by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — More than 600 guests — almost double last year’s attendance — are expected at the sixth annual Gaudeamus dinner and recognition celebration to be held Oct. 18 at the Overland
Park Convention Center.
And that’s music to the ears of the sponsor’s executive director, Michael Morrisey.
“Last fiscal year, the Catholic Education Foundation provided 969 scholarships for kids in the archdiocese as a part of our foundation school group,” he said. “We’re projecting to provide over 1100 in the upcoming school year.”
Gaudeamus — Latin for “let us rejoice” — will indeed be an occasion for joy as
the CEF continues to build on last year’s theme “Angels Among Us” by honoring two new angels — Esther White and Ben Zarda.
Morrisey said the two are being recognized for more than their financial support.
“They’re not just providing resources,” he said, “but are actively involved.”
The Gaudeamus evening will kick off with the auction of a single item, said Morrisey — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enjoy dinner for eight at the archbishop’s residence, hosted by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher, and Abbot Barnabas Senecal.
“There are a lot of dinners and lunches that go on with these guys individually,” said Morrissey, “but nowhere else can you get the trio together to do this.” Superintendent Kathy O’Hara will also present the annual Archbishop’s School of Excellence Award that night, which goes to the CEF school that has demonstrated an outstanding school-wide focus on its Catholic mission, academics, resource management and stewardship.
The evening’s entertainment will be provided by the St. Thomas Aquinas choral group, in conjunction with vocalist Ron Gutierrez.
Through Gaudeamus, the CEF hopes to recognize all the angels who keep this organization alive and to highlight the amazing accomplishments of CEF schools.
“Our foundation provides scholarships for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to get a Catholic education,” said Morrisey. “And the same can be said for Ben and Esther.
“Without their help, there’s a lot of kids that wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to Catholic schools.”
Queen of the Holy Rosary parishioner Esther White said she was shocked and humbled when she found out CEF wanted to honor her at this year’s Gaudeamus event.
White said she shares the award with her husband Bob, who passed away just over a year ago.
Always active in their Catholic faith, Bob and Esther White belonged to the Legion of Mary for 40 years and were also members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.
But White has always had a special love for children.
“I wanted eight of my own,” she said, “but God only sent me one, so I had to adopt two more.”
She understands how difficult it is for some families to afford a Catholic education and is eager to help make that quality education available to every child who wants it. That’s why she believes in CEF.
“That’s one of my things — to help kids get a Catholic education,” she said. “I went to Redemptorist [in Kansas City, Mo.] and everything those nuns taught me about faith, I remember. I just think [CEF] is a marvelous organization and it’s going to save a lot of children.”
White’s Catholic faith has sustained her through many trials. Last year, within a four-month period, she lost her husband, her son, and her sister.
“It’s amazing, but you carry on,” she said. “People say, ‘How do you do this?’ And I say, ‘I have faith. God is in charge. I say my rosary every day; I have morning prayers, noon prayers and night prayers.
“I always tell people, ‘If I’m not working, I’m praying.’ My faith sustains me completely.”
As part of the Zarda dairy family, St. Joseph in Shawnee parishioner Ben Zarda is a well-known businessman, but he believes the most important accomplishment of his life is helping build a Catholic high school.
“The fact that I was involved in building St. Thomas Aquinas is what I’m most proud of,” he said.
Zarda, too, knows the importance of a Catholic education. His parents came here from Germany. Though his father spoke some English, his mother did not, and so he and his siblings started at St. Joseph Grade School at a great disadvantage.
“The nun who taught us had to teach us English before she taught us arithmetic or the ABCs,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, by third grade we were reading and doing our arithmetic.”
Zarda, who shares the CEF honor with his wife Betty, sent all six of their children through Catholic schools. He believes that all parents who want to do the same should be able to. Because, he said, Catholic schools are exceptional.
“I think Catholic schools are particularly important today with the moral decay of society,” he said. “When they talk about bringing the morality back, I think, ‘We never lost it in the Catholic schools!’”