‘Working for the betterment of the students’

NEW ULM – Don Jirak, grades 5-12 band teacher at Cathedral High School, is retiring at the end of this school year with a list of accomplishments that not many could match.

The band program he took over some 13 years ago has grown from about 30 to nearly 70 students – despite an overall enrollment decline.

The band has earned superior ratings, the highest granted by the state High School League, for 13 years in a row.

“Hooked on the classics,” Jirak’s students play high-quality, Class 1 music – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. They actually ask for challenging music to perform.

The band has taken major trips – to New York, Boston, Orlando, Washington, D.C., and Jirak is happy to have been part of helping expose students to other parts of the country and diverse cultural experiences, he says.

The unity of the group says so much for the strength of the program, he notes.

“I have not been disappointed in any one school year,” Jirak said.

Realistically, there have been days when he walked away wondering why does it, but he was always able to come back the next day, make a turnaround, ready to “keep working for the betterment of the students.”

Jirak grew up on a farm near Montgomery and graduated from Montgomery High School. He earned a bachelor of science degree, in instrumental music, at Mankato State Teachers College, which is now Minnesota State University, Mankato.

In 1978, he joined Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s where he taught for 19 years. After three years working for Christensen Farms – during which he found he missed teaching – he took the opportunity to come back to education 13 years ago, when the band director’s position opened up at New Ulm Area Catholic Schools.

Jirak credits his parents with fueling his passion for music. They were farmers, “not big music people,” Jirak says, but they both loved, and filled their home with, music. His mother sang and played the accordion, and the family farm was close enough to the Twin Cities to attend major events, such as Minnesota Orchestra concerts.

In addition, remembers Jirak, he was inspired by his teachers through grade school and high school.

“They were such wholesome people that it made me want to continue on in their style,” he said. “They were passionate about helping students do well.”

Jirak finds it fulfilling to be able to plant the seed for something that his students will love, “have a passion for” and can do, for a lifetime.

Show your students that you care; that are a capable, passionate, loving person that cares about each of them; and that they are important to the whole group, he would advise a new teacher.

“Passion” is a key word, he notes. If teachers are “committed” to what they do, the students will reflect that commitment, they will mirror that success.

When he first came here, Jirak did not expect to stay very long, he admits. “I thought, two, three years, tops, then move on to a big school. …Thirty-some years later, I’m still here.”

You settle in, become “ingrained,” “attached to a community,” he said. “It becomes your community. This is my home now. I don’t have any aspiration to be anywhere else.”

Jirak directs the New Ulm Municipal Band and plays with a number of local groups. He plays with the Original German Band, Monument Brass, and other old-time bands. His main instrument is trumpet, but he also plays most others.

Jirak loves old cars, tractors and farm equipment and “keeping history alive.” He has restored some old cars; he also loves hunting and fishing.

Jirak does not have retirement plans. He will enjoy being able to engage in his hobbies of hunting and fishing and being able to continue his community service on his own schedule, he says. “I will enjoy working on some things I’ve been putting off for some 30 years; you know how that goes,” he says.

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