SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – In the fall of 1972, Willard Schulte took on a job with the South Plainfield School District and, this June, will retire following over 49 years as a physical education teacher.
"I was going to retire last year; that was the plan, but then COVID hit and after putting in so many years, I didn’t want to go out like that," Schulte, a physical education teacher and coach at South Plainfield High School (SPHS), told TAPinto. "I am so glad that I stayed this extra year and got to see so many of the kids who have been returning over the last two months."
The first in his family to go to college, Schulte admits that he 'wasn’t a great student' and, following his graduation from SPHS in 1967, was unsure what career path he would pursue. "I had no idea where to even apply, but my parents sat me down and said 'you're going to college,'" he said.
With the help of his father, who served on the board of education, and his high school guidance counselor, Schulte went on to attend Tusculum College in Greenville, TN where he also was a member of the school’s baseball and basketball teams. He first majored in business, then history before, at the suggestion of his basketball coach, turned his attention to physical education in his junior year.
"I had a bunch of credits in two different things…and it was suggested that I become a teacher…It was something I had never thought about," Schulte said. "Everything just fell into place and I happened to be in the right place at the right time when I came back to South Plainfield and applied for one of the jobs."
Schulte began his career with the South Plainfield School District in 1972, taking on a position as a physical education teacher at John F. Kennedy Elementary School. However, at the end of the 1975-1976 school year, staff cutbacks left him out of a work, but not for long. That fall, he was hired back as a physical education teacher at his alma mater and has called SPHS home ever since.
"I have been in South Plainfield since I was two years old," said Schulte, who, in 1983, relocated to Hillsborough. "I have either taught or lived here; that's 70 years, almost my whole life, and I have enjoyed every minute of it."
Schulte credits both the late Nancy Erickson, who, when he first began teaching, served as head of the physical education department, and the late Carol Espinosa, a fellow physical education teacher, as influences throughout his career. Erickson, he said, had an impact on how he taught while Espinosa established the aerobics program, which Schulte has continued to run all these years.
"Not only were they good people, but they taught me a lot about how to handle things at the high school level," he said.
Much of Schulte’s tenure with the district has also included a coaching career that has spanned close to 40 years. He served as coach of the SPHS varsity football team for 20 years and its freshman team for a decade. For two years, he coached the girls junior varsity basketball team before going on to oversee the varsity program for 21 years. Additionally, Schulte also served as coach of the freshman boys basketball team for 10 years and, earlier this school year, wrapped up his seventh season as coach of the freshman boys basketball team.
Schulte said one of the highlights of his coaching career came in 2019 when he was honored for his success with the girls basketball team and inducted into the New Jersey State Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
"It was a very welcomed surprise and the icing on the cake in my coaching career," he said.
While he is looking forward to this next chapter, which includes working at the Royce Brook Golf Course and spending more time with his wife, Jan, and stepsons, Schulte said leaving the job – and town – that has been his 'home' for most of his life is bittersweet.
"It's hard to explain but you hear people say 'you are meant to do' something and that's how I feel about teaching. I was meant to do it. I just loved it and have enjoyed it for years," said Schulte, extending thanks to all the students he has taught and coached and to his colleagues, past and present.
"To my students, thank you for the memories,” he said. "To my fellow teachers and staff, thank you all for the support, the friendships, the guidance, and the work ethic.”
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