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John F. Kula, a former CPS teacher and assistant principal, dies at age 90

John Kula

John Kula

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Updated: November 2, 2012 6:15AM

Almost every time John F. Kula saw a plane fly overhead, he’d point to the sky and exclaim, “Look! It’s a miracle.”

With a childlike awe and an undying sense of curiosity, Mr. Kula, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, inspired thousands of students in his 50-year career. He led citywide science fairs, developed a popular “School is Work” economics unit and founded a space camp at Wright College.

After retiring to Phoenix, Ariz., Mr. Kula became a NASA-certified instructor at the Challenger Space Center and taught space exploration to Yavapai and Apache children on an Indian reservation in Arizona. NASA was so impressed with the space program on the reservation, the agency invited Mr. Kula and a Native American chief to witness the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Over the years Mr. Kula met astronauts Buzz Aldrin, James Lovell and Mae Jemison. He underwent mock astronaut training himself when he was 75.

Mr. Kula, 90, died Aug. 29 of respiratory failure at his home in California, where he lived the past few years.

It was actually his third time in hospice care, according to one of his sons. Several years ago, Mr. Kula was suffering some health issues and doctors said he did not have more than two weeks to live. To everyone’s surprise, he bounced back.

During his second time in hospice, a priest gave Mr. Kula his last rites and his family held a living memorial service. Mr. Kula, on the other hand, had been talking about enrolling in a ceramics class.

“They said, ‘You’re supposed to be dying, you can’t do that,’” said his son, John J. Kula. “Within two weeks he was back on his feet.”

Mr. Kula was born July 13, 1922, in Omaha, Neb., to Polish immigrant parents, who were so poor they ended up sending their seven children around the country to live with others. Mr. Kula was in an orphanage until an aunt and uncle adopted him and brought him to Chicago.

He was raised on the Northwest Side with a cousin of similar age, and as young men they enlisted in the military and served overseas.

Upon his return, Mr. Kula studied at Roosevelt University and began his teaching career in Chicago. He taught at Schneider and Audubon elementary schools, served as a consultant for the district’s division of family life and sex education, and worked more than 10 years as an assistant principal.

“He loved teaching, loved his students and stayed after school with them,” said his son John. “He was usually the last one to leave the building. Finally the janitor got fed up, gave him the keys and said, ‘You’re here longer than anyone, you lock up.’”

During Mr. Kula’s award-winning “School is Work” unit, students role-played to learn about personal finance and economics. Every two weeks they earned a fake pay check, which they had to deposit into a makeshift bank set up in the classroom. With their extra earnings, the kids could purchase school supplies from a little store that Mr. Kula personally stocked.

Many of his former students say Mr. Kula offered guidance and life lessons on being responsible and ethical citizens.

“He was like your father in a way,” said Gerald Winston, a student of Mr. Kula’s during the late ’50s. “He was very stern when he had to be stern but he was always very kind and very understanding.”

“I became a teacher because of him,” added another former student, Victor Munoz. “Sometimes I find myself in situations in the classroom and some of his messages ring through my ear, and I think about what he would do, and it kind of keeps me leveled and keeps me calm.”

As a father of six, Mr. Kula couldn’t easily support his family on a teaching salary alone. So, he worked nights for many years at a printing company that created custom greeting cards.

Mr. Kula, who was a former longtime resident of the Northwest Side, played the violin and was active in a number of local Catholic organizations. He attended Mass every Sunday and prayed daily at his bedside.

When his wife, whom he met at a dance at St. Hyacinth Basilica died in 1990, he spent six weeks in silent prayer at a monastery retreat in the mountains of California.

After moving to Phoenix, Mr. Kula was elected to the Arizona Silver Haired Legislature, a group that proposed bills designed to help senior citizens. Following a move to California a few years later, he remained a social activist and once participated in a march for social equality while he was in a wheelchair.

“He was busy to the end,” his son said.

Mr. Kula also is survived by his children, Susan, Tom, Jim, Gary and Mary; seven grandchildren and a sister.

Services have been held.

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