Morris teacher Joe Corsello is retiring this spring from a total of 54 years teaching art in Morris schools – 33 at Morris Community High School and then, most recently, 21 at Immaculate Conception School.
But teaching art was not his first career choice as a young man.
In fact, it took him a forced 6,500-mile journey across the globe to figure it out.
Corsello was raised in Riverdale, just south of Chicago and east of Blue Island. He was always into art, he confessed.
“My biggest thrill was when I won an art contest in the third grade,” he said. “It was a painting of coconut trees. The teacher thought I had ability.”
The piece was the type of art where various colors were painted onto a paper, black was then painted on top to cover it all, and the design was etched out of the black.
He went on to major in interior decorating at Illinois Wesleyan University, but after the first year, was drafted into the U.S. Army. In Korea, his outfit adopted an orphanage, and the soldiers took turns playing soccer and other sports with the kids there.
One day, Corsello took some starch “from the laundry guy,” combined it with food coloring, and taught the kids to finger-paint on the back of old letters his buddies had received from home. He had a houseboy who had taught him a few words of Korean, but the art transcended the language differences, and both Corsello and the kids found they loved the interaction and the fun of teaching and learning about art.
“The crowd got bigger and bigger,” he said. “We just had fun doing it. When I came back, I went into the program for a teaching degree.”
After graduation, Corsello wanted to teach at Joliet or Thornton high schools, but they wanted more-experienced teachers. Then came an offer from Dale Stephen, principal of Morris High School. Corsello had wanted a larger community, but he and wife Norma decided they liked the quaintness of the town and settled in.
“I liked Morris,” he said. “It was more rural than I wanted to be, but we liked it. Norma thought it would be a nice place to start. But we just loved it here, and we stayed.”
Corsello was active at the high school, not only teaching art, but working on the yearbook, coaching intramural sports, and running concession stands. He was advisor for the student council for more than 25 years and cheerleading coach for more than 20. He helped bring National Honor Society to the school, as well, and began Delta Phi, the art club that is still active on campus.
“I enjoyed working with kids I wouldn’t have in my art class,” he said. “With Student Council, we ran homecoming, Spring Week, and the Sweetheart Dance. I liked that kind of activity.”
Corsello loved and still loves bringing variety to his art classes.
“We did everything,” he said. “I liked to experiment. I changed it every year. I didn’t like to do the same program.”
At times, he took his students out of the classroom to the grounds of the school to draw and paint, and one time got in a bit of trouble for taking them off campus.
“We packed a whole bunch of kids in my station wagon and drove to the river,” he said with a chuckle. “We drew there by the river. The kids really did enjoy stuff like that. The principal was waiting for me when I got back.”
Over the years, Corsello, the only art teacher at the high school, expanded the program to include ceramics. They had no wheel, so they shaped the clay by hand. By the second year, he had convinced the principal of the value of purchasing a wheel, which led to some jealousy from other teachers.
“The key is to knock on an administrator’s door, and keep knocking until they answer,” he said he told those who also wanted things for their classrooms. “I never stopped asking for things.”
He was the state’s Teacher of the Year in 1979, an honor he said he will never forget. His principal and superintendent took him out onto the football field to tell him so that he could yell at the top of his lungs. And he did.
He left the high school and began teaching at ICS in 1992, where the principal, his son-in-law Kim DesLauriers, hired him to teach art.
“He asked me if I would just teach until he found someone else,” Corsello said with a laugh. “I had wanted to work as a florist, but I stayed. I did enjoy it.”
ICS students took art once a week. Their projects had to be shorter, he said, and nothing with clay or large painting projects.
He also taught private lessons after school, usually with around five students at a time.
“We have a good time,” he said.
He has also taught summer school at ICS every year except one.
He loves using recycled materials in his classroom.
In fact, his scrounging around for discarded items he could use in class still brings out the teasing by his co-workers.
“He’s good at finding free projects,” ICS principal Kim DesLauriers said, “something others would put in the trash. . . He’s reluctant to get rid of anything because he thinks along the road he can find a use for it.”
An example is showing his students how to make a Mother’s Day gift out of old fast food drink containers. He used a bunch of discarded burlap one year to teach his students how to tie the material into knots with string, bleach, and make a weaving project.
“We save all kinds of junk,” Corsello said. “I have a couple of ladies who bring me all sorts of stuff. We use it all. I man brings me all his paper bags. The kids draw on them with markers and crayons, then they use them to empty their lockers at the end of the year.”
Several of Corsello’s students have gone on to art careers, including internationally known ceramics artist Tom Turner and local businessman Ray Grossi.
“I always considered myself a teacher and not an artist,” he said. “Picasso is truly an artist, and I’m truly a teacher teaching art. My students are better artists than I am. That’s a satisfaction you get from teaching.”
“Joe has a patience for teaching,” DesLauriers said, “and he is brilliant in being able to find an artistic talent in a student and being able to develop that talent. He’s also very good at finding something his non-artistic students can do and enjoy.
“I think they look upon him as a grandpa. He’s given them a good male presence, and kids at elementary school do not always have a male presence. He’s a good role model.”
Last year, Corsello was honored in Tennessee for receiving the 2012 Chasing Rainbow’s Award at the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood for his years as an outstanding teacher.
“He enjoys the children so much,” ICS fifth-grade teacher Rhonda Johnson said. “He’s a great storyteller, too. I love the stories of his childhood or of when he courted his wife. He’s just wise, and he’s compassionate. I think being with the children is what has kept him so young and motivated.”
“I just have fun doing everything,” Corsello said. “The good Lord has just given me a good break on everything. I always had fun doing it. The kids were always really good to me.”