Bleeding Blue event welcomed Prairie Hill teachers and staff past and present


Helen Heckle, Prairie Hill's first kindergarten teacher, and Roger Fenrick, the district's first combination superintendent and principal.

Prairie Hill School fifth grade teacher and athletic director Mike Rhines welcomed over 100 staff members from the past through the present to the Prairie Hill School District's “Bleeding Blue to Bridge the Gap” event on Saturday, Oct. 21 at Willowbrook Middle School.

The focus this year was to bring past staff members together for a big celebration with those who have taught within the district since 2009. The district's roots go back to 1851.

Attendees included teachers, administration, support personnel, custodians, bus drivers, kitchen staff, speech therapists, social workers, school psychologists, and everyone who made a difference in the district's continued success.

Staff members from past to present attended Prairie Hill School's "Bleeding Blue to Bridge the Gap" event on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023 at Willowbrook Middle School.

Throughout the afternoon, those who were involved in the district in any way visited together and enjoyed great amounts of delicious food provided by the district.

News clippings covered stories written about the district through the years - some featured staff and students. Photos captured special moments throughout the years.

Special mementos given out included shirts that were donated by Custom Inks of South Beloit. Everyone received a Bleed Blue mug. The event featured ice cream from Culver's and homemade breads and jams. Crochet paws were made with love by secretary Chris Kerska, and notepads and pens were given away as door prizes.

Bleeding Blue to Bridge the Gap

Rhines said, “This gathering was labeled 'Bleeding Blue to Bridge the Gap' for a reason as they blended staff members who are in the midst of their first year within the district, together with Hazel Ralston who was 18 when she taught at the one-room White School back in 1945-1946, Eleanor DeRoos who taught at the first Prairie Hill School, Helen Heckle who was the very first kindergarten teacher (now 99 years old), as well as Roger Fenrick who was the first combination principal and superintendent from the 1960's through the 1980's.”

Mike Rhines spent time catching up with Hazel Ralston, a teacher at the one-room White School in 1945-1946.

Marcie Ball began teaching in the Prairie Hill District in 1992. In 2009 she moved to Willowbrook Middle School when it opened. Currently she is teaching 5th-8th graders.

Ball started her career as a second grade teacher and then transitioned into teaching physical education and health.

“Mike Rhines did an amazing job of bringing so many people together,” Ball said. “There were faculty and staff members from brand new to way back. He spent countless hours finding people to invite who were part of the PHSC #133.”

“I thought that all of the connections and conversations people had were wonderful,” Ball said.

“Mike's historical presentation was informative and brought back some great memories for a lot of people in attendance.”

Rhines captured attention while reflecting on the history of how the school district has evolved over time.

Prairie Hill's history

Throughout the 1800’s until 1952, the northeast section of Winnebago County housed several one-room school houses. Those original schools on the prairie included Nichols (formerly the Old Log Inn & Old Stone School), Hayward (formerly Mathews School), and White School on the corner of White School Road and Prairie Hill Road.

These schools consolidated in 1952 to form the original Prairie Hill School on Prairie Hill Road just east of where Dry Run Creek runs under the road at the intersection of WIllowbrook Road (formerly Ellis Road).

Unfortunately, just a couple of years later, it was announced that the I-90 tollway was going to go right through the new building.

Suddenly the new Prairie Hill had to become the old Prairie Hill and a new Prairie Hill School was opened in 1959 with four classrooms and a small gym on Willowbrook Road. This core structure is what formed the foundation for the present Prairie Hill Elementary School.

Four building additions occurred over the years. Three different times students used portable classrooms on the Prairie School site until construction was completed. In 1981 a gymnasium was dedicated to Bob Clothier who served in different capacities.

Willowbrook became the district's middle school in 2009, covering grades 5-8. Prairie Hill became a K-4th grade building (now a pre- K- 4) and Prairie Hill was one of Winnebago County's last K-8th buildings.

Due to a generous donation of land by the George Palmer family, Willowbrook Middle School could be built. The school's gym is named “George Palmer Gymnasium.”

Gathering to remember

In 2022, a similar gathering was held for staff members who had been a part of the district when it was one building which held grades kindergarten through 8th grade - from 1959 through 2009 when the district split into an elementary and middle school campus.

Ball gratefully added to her previous sentiments, “Mike truly bleeds blue. He has worn many hats over the years and continues to. Our district has been blessed to have such an outstanding leader like Mike Rhines for the past 35 years.”

Mike Rhines (center) was joined by an organization committee in planning the event. Pictured are: Allison Keller, Julie Mattelig, Marcie Ball, Bailey Mitchell, and Kris DalSanto.

Rhines reflects, “There were so many other people who also attended as important pieces of the puzzle that is called Prairie Hill School District.”

“Back in 1952 it was a blending of the one room schools of Hayward, Nichols, and White and now in 2023 it's the blending of Prairie Hill Elementary and Willowbrook Middle School - as they work to “Bridge the Gap” throughout the years,” Rhines said.

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