Sarah Foster, Alma Kollmann, Raymond Fitchett, Robert Fitchett and Lois Parker. Four of them were local school teachers while Robert pursued a career in engineering.

Family’s teaching legacy spans nearly a century

February 8, 2018

When Kurt Kollmann walked onto the Merced High School campus last July, he had a observation that he just had to share with his mother. “Who would have thought,” he told her, “I would be back at Merced High, almost 40 years later, as the new school principal?”

It was a rhetorical question from a member of the Class of 1978.

But if anyone could answer the question with the words, “I always knew,” it would have to be Kurt’s mother, Alma Kollmann.

Alma surely wasn’t surprised when Kurt became a teacher after college. She could see the profession in him when he was just a teen.

She just had a feeling.

Well, it also helped that Alma herself was a longtime teacher … and so were her sisters Lois and Sarah … and her brother Raymond … and, of course, her mother Gladys … and even her grandmother, Minnie.

Incredibly, there’s been an uninterrupted period of employed teachers in this California family — from parents to children — for the past 98 school years. And most of that time, some 96 years, they’ve all been teaching right here in Merced County.

That means, they’ve helped educate thousands of local students.

“I never thought about doing anything else,” Alma said during an interview with the Times. “Sometimes I think it’s a gene that we share. It’s part of our family personality.”

First Generation

This family history lesson goes back to the very late 1800s, and the birth of the 20th century, in Keeler, California, when a young teacher named Minnie Lounsbury was just starting out at Keeler School.

In those days, a teacher had to live in a home with a family for several months. So she did, and that’s where she met Herbert Wrinkle, the son of Laurence Wrinkle, an MIT grad and a university professor. After the school year was over, Herbert and Minnie were married, and they began to plan a family.

The couple would welcome three children into the world, however, Minnie was widowed within six years. She ended up taking the kids to Santa Cruz and lived there for more than a decade, until around 1919, when she decided to enter a classroom again. Minnie went from Ripon schools to the Merced City School District in 1921. She taught first grade at the old Le Conte School where the County Administration building stands today, near M and 23rd streets.

At the time, the superintendent was known for only hiring single women. And there was no salary scale. Minnie was eligible due to her status as a widow. She would end up teaching in Merced for about 25 years before she died in 1947.

Second Generation

Before Minnie retired, her daughter Gladys Wrinkle Fitchett started teaching at Rotterdam School in Merced County. Gladys was a 1923 graduate of Merced High School, and to get a teaching credential back then, all she had to do was pass a state test. So she did.

Mrs. Fitchett taught at Farmdale School (where she also taught her daughters Alma and Sarah), and then at Weaver School. She later received a degree from Fresno State. In 1959, she became a Merced county consultant.

“She loved her job,” her daughter Alma said. “She loved the children, and talked about them all the time.”

Mrs. Fitchett lived a long life, and died in 1999.

Third Generation

In the mid-1950s, four of Mrs. Fitchett’s five children started entering the teaching world.

Her daughter Alma Fitchett started teaching in 1953. She also married John Kollmann who taught in Merced for many years. Alma worked at Winton School, and than at various locations in the Merced City School District for nearly 40 years.

“I had a lot of freedom to teach the way I wanted to teach,” Alma recalls.

She retired in 1992 after a 17-year run as a school counselor at Rivera School. Today, at 86, Alma continues to live in Merced.

Her brother, Raymond Fitchett, said he had a hell of a time with a college class at Cal Poly. He told himself, “If I get through this, I’m going to help anyone I can get through this same class.”

That’s when Raymond decided to become a teacher.

“I had a desire to help others,” he said.

Raymond taught at El Nido and then later in Winton. He became the superintendent of the Winton School District, and also taught at Merced College. Today, Raymond is 89 years old, and remains active in the community.

Sarah Fitchett Foster worked as a teacher in Gustine and Madera as a home economics teacher and a high school counselor. She also married a teacher, and eventually moved to Bakersfield. She is 84 years old.

The oldest of Gladys Fitchett’s children, Lois Fitchett Parker, entered the teaching profession a little later than her siblings. She worked for the Los Angeles School District, but later moved back to Merced and taught reading recovery at Franklin School in Merced.

“You have to remember,” she said, “when I started in the early 1960s, women still had little choice. You would go in for an interview with the college counselor, and there would be three choices: teaching, nursing, or become a secretary.”

Lois today is 93 and lives in Merced.

Fourth Generation

The teaching bug kept multiplying in the family. Lois raised two sons who became teachers. Thomas Parker taught at several local schools, including at Hoover School, and later held principal positions at Tenaya, Franklin and Rivera, before retirement. He married a teacher, Anita Parker.

His brother, Michael Parker, became a part-time criminal justice instructor at Merced College, and is still teaching in the Bay Area.

Alma’s daughter, Jane Kollmann Serpa, taught at Franklin School before moving to Turlock where she teaches today at Julien Elementary.

Her brother, Kurt Kollmann, taught math in Atwater schools and eventually became an associate principal at Atwater High, Golden Valley High and Buhach Colony High over a 32-year career. He also coached water polo. Kurt became principal at Merced High last year — perhaps the first Bear graduate (1978) to ever hold the position, (or at least the first one in the past 50 years, records show).

“I guess it started when I was a senior in high school when I worked with other students on campus. It was a natural progression. I played water polo and swam, and I wanted to coach. In my junior year at Fresno State, I took an introductory teaching course just to see if that’s what I wanted to do. … One thing led to another.”

Kurt’s wife, Michelle, is also a teacher at Mitchell Elementary in Atwater.

Yet another Kollmann — Anna Kollmann Miller — is an educator with the Merced County Office of Education. Her husband, Jim, teaches at Rivera Middle School.

Fifth Generation

Yes it continues.

In 2003, Rodd Parker, the grandson of Lois Fitchett Parker, started teaching at Buhach Colony High School. Today he is a teacher and water polo coach at El Capitan High School.

Alma Fitchett Kollmann’s grandson, Adam Serpa, taught at Ripon High School (the same place his great, great grandmother, Minnie, taught back in the early 1920s), and later moved to Dublin High School, where he serves as the choral director.

Alma’s other grandson, Benjamin Serpa, is teaching art history and drawing at Merced College.

Also, Alma’s son Kurt Kollmann mentioned he has “one out of five kids” — a daughter at Buhach Colony High — who is “thinking about” a career in education.

Afterthoughts …

There is a sixth generation, but it consists of young children, and family members say it awaits to been if the streak of teachers in the family will continue.

Meanwhile, the Times did take the opportunity to ask some of the retired educators how they feel the profession has changed over the years, and just what it takes to be a good teacher.

Raymond Fitchett, the retired superintendent, said: “Teaching is really a personal act. You are working directly with people, and that’s the real key. You need to think about the kids. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the methodology — how you approach the subject or the topic you are going to work. That really has changed a lot. There’s always somebody who has something new and different that you want to work with. … Some technique or process they want to use to help understand the subject they are working with. It’s changing all the time, and behind that is additional information and knowledge that comes through. … Computers are replacing textbooks, and you wonder about that. I remember some of my teachers, how great they were, and what he or she did for me. You wonder about the close contact teachers have had with students in the past, and if that is being replaced.”

Alma Fitchett Kollmann said the idea of only “teaching to standards” is concerning, as well as, the existence of huge school districts, and too many kids per classroom.

She said she often visits and helps out in her daughter-in-law’s 6th grade classroom at Mitchell School, and sees the differences, but also the things that haven’t changed.

“She knows her children and that’s important,” Alma said. “One group is not the same as another. You have to change and adapt.”

What makes a good teacher?

Says Raymond: “You don’t want people who are going to be worried about getting their clothes dirty because of a careless student. You don’t want people who are going to be bothered by the little things. You want people who are going to be open and free in their minds.”

His older sister, Lois Parker, added: “If you pick up a book each day, and it tells you what to do, but you don’t pay attention to what the children are saying, you shouldn’t be teaching.”

One last observation ...

Raymond Fitchett said he was sad to see an old olive tree cut down recently in Merced, near 23rd and Canal streets. He said it used to give shade to a playground area and sandbox in the yard of the old Le Conte School where his grandmother taught so many years ago. It survived the eventual construction of the County Administration building at the site, and remained for many years surrounded by a large parking lot. This year, the county added solar panel coverings to the lot (like so many local school campuses have done) and the tree was removed in the process. A construction worker told the times that crews found a “lot of brick” in the ground during the project — perhaps relics from the old school.

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