In Memory

James Kroll (Faculty) VIEW PROFILE

Kroll’s mentoring didn’t end when students left Rufus King

For an educator, there may be no greater gift than knowing you had a profound and lasting influence on the lives of your students. And many will go to their graves never truly comprehending their impact.

Not James Kroll.

Three weeks before he died, hundreds of former students, parents and colleagues showered the retired Rufus King High School teacher and guidance counselor with the gift of knowing at a "living wake" he hosted to say his good-byes. And hundreds more sent their thanks in letters, phone calls and emails from around the world.

"Dr. Kroll looked out for you and made sure you had every opportunity to thrive inside and outside the classroom," said Gilbert Collins, a senior administrator at Princeton University, who graduated from Rufus King in 1992.

"He helped students to realize their potential," said Collins, who credits Kroll with nurturing the language skills that helped him get into Harvard. "No matter what your talent was, he encouraged you to make the most of your God-given abilities and reach as high as you can."

Kroll died Sunday, just three weeks after being diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. He was 70.

In the years after he retired, Kroll had stayed in touch with many of his former students, reveling in their successes and continuing to counsel and encourage them long after they left King.

"He kept those connections for the rest of his life," said daughter Kristin Groves of Rochester, Minn., where Kroll and his wife, Nancy, moved in 2006 to be closer to their grandchildren.

"It wasn't just, 'I'm going to be your high school teacher.' He wanted to be there for their life."

The son of a stevedore and a homemaker, Kroll was born in 1945 and raised on Milwaukee's south side. He might have followed his father onto the docks, but for his own teachers and mentors along the way.

He graduated from Casimir Pulaski High School before heading off to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He would eventually get a master's in political science at Bowling Green University in Ohio and his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwuakee.

While at Whitewater, Kroll was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. And he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Those experiences, along with the Civil Rights Movement, friends said, shaped his views on social justice.

Out with a friend one night in 1969, he spied the former Nancy Price at the Safe House bar in Milwaukee. They eloped a year later and would go on to raise two daughters, Groves and Kathleen Brady of Milwaukee.

Nancy was charmed to the end by her husband's droll wit and wry sense of humor.

At the hospice in Minnesota, she could hear him in the bathroom in the middle of the night singing the Clash song "Should I stay or should I go?"

"I grew up in Elm Grove, so he would liked to say that he married up," said Nancy. "But I would say I married up."

Kroll began teaching social studies at what is now Bradley Tech High School in the early 1970s. But he spent most of his career at King, first as teacher, then a guidance counselor and ultimately the head of the guidance department.

He was instrumental in moving King to a standards-based admission program, a shift that was highly controversial at the time. And he scoured the district seeking out high-performing middle schools for students he believed could thrive and excel at King. .

"Jim was always working with kids, trying to improve their lives," said Kraig Schwartz of Seattle, who attended UW-Whitewater with Kroll and worked with him to organize a reunion of its peace studies club last summer.

Kroll led King's International Baccalaureate program, and help expand the rigorous academic program to other schools, including then-Marshall/Juneau High and the Rochester Arts and Science Academy, a school he helped found in Minnesota. He traveled to the White House at least three times to accept presidential accolades for King's efforts.

He coached and chaperoned King's award-winning competitive academic teams — Quiz Bowl, LifeSmarts, Academic Decathlon and others — showcasing Milwaukee's intellectual talent as far away as Scotland and Ireland.

On trips, he made sure to stoke students' curiosity beyond the contests, taking them to museums and cultural attractions in every city. It was a way of paying forward a gift he'd been given in junior high — a trip to the Chicago Art Institute — by then-MPS art teacher and lifelong friend Allen Caucutt.

"He never forgot that," said Caucutt. "To his last days of teaching ... he took his classes to art galleries and art shows all over the United States."

Kroll seemed to know the details — course offerings and admission requirements — of every college and university. He was a master at getting funding from the school district for his students. And he helped students secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships over the years. He retired from King in 2001.

In the days after Kroll was diagnosed with the brain tumor, he did three things: He ditched the restrictive vegan diet he'd adopted after a heart attack and devoured not one but two extra-cheesy pizzas. He set about preparing his wake, and he sent his students a last assignment. In it, he asked them to send him a memory of their time together.

And he was deluged.

"You were a huge reason for all of the success I had in high school, and later in life, because you gave me so many opportunities to challenge myself and grow outside of the classroom," Collins wrote from Princeton.

"What can I say ... You changed my life. Plain and simple," wrote Paul Ghetto, a film executive in Los Angeles. "Words can't capture my gratitude."

Greg Whitten, an economist in Hong Kong who credits Kroll with inspiring his interest in international work, turned the hundreds of emails from his students into a dozen sonnets honoring his friend and mentor.

"He just wanted to know if he had made a difference. And he did. He really did," said his daughter, Kristin Groves.

He also leaves a somewhat diminished Sheepshead team. They have planned a "last call," in which they'll drive his ashes to an Oshkosh cemetery, where they will be interred in a bench at the family gravesite. And they will lift a pint of Guinness in honor of Jim Kroll.

Groves is survived by his wife, Nancy; daughters Kathleen (Sean) Brady, and Kristin (Cory) Groves; two grandchaildren, Sophie and Elanor.

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