishing the Great Ideas for Teaching Speech (G.I.F.T.S.) roundtable panels which are among the most popular programs for members. She also served as the Special Commission on Tournament Individual Events (S.C.O.T.I.E.) Chairperson. She was proud to receive the organization’s highest honors, the Edith Harrod Outstanding Teacher Award and the W.P. Sandford Presidential Award for excellence in speech, theater and education.

    An advocate of the arts, Connie was a creative force behind the Normal Parks and Recreation Summer Theater Program for 32 years teaching creative dramatics to children and serving in multiple capacities including Business Manager, Director, and Producer. She worked to involve multitudes of students from Central Illinois in the program, directing numerous shows including Grease, Godspell, Working and Will Rogers Follies. In the summer of 2005, she was honored with the award from Normal Parks and Recreation for 30 years of service. In conjunction with the award, The Town of Normal honored her with a Connie Link Appreciation Day in July of that year. Her accolades also include A Women of Distinction Award nomination for McLean County in 1993.

    An avid womens’volleyball fan, she served as a high school referee, was a season ticket holder for the ISU Lady Redbirds and took great joy in cheering for the Heyworth squad. Connie’s affection for her students and her school made her not only an avid sports fan but an organizer, participant and supporter of all things “Hey-Hi.”

    Connie was a voracious reader and loved to do crossword puzzles. A true Disneyphile, she made yearly sojourns for sun, fun, the beach and Mickey. Her true passion was people. She could speak to anyone; each and every person with whom she came in contact became her friend.

    She is survived by her brother, Dan Kauzlarich, sister-in-law, Sharon Kauzlarich, and niece, Kathryn (Katie) Kauzlarich, and the countless people she met along the way who became her friends and family.

    A celebration of life service will be held at Heyworth High School, Heyworth, Illinois, on Sunday, February 3rd, 2008 at 1 PM.

    Memorials may be made to the Connie J. Link Memorial Scholarship at Heyworth High School, the Normal Parks and Recreation Summer Theatre Program and the National Forensic League in her name.

  2. Dear Tim,

    My name is Susan Morse Cortesi. I have been a good friend of Connie’s since the early 80s. When she was first diagnosed with the brain cancer, I was with her. When I saw her declining, I encouraged her to go back to see her doctor. When she was diagnosed with the inoperable brain cancer, she called and asked me to help her through the illness to speak on her behalf and help her brother make decisions.

    I honored her request and I cared for her right up to the very moment that she left this world. Her passing has left a large void in my life. I have been extremely saddened by this loss. She was someone I loved, fought with, directed with, and someone that I took care of until the end. She loved me and she loved my husband. We are both mourning her loss.

    As I help to clean up her house, I will look for your poem. I hope I find it. I am sure she kept it in her heart. That is the way with we teachers–we treasure the gifts given by our students. Especially the ones that tell us that our work mattered.

    Thank you for these words. I will be sharing them with her family and friends.

    Susan

  3. Tim

    I relate to so many of your feelings. When I reflect on the conflicts I had with Ms. Link, it is clearly because of the stubborn, arrogant kid I was and her refusal to simply let that be ok.

    I too ended up as an English prof. because of her and I can track my path of college, graduate school and even global travel back to much of her influence. She introduced me to authors and ideas that I still revisit today.

    Thank you for your reflections.

    Jonathan Moore
    Heyworth High School 1988-1992

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