Classmates regret bullying of student decades ago
JANESVILLE--When 55-year-old Robert Krueger had a heart attack last fall, high school classmates he had not heard from in years sent him handmade get-well cards.
Some came to the hospital to offer encouragement. Others wrote warm wishes online.
“Classmates rallied on Facebook to send him wonderful messages of love and support,” said classmate Bonnie Kanter-Braem. “Some even asked for forgiveness.”
The Janesville man, who graduated with the Parker High School Class of 1977, was bullied as a child. But at the end of his life, the same classmates who once witnessed the bullying or took part in it, rallied behind him.
They knew what had happened to Robert was wrong and wanted him to know they cared.
In the end, Robert did not seem to hold a grudge.
“He taught everyone a lesson about being bullied,” said classmate Karla Brikowski. “He had to have a big heart because he still talked to a lot of people who were mean to him.”
Years ago, she witnessed how young Robert was the target of cruel jokes, which began in grade school.
“He wasn't like all the other kids,” Brikowski said. “He was a very quiet child who didn't wear the nicest clothes and who didn't have the luxuries that other people had. We all got new shoes and new winter coats, but he never got anything new.”
She said young Robert was good in math and electronics, but not so good with conversation. Later in life the words came more easily, and he enjoyed letting others know what was on his mind.
“I want people to remember Robert as a kind and gentle man who would give you the shirt off his back,” Brikowski said. “He was taunted in school, and everyone regretted it.”
After graduation, Brikowski did not see Robert for years. In 1989, she went to work at Seneca Foods, where Robert was a faithful employee for 34 years.
When he got sick, the response on Facebook overwhelmed her.
“I thought maybe a couple of people would send their thoughts and prayers,” she said. “But so many former classmates sent messages.”
They also reflected on their youth.
Back then, people did not talk about bullying.
“The word was not part of our vocabulary,” Kanter-Braem said. “Bullying was not addressed as it is today. Today students are called out on it. As teachers, if we see it going on, we are supposed to intervene. But our teachers never did.”
Kanter-Braem teaches advanced placement psychology at Parker High School.
“I've always regretted that I did not step in when I saw Robert mistreated,” she said. “I wish I had had the guts to stand up and tell other people not to pick on him.”
Back then, adults did not encourage students to speak up as they do today.
“Our students are taught from grade school that bullying—whether face-to-face or cyber bullying—will not be tolerated,” she said.
A teacher for 32 years, Kanter-Braem has thought about Robert when she has seen children being bullied.
“I've tried to take some of those kids under my wing,” she said. “They are the ones who need our help. Rather than make fun of those who do not have the advantages that we take for granted, we should show them kindness. At the very least, we need to make sure they know they are cared about.”
Former classmates went out of their way to make sure Robert knew they were concerned about him.
“Not just a handful, but 30 or more,” Kanter-Braem said. “While we could not make up for what he went through in his school days, we went a long way to give him some peace at the end.”
Robert's classmates did not think he was going to die.
“We were all under the assumption that he would recover,” Kanter-Braem said.
Melissa Gavigan, Robert's friend and supervisor at work, made sure someone was with him regularly after he went to the hospital.
“Robert never fully recovered from his heart attack,” she said. “He had good days and bad days. We would read the cards to him over and over. They had heartfelt messages. Maybe his classmates were not there at the beginning of his life, but there were plenty who wanted to show their respect at the end.”
She called Robert part of the “Seneca family” and described him as liking work and the people he worked with.
After Robert died Nov. 21, Kanter-Braem asked classmates to contribute to a brick in his memory for the Thor Walkway in front of Parker High School. People responded generously, and the brick with Robert's name will be dedicated in a small ceremony this spring.
Robert's classmates also donated to Parker's robotics club, which Kanter-Braem believes Robert would have joined if it had existed in the late 1970s.
A post on Facebook after Robert's death summed up many feelings.
“I know that Robert would be proud to know how many lives he touched and how many lessons were learned by others as a result of his very presence,” a classmate wrote.
“Regardless of whether you were a bully to Robert or a friend all along, he left us all as friends who will never tolerate our families treating other people poorly. Robert, you left many people better than when you found them. For that we are all grateful.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.