LAPEL — Every fall for the past 21 years, Jerry Kemerly has been taking Lapel High School seniors on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to tour Europe. For each of the past 15 years, Tom Thal-Jantzen has been the representative of EF Tours, managing and choreographing the group as they see a new part of the world. On Saturday, May 6, they reunited in Lapel for what turned into a double celebration, including what was kind of a surprise party.

For several years, Thal-Jantzen (pictured above, left)  had promised Kemerly (right) he would come to America and visit him in Lapel. When the Lapel educator announced his retirement, the timing seemed to be perfect. Kemerly made arrangements for former students to visit with Thal-Jantzen during two separate events Saturday — in the afternoon at Lapel High School and in the evening at the Eagles Lodge in town.

Unbeknownst to Kemerly, friends, family and co-workers conspired to turn the evening get-together into a surprise retirement party for the educator of 45 years, all of which were served at Lapel schools.

“It was very successful,” Kemerly said of the surprise party. “I had no idea.”

During his years with Lapel schools, Kemerly has taken on nearly every role possible.

He has been a teacher, a coach, and an administrator; he said he feels his time in the classroom has been the most important.

“Teaching has been the most rewarding part,” he said. “Seeing the kids growing up, going off to college, being successful, and, more than anything else, coming back and saying ‘Thanks’.”

Over the course of the three hours at the Eagles Lodge, more than 100 well-wishers visited with Kemerly. The large turnout of co-workers, family and former students left Kemerly feeling very grateful and fortunate.

“It means a heck of a lot,” he said. “First of all, it means a lot that my kids took the time to do this, but they’ve always been supportive of me in everything, so that doesn’t surprise me. But the number of people that showed up tonight surprised me. A lot of good friends, a lot of friends that actually I probably started teaching with in 1972 are here. I can’t begin to tell (them) how much I appreciate it.”

The European trips, which began in 1996, have been a big part of Kemerly’s legacy with Lapel. He estimates that more than 700 people, including students and parents, have had the opportunity to travel to London, Rome and Paris with these trips.

“This Europe trip has probably been the most rewarding individual thing that I’ve done,” he said. “To think about taking as many kids as we’ve taken that wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise — it’s very rewarding.”

A partnership between Kemerly and Thal-Jantzen formed after the 2001 trip. After having different coordinators for the first handful of trips, Kemerly knew immediately that Thal-Jantzen was the best man for the job going forward.

“He just had total confidence in what he was going to do,” Kemerly said. “One of the main things was, you could tell he enjoyed what he was doing and he enjoyed being around the kids.”

Thal-Jantzen runs about a dozen tours a year, evenly divided between adult groups and student groups. The native Englishman, who now lives in France, said he relates better to the younger tour groups, and that the Lapel students have always been a step above other groups he has worked with.

“The one thing that has stood out has been that they are just really polite,” he said. “Sometimes you get groups that are really polite, but are so reserved you don’t feel like they are enjoying themselves. They (Lapel seniors) have always had the right balance between you know they’re having a good time and enjoying themselves, but at the same time, they’ve had that respect that is appreciated.”

Thal-Jantzen’s responsibilities include arranging lodging, meals and being a liaison for public transportation. He said working with Kemerly has worked out so well because of a mutual trust.

“We probably just trust each other to do what we know how to do,” Thal-Jantzen said. “I trust him to deal with his group the way he needs to, and I think he trusts me to organize it the way it will work best.”

“If Tom says that’s the way we’re going to do it, that’s what we do,” Kemerly said.

Kemerly added that Thal-Jantzen’s rapport with the students helps make the trips so special.

“Tom just blends right in with the kids,” Kemerly said. “Every time we leave Europe, the kids are almost in tears, wanting to see Tom one more time.”

It is quite possible even though Kemerly will no longer be on the school trips that his path may cross with his trans-Atlantic partner’s again.

His plans for retirement will surprise no one.

“I obviously like to travel, or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Kemerly said. “We’re going to do some traveling, some overseas. We have an RV, and we’ll go out west, also. Traveling will be the No. 1 thing I do.”

As he mingled among his friends and former students, many expressing their thanks for his work over the past four and a half decades, Kemerly couldn’t help but express his own gratitude.

“I just appreciate the opportunities I’ve had,” he said. “If I was here another 45 years, I couldn’t begin to give back what I feel like I’ve gotten from the community and the school system.”

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Rob Hunt covers news, sports and other happenings in South Madison County. He can be reached at rhunt@pendletontimespost.com or (765) 778-2324.