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Education

St. Francis in Wheaton celebrates 60 years of educating minds, 'capturing hearts'

WHEATON – Longtime St. Francis High School Director of Guidance and Counseling Trudy Rigney said she instantly fell in love with the campus after being hired at the school in 1978.

"It was just a wonderful community," Rigney said. "I really enjoyed the relationships among the staff."

The 63-year-old Rigney also fell in love at the campus. She met her future husband, Kevin Rigney, at St. Francis.

He was hired at St. Francis as a math teacher the same year she was hired. He currently teaches at St. Ignatius College Prep School in Chicago.

"I met my husband during both of our first years," she said. "We ended up getting married in 1980. We even had our wedding reception in what we affectionately call the Slant Dome, which was the main gym at the time. As far as I know, it's the only wedding reception that's been held at the school."

Trudy Rigney and her fellow staff members, as well as St. Francis students, are celebrating the school's 60th anniversary this year. In 1957, the Catholic college preparatory school welcomed the first freshman and sophomore classes.

The school's enrollment was 390 the year it opened, compared to 744 today. In 1969, the first coeducational classes began at St. Francis.

The couple's two children also share a love for St. Francis High School. Both of their children attended the school.

"They both had great experiences at the school," Trudy Rigney said. "They loved their teachers. In fact, they're both teachers themselves now, so the whole family are teachers. But I think my kids were inspired by some of the instructors that they had here."

Rigney said she thinks the school offers an even better experience now, compared to when her children attended St. Francis.

"We continue to bring in some qualified teachers," she said. "Our people have a lot of passion for what they do. They're very student-focused as well, and that just makes for happy teachers and happy students."

Rigney is the second-highest-tenured employee at St. Francis. And she doesn't see herself leaving anytime soon.

"It just is a great place to work," she said. "I feel like we've had very supportive administrators who kind of make my job easier. We have just really great parents who are great to work with and I think who are very appreciative of what we do here. The Mothers Club does lunch for the faculty every month, just because they want to show their appreciation for us. That kind of support from parents is just great to have. And the kids are a great group of kids to work with."

Mike Armbrust, whose family owns Armbrust Plumbing in Carol Stream, is one of 27 family members who have attended St. Francis. He graduated in 1988.

"I believe they have succeeded in their mission of the education of the whole child, academically and spiritually," he said.

Rigney is a strong believer in the value of a Catholic education in giving students the tools they need. Not surprisingly, she is good friends with the school's longest-tenured staff member – Peg Kopec, who arrived on the St. Francis campus in the fall of 1974.

The 68-year-old Kopec was hired as a physical education teacher.

"I think it was providence," she said. "I think that someone took care of me and got me here. I did not attend Catholic school. Actually, I had subbed in Wheaton District 200, and I thought that's probably where I would end up. And lo and behold, there was an opening at St. Francis, and I interviewed for it and got the job. And I fell in love with it."

Kopec said there is a "special quality" to the school.

"All the local schools have good academics as we do and good athletics as we do," she said. "Our community captures your heart. It makes you want to be here."

That love for the school also extends to her four children, who attended St. Francis.

"My oldest son married his high school sweetheart, and her whole family went to St. Francis," Kopec said.

Her daughter, Erin Kopec Tuttle, is a volleyball coach at St. Francis. When Peg Kopec retired last year as St. Francis volleyball coach, her daughter became the assistant varsity coach.

Peg Kopec is the all-time-winningest coach in any Illinois High School Association sport, recording a record of 1,238-229-2 and notching 12 state titles in her career at St. Francis. Rigney and Kopec coached together for a time.

"Both of us have always worked very hard for women and women's opportunities across the board, and we did that here at St. Francis together," Kopec said.

The love of the school is the common bond that ties them together.

"We just enjoy this community," Rigney said.

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