by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Some kids agonize over their choice of high school.
Not so with Jennifer Brennan-Emmert. For her, the choice was easy.
“[Hayden] was comfortable,” said Brennan-Emmert, a 1989 Hayden graduate. “You felt part of a large family and, while you might not always see eye to eye with your brother or sister — just as in your own biological family — you still wanted to see everyone succeed and cheered for everyone there. All the teachers helped with that.”
It’s no wonder that Hayden had that family feel for her. Several members of her family went there. In fact, when listing all her family members who were Hayden graduates, she stopped counting at around 50. That included her grandparents and parents as well as some of her aunts, uncles and cousins.
Hayden truly is an “alma mater” — the Latin phrase which means “nourishing mother” or “fostering mother.” Within the city of Topeka, perhaps no other high school exemplifies that description better than Hayden, the city’s only Catholic high school.
Hayden High School, founded in 1911 as Topeka Catholic High School by Father Francis Hayden, pastor of Assumption Parish, has educated four and sometimes five generations of some Topeka families. Due to its unique position as the only Catholic high school in a city of 122,600, the student population (currently 650) draws from all seven Topeka parishes.
Like one’s own biological mother, it has fostered close bonds between Topeka Catholics and nourished her children with the Gospel message.
“Hayden is blessed with four and five generations of family members who have attended the high school,” said Hayden principal Mark Madsen. “The shared value of religious education, the excellence in academic and athletic performance, and the experience of the close community spirit is why so many families have continued to send their children to Hayden High School. They want for their children what they experienced when they were at Hayden.”
Generations of Topeka Catholics have sent their children to Hayden because of the faculty and staff that personified the great Hayden spirit. Brennan-Emmert remembers one in particular.
“Ben Meseke cared about everybody,” she said. “He was kind, considerate and caring. . . . He expected and demanded a lot out of everyone, but if there was a kid on the basketball team who needed new basketball shoes and couldn’t afford them, he would buy them.”
“He also talked constantly about having a positive mental attitude,” she continued. “He said the right positive attitude makes all the difference in the world.”
Meseke’s words have helped her countless times, said Brennan-Emmert, who directs the funeral home owned by her parents, particularly when she has been especially close to families burying a loved one.
And he has served as an example of selfless service. Partly thanks to Meseke, she has become a very active member of Mater Dei Parish. Currently, she serves as a room mother, Girl Scout leader, parish council member and school council member, not to mention filling in wherever else there’s a need.
“I kind of picture myself as a cheerleader and a person who fills in wherever necessary,” said Brennan-Emmert. “If the first-grade teacher says, ‘I need such-and-such,’ I say, ‘OK, I’ll do that for you.’ I love it.”
Like Brennan-Emmert, Vance and Sally Hubbell said the role of Hayden cannot be overstated in their lives.
The couple began dating their senior year and, after graduating in 1964, the pair said Hayden and the Topeka Catholic community continued to be a major influence in every aspect of their lives. Like Brennan-Emmert, the couple had a lot of family members who attended Hayden. Counting their own four children, they estimate nearly a dozen members of their family have graduated, representing three generations.
Since their own graduations, the Hubbells have become active in Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish and also in Hayden High School’s Parents and Alumni for Catholic Education (PACE) organization, which raises money for the school through fundraisers, including concession stands at athletic events and an annual auction.
Through the years, Vance Hubbell, a business owner, has served on the PACE board, solicited donations for the auction and helped with the alumni golf tournament. He has also held positions on both the parish and finance council, served with his wife as a lead couple for the region’s marriage preparation program and brought Communion to the homebound.
Sally Hubbell, who said she was blessed to be a stay-at-home mom, has also been an active parishioner, sharing in some ministries with her husband, but also serving as an hourly coordinator for perpetual adoration, as a sacristan and a member of the parish’s family life committee.
The Hubbells have made a host of friends within the Topeka Catholic community — many as a result of their connections to Hayden High School. Their children then formed friendships with the children of many of their parents’ friends, and so forth. At the time of their interview, the Hubbells were preparing for vacation with two other Hayden families.
“Our parents and our Catholic ideals have inspired us to want to help others,” Sally Hubbell said. “We truly believe that everything we have is a gift from God, and we are called to use those gifts for the benefit of others — not just our own.
“We both believe every child has the right to a Catholic education, and it is everyone’s responsibility to provide that education,” she continued. “It is wonderful to excel in academics, but children need to learn how to have a relationship with God and how to know, love, and serve him and their neighbor. This is the part of our education that brought us a great deal of happiness and satisfaction in our lives.”
Like the Hubbells, Teresa Thomas, who graduated in 1969, said her years at Hayden were ones full of rich experiences that she continues to draw upon.
“I can still remember vividly our senior retreat — a day of darkness followed by a day of light,” said the secretary for Sacred Heart-St. Joseph Parish, a combined parish with churches in both the downtown and Oakland areas of Topeka. “This retreat focused on relationships: from fantasy, to history, to our very personal ones with each other. It was in total contrast to the earlier retreats which had been days of almost total silence and inner reflection.”
“That is not to say that the earlier ones were not good in their own way,” she continued, “but the new concept felt almost radical in its opposition to the normal paradigm. I have applied things I heard and discovered in those two days over and over throughout my life.”
For Andrea Hillebert, principal of Mater Dei School and a 1988 graduate, this coming fall will mark the beginning of a new chapter in her connection to Hayden: The oldest of her four children will begin his freshman year. She, too, said the values and friendships formed during her years at Hayden have served her well professionally and personally.
“Hayden encouraged us to serve in our community, to participate in the sacraments and to do the right thing at all times,” she said.
“I use these same principles in my work as an educator and in my role as mother,” she continued. “For my Faith in Action (a semester-long service project completed during one’s senior year), I worked at the Capper Foundation, which was such a positive experience, I chose education as my area of study.”
Hayden has also fostered several religious vocations, including those of two of the city’s seven pastors, Father Tim Haberkorn, pastor of Sacred Heart-St. Joseph, and Father Jerry Volz, pastor of St. Matthew Parish, both 1984 graduates.
“I would say that it was the little things at Hayden that influenced me to eventually accept the call to the priesthood,” said Father Volz. “I recall the religion classes that formed me in the teachings of the church. I recall a class on death and dying and the trip we took to a funeral home and cemetery. I recall the Faith in Action class that took me to serve in environments like the Kansas Neurological Institute, the VA hospital and nursing homes.”
“Hayden is the only Catholic high school in Topeka and thus represents the entire city and surrounding area,” Father Volz continued. “It is truly a sign of the universal Catholic Church, as it includes youth from various social and ethnic backgrounds — rich and poor — coming together and having a common bond of faith.”
Hayden is a blessing for the city of Topeka as it continues to lead the city in academic performance and excellence and in service to the community, he said. All students practice stewardship in their individual parishes and throughout the city, as well as do their parents, showing a communal ownership and responsibility for its success.
“Stewardship is the key to the success of the church universal as well as in Topeka,” he said. “And Hayden is a great example of stewardship in action.”