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Six to be recognized with education awards at Bishop’s Dinner


Each fall the Bishop’s Dinner for Catholic Schools is used not only as a time to celebrate Catholic education but recognize those who contribute greatly to the diocesan schools.

The 22nd Bishop’s Dinner for Catholic Schools, to be held Oct. 21 at the Sioux City Convention Center, will recognize six individuals.

Among the three teachers to receive the Excellence in Education Award are Laurie Dougherty, art teacher at Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City; Paul Niebuhr, fifth to twelfth grade band director at Gehlen Catholic School in Le Mars and Annette Vaske, business teacher at Bishop Garrigan High School in Algona.

Two staff members and a member of the clergy have been given the Good Shepherd Award: Father Clem Currans, retired from active ministry after most recently serving as pastor at Holy Family Church in Emmetsburg and the parishes in Graettinger, Ayrshire and Ruthven; Sandi Prather, kindergarten aide at Mater Dei School – Immaculate Conception Center, Sioux City and Jay Sassman, head custodian, St. Mary School in Storm Lake.

Excellence in Education

Laurie Dougherty is in her 34th year of teaching art and visual design at Bishop Heelan. This graduate of Blessed Sacrament Grade School, Bishop Heelan and Briar Cliff College also serves as the art curriculum chair for the Catholic Schools of Sioux City and has taught some classes at Briar Cliff, Western Iowa Tech Community College, the Sioux City Art Center and Sacred Heart Kiddie Crusader Preschool.

The teacher not only has been involved in the community for organizations like Artsplash and the American Heart Association – as a survivor of a heart attack – but connects her students to community projects, encouraging them to share their talents. Heelan students have created wall murals for various organizations such as the Clare Guest House, Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Mercy Child Advocacy Center, the June E. Nylen Cancer Center and more.

Former student, Caitlin Flanagan, wrote in a letter supporting Dougherty’s nomination, “Laurie Dougherty – the chocolate-loving, nurturing, hilarious and awesome Catholic school teacher – deserves this award and many more as long as she is present in the halls of Heelan High School. I know I am not the only student who feels that she has taught the importance of using artistic talents as a conduit to giving back to the community and applying the values instilled by a Catholic education.”

Dougherty, who has been described as a great ambassador for Heelan in and outside of the classroom, said she loves teaching and Heelan along with what it stands for. She is very appreciative of the new Heelan building and “skips to work,” believing that the generosity and commitment of the Heelan community allows her to help enhance the educational experience of the students.

She has been married to her husband Marty for 31 years and together they have seven children. Six children – Jesse, Maggie, Brendan, Katie, Patrick and John are Heelan grads and Ryan is a current junior.

Paul Niebuhr, a graduate of Benton Community High School and Morningside College, has taught at Gehlen for 21 years out of his nearly 30 years in education. Faith has been at the heart of his teaching.

“I don’t feel worthy to receive this award,” he said. “There are many more deserving – past and current recipients as well as those who were and were not nominated this year. I always try to do what God calls me to do. My goal is to praise God,” said the band instructor, who often tells his students to strive to do their best and find joy in what they do.

Niebuhr was nominated for the award by Gehlen Catholic’s principals Jeff Alesch and Lorie Nussbaum. Alesch highlighted Niebuhr’s hard work, dedication, collaboration and service. Nussbaum elaborated on his humble demeanor, positive attitude, constant encouragement and abiding faith, noting, “Paul is a blessing and a gift to the students, faculty, staff, parents and benefactors of Gehlen Catholic. An encounter with Paul is always a joyful experience.”

During his tenure at Gehlen Catholic, the program has grown to more than 100 students who have been actively involved in marching, jazz, pep and concert bands along with solo and ensemble contests. Nomination letters consistently heralded Niebuhr for the countless opportunities he provided students such as the band’s participation in college football bowls.

Niebuhr and his family converted to Catholicism in 2008 and he now serves as a eucharistic minister at All Saints Parish in Le Mars. He and his wife Lisa, who is the development director for the school, are the parents of three children: Elias, Elizabeth and Evan, a 2015 graduate of Gehlen who is now deceased.

Annette Vaske, a graduate of Bancroft St. John High School and Buena Vista in Storm Lake, has taught business classes and volunteered in extracurricular activities at Bishop Garrigan for 24 years.

“If I only wanted to teach students about finance and accounting, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “God is not going to ask me how many future CPAs I produced, but I have no doubt he will ask me how many young souls I nurtured into faith-filled adults. This award gives me a tiny glimmer of hope that I might be making a difference.”

In a letter of support, Storm Lake St. Mary teacher Kate Swanson, wrote that Vaske was deserving of the award because of her passion for furthering the Catholic faith in future generations, dedication to providing real-world education experience, ability to inspire others, hard work and willingness to serve students and peers beyond the classroom.

Her Catholic faith is the driving force in her life and because of this, Vaske is very active in her hometown parish St. John the Baptist where she serves as a lector, circle leader, Bible study coordinator and more.

She is married to her high school sweetheart, Greg, and they couple has four children: Shawn, Johanna, Samuel who is a senior at Garrigan and Maggie, an 8th grader at Garrigan.

Good Shepherd Award

Father Clem Currans, a graduate of Emmetsburg Catholic School, was nominated for his work at his alma mater while serving as pastor at Holy Family Church in Emmetsburg.

Jean Hyslop, principal at Emmetsburg Catholic and DRE at the parish, said in working with Father Currans for 12 years, she had many opportunities to witness the priest as a good shepherd through his giving nature, care for the needy, visits to the sick, fiscal responsibility and celebration of the Eucharist with students. The principal, who called the priest an asset to the school, added, “He can be seen in the middle of all the physical work that goes into keeping a parish and school in good shape.”

Father Currans, who was ordained in 1974, retired in July. In addition to his four most recent parishes, he served also at St. Joseph Parish, Le Mars; Gehlen Catholic High School, Le Mars; Sacred Heart Parish, Spencer; Corpus Christi Parish, Fort Dodge; St. Joseph Parish, Duncombe; St. John Parish, Vincent; St. Edmond High School, Fort Dodge; Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorland; St. Joseph Parish, Granville; Spalding Catholic School, Granville and Sacred Heart Parish, Boone.

“When it comes to schools, I am reminded of the saying that it is better to teach a person how to fish so they can catch their own fish and then you don’t have to give them food,” Father Currans said. “Catholic schools take more effort and cost more money, but we are teaching our young people how to fish, and what better way to spend our money than educating our youth in the Catholic faith?”

It is his experience that Catholic schools have helped develop more vocations and positive attitudes toward Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church, so Father Currans believes the sacrifices made by parishioners and teachers is worth the effort.

Sandi Prather, kindergarten aide who graduated from Immaculate Conception Grade School and Bishop Heelan High School, has served at Mater Dei School for 29 years.

In a letter to nominate Prather, Luann Freidel, kindergarten teacher, wrote, “Sandi has worked with me in my kindergarten classroom the past 16 years and has done an outstanding job. She is a wonderful Catholic role model for students and staff.”

A letter of support from the Cleary family noted Prather makes the school day fun with her smiles and optimism, describing the aide as a rock star.

“Winning the award just makes me realize I have made a good choice in my career and therefore helped many children,” Prather said. “I have learned just as much from the children as they do from me. They are so eager to learn.”

Prather and her husband, Mike, have two grown children, Erica and Jessica, along with three grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

Jay Sassman, a graduate of Sioux Central Schools, has served as the head custodian at St. Mary School in Storm Lake for 17 years. He is described as a person who lives a life of service before self, as is evident in his service as a firefighter with the Rembrandt Fire Department.

In his nomination letter, Father Timothy Friedrichsen, who is president of St. Mary’s, wrote, “In the school he is a positive presence; the faculty, administration and staff all respect and appreciate him. The students love him and are always treated with parental-like love by him.”

The school president called Sassman invaluable and praised the custodian’s ability to do his best on very tight budget restraints.

Dawn Prosser, development director at St. Mary’s, noted that along with taking care of four buildings and being pulled in 100 different directions, Sassman’s good humor can show through while sharing a laugh with staff, parents, guests and students.

Sassman and his wife, Tammy, have one grown son.

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