Sometimes, it’s good to defy your father.
Kathleen Cook, a 16-year physical education teacher at St. Agnes Cathedral School, was honored with the prestigious Elizabeth Ann Seton Award during the school’s annual Dinner Dance at Westbury Manor on Feb. 4.
Cook was one of four people to receive awards that night. Keely Collins was given St. Catherine of Siena Award for commitment to Catholic education and Elena and Roger O’Donnell received the St. Thomas Aquinas Award for their ongoing support of Catholic education. The ceremony culminated St. Agnes’ Catholic Schools Week celebration.
Cook’s award is presented annually to exemplary individuals whose support and service impacts Catholic education and the well-being of this nation’s youth. Seton honorees also have a scholarship presented in their honor to a deserving Catholic school student in the local community.
“I’m very excited,” she said the day before the dinner. “I had four children that went here. It’s just great.”
Cook would not have been in this position if she listened to her father as a youngster. Her dad initially wanted her to become a secretary in his law office. But she bristled at the thought of sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day, so she came up with a plan.
“I had to find out where I wanted to go [to college] and give him my ideas on why I should do it,” she said. “He liked the idea and said I could try it for a year.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and dance from Longwood University in Virginia and taught at two schools in the Valley Stream 13 school district, Corpus Christi Elementary School in Mineola and Our Lady of Lourdes in West Islip before returning to college to get her master’s degree in exercise physiology at Adelphi.
Cook became a leave-replacement physical education teacher at St. Agnes in 2000 and became a full-time staff member the following year. By that time, all four of her children were students at her home school.
Cook also coaches soccer and basketball at St. Agnes and was instrumental in starting a league where Catholic schools from all over the area can compete against each other.
“Sports are important to many of us,” she said. “We wanted those kids to shine, so we started the sports program.”
She was an integral part of the school’s “Red, White and Do” games over the last two days of Catholic Schools Week by organizing running, basketball and volleyball games for all grades in the gymnasium.
“You could just see it, the kids love her,” said St. Agnes principal Cecilia St. John.
In the end, Cook knows she made the right career choice.
“I love the kids,” she said. “If you’re having a day, they can make your day. I love it. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Collins was “humbled” when told that she won her award, adding that it was rewarding enough that St. Agnes provided an environment for parents to get involved and volunteer.
“My years at St. Agnes as a volunteer are some of my fondest memories, and to get an award for that was fabulous,” she said.
A Rockville Centre resident since the mid-1990s, Collins was a St. Agnes choir mom, worked on the Scholastic book fairs and ran the school’s supply store for many years. Even after her son, Joseph, graduated from St. Agnes, she coordinated the costumes for the school plays, was a member of the Home School Association, later becoming president, and chaired and volunteered at many other events.
She is also a member of the parish’s party committee.
“Once Joseph started at St. Agnes, [husband] Ken and I became members of the 'St. Agnes family,” she said. “We refer to it as a family because we continued to be welcomed even after Joseph graduated in 2011. St. Agnes knows that they can call on us anytime, for anything. We know we can call on St. Agnes for anytime, for anything. What's better than that?”
The O’Donnells have been Rockville Centre residents and St. Agnes parishioners since 1996 and two of their three children went through the parish's school system. Shortly thereafter, Elena began volunteering with the mother’s club and was an inaugural member of the committee that began the parish’s Mass for individuals with special needs.
“We are deeply humbled to receive the St. Thomas Aquinas Award for our ongoing support of Catholic education,” the couple said. “We believe a community and school can only be as vibrant and healthy as those who contribute their time and talents to it. We are just two in a long list of those that came before us and those that will follow us that help make St. Agnes a truly wonderful school.”
The O’Donnells’ love for the parish was passed down to their children. Courtney, a sophomore at Marist College, sang with the church choir and volunteered to work with the disabled at the Camp Anchor Saturday program. Son Andrew, who will be graduating from St. Agnes in June, is a three-year altar server and an usher at the Special Needs Mass, and Ryan is heavily involved in community activities.
Both Elena and Roger are strong advocates of a Catholic education and believe in the importance of giving back to the community.