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Wrong turn leads to a 37-year career for former S.E. Gross science teacher honored over weekend

Published: Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 11:34 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 11:53 a.m. CDT
(Matthew Hendrickson -
Former students of longtime S.E. Gross Middle School science teacher Joseph Lis filled the school's auditorium at a dedication ceremony in his honor on Saturday. A science lab at the school will now bear his name.
(Matthew Hendrickson -
Former S.E. Gross Middle School science teacher Joseph Lis pops a chocolate covered insect in his mouth at a science lab dedication ceremony in his honor Saturday. Former students who attended the event fondly remembered Lis offering them in class.

BROOKFIELD – On a November day in 1956, Joseph Lis found himself lost in Brookfield while on his way to the zoo.

By chance, he happened to drive by S.E. Gross Middle School and decided to stop in to ask for directions. While getting his bearings, he struck up a conversation with the school's principal about his military service and his recent degree from DePaul University. By the end of their conversation, Lis was offered a job and began a 37-year career as a science teacher at the school the following day.

The job would introduce him to his wife, also a teacher at the school, and inspire many of his students, some of who attended a ceremony at Gross Middle School on Saturday for the dedication of one of the school's science labs in his honor.

To his former students, he was – and will always be – Mr. Lis; a teacher who made science fun, offered treats of chocolate grasshoppers and issued the confusing advice of "hurry up and take your time."

"I'm very humbled and honored to have the new science lab dedicated to me," Lis told the crowd in his address. "Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to get anything like this."

Lis likened the dedication of the lab in his name to becoming a member of the science hall of fame.

There was no shortage of prestigious proclamations at the event, either. George West, a representative of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, read aloud a proclamation from Duncan thanking Lis for his important work educating generations of students in the fundamentals of science.

Proclamations and letters were also read by representatives of the United States Marine Corps., which Lis honorably served in, the Brookfield Village Board, state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.

But the most touching statements came from the many former students who filled the Gross Auditorium and stood to share their memories of his class.

"I would not be where I am today without Mr. Lis," said Karl Skala, class of 1960.

Skala spoke of the influence his former science teacher had on his life and how Lis' class put him on the path to a career as a scientist.

Former students also recounted stories of still being able to remember all the bones of the human body, the anatomy of frogs and the impact of his methods as a teacher.

Another former student, Jan Minarovic Fiala, class of 1958, recalled Lis' teaching abilities and how they led her on the path to become a teacher as well – eventually teaching second grade at Gross (as a colleague of her former teacher) when the school still housed elementary students.

"He worked his magic and had us all loving science," Fiala said, and even presented Lis with a chocolate covered insect at the ceremony, which he quickly popped in his mouth and crunched away.

Assistant Principal Ryan Evans said the school was proud to dedicate the school's first floor, seventh grade lab in Lis' honor.

"Strong educators are what District 95 is all about," Evans said. "It is built upon educators like Joe Lis."

To a room of laughs, Lis said there was only one group he was surprised were not in attendance at the event.

"I'm surprised we didn't have anyone from the fire department here – they knew me pretty well," Lis joked.

He recounted a time when he showed students the reaction that occurs when sulfuric acid is poured on a bowl of sugar.

"There was a lot of smoke – the fire department was here in about 15 minutes."

But then, you don't become a beloved science teacher without a flair for bringing your material to life.

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