A love for education, a passion for critical thinking, a skepticism for authority, and a compassion for the underdog. She was Sharko.
Sharon L. Sharko was born July 8, 1951 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee Wisconsin, the first child of Leo and Cecelia Sharko. Her father Leo Sharko was a second generation Croatian-Slovenian, his parents Andrew and Anna Sharko emigrated to the United States after the First World War. Leo graduated from West Division High School in 1941, served in the United States Army during the Second World War, and worked at Miller Brewing Company after the war. Cecelia Sharko, the daughter of George and Margaret Keating, graduated from Milwaukee Juneau High School in 1945 and worked in accounting at Allis Chalmers.
The first-born grandchild on both sides of her family, Sharon spent many hours with her grandparents. She loved the streetcar ride to her paternal grandparent’s home over “Miller Valley” where she proudly announced to fellow passengers, “That’s where my daddy works.” Sharon’s cousin Mike remembers that Sharon loved horses and accordions in her youngest years.
Sharon spent the entire third grade and many summers afterward at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital undergoing corrective orthopedic surgeries. Sharon referred to her long-term hospital stays as ‘summer at Camp Children’s Hospital.’
Sharon’s cousin Barbara remembers Deda (Andrew Sharko) took the streetcar every day to visit Sharon in the hospital. He brought Sharon fresh fruit – an apple or a pear from his orchard or an orange from the corner grocery store. Deda regaled Sharon with stories of the “Old Country” – Croatia, the Austro-Hungarian Cavalry, his skills training horses, the First World War, the Russian Front, the end of the war and his subsequent journey to America. Fr. John Haas, a long-time family friend from Switzerland, set up a short-wave radio in Sharon’s hospital room so that she could listen to overseas radio broadcasts.
Sharon’s years of surgeries and long-term hospital stays developed a formidable young woman with a love for education, a passion for critical thinking, a skepticism for authority, and a compassion for the underdog. Constantly surrounded by doctors, nurses and adults, Sharon mastered the arts of persuasion and argumentation in advocating her concerns and interests, at times pitting residents and interns against attending doctors and surgeons. Mike and Barbara both remarked, “After all the surgeries and stays at Children’s Hospital, Sharon’s worldview changed from horses and accordions to politics, government and education.”
Sharon graduated from St. Matthias Grade School in 1965 and entered St. Mary’s Academy, a private all-girls high school on Milwaukee’s South Side. While visiting her grandparents, Sharon poured over LIFE and National Geographic magazines for more information about current events, culture, and geography. She learned about the First World War from American and Austrian perspectives through her conversations with her grandfathers George and Andrew. Mary, a high school friend, shared her diary entries of Sharon. “Sharon was a member of the Ensemble Choir, Glee Club, and Milwaukee Youth Symphony. Sharon liked to disrupt religion class with provocative questions to the nuns.” Barbara remembers that at this stage of her life “Sharon was always reading, she was very well versed and she had strong opinions about politics.”
Sharon graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in 1969 and entered The University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. While on campus, Sharon witnessed the political turmoil of the era – protests against the Vietnam War, the expansion of the war into Cambodia and the Student Strike which shut down the UW-Milwaukee campus in the Spring of 1970.
Sharon joined the Young Democratic Clubs of Wisconsin (YDCW) while in college. She spearheaded door-to-door literature drops, phone banks, survey research, candidate appearances and political action conferences across the state. Sharon was known as a master of parliamentary procedure and coalition building. She served as the Recording Secretary, Vice President of Political Action, Executive Vice President for the YDCW and as Recording Secretary for the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County.
Sharon pursued her major in Education, Secondary School English and a minor in Political Science. She shared her love of education and politics with her parents Leo and Cecelia and her siblings Timothy and Lynda. With her family in tow, Sharon navigated a Memorial Day drive from Milwaukee to Devil’s Lake State Park and back to see the geography of Wisconsin. A Sunday afternoon was spent at Engelmann Hall listening to the Milwaukee Symphony’s performance of Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. The Sharko family attended the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s Annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner to hear guest speaker Senator Edward Kennedy.
Sharon graduated in December 1973 from UW-Milwaukee during a time of crisis not only in America but in the world. The United States and the Soviet Union had escalated to the highest state of force readiness since The Cuban Missile Crisis during the Yom Kippur War. The OPEC Oil Embargo and subsequent economic recession gripped the United States and Europe. Richard Nixon’s Presidency was on in a downward trajectory following the Watergate burglary and cover-up. Sharon started her career as a legal secretary at Quarles & Brady. Sharon left Quarles and Brady after the economy improved and taught English at St. Mary’s Academy and St. Mary’s Burlington.
What about debate? That may be the ultimate irony to the Sharon Sharko story. In the spring of 1980, Sharon applied for a position at Greendale High School as an English teacher. Sharon’s conversations with human resources and the administration went well. Bob, the English Department Chair, was told by administration that he had the final say to hire Sharon. Bob met Sharon and had a good conversation. However, at that time, Greendale High School had reached peak expansion and enrollment would be dropping. “You have to be aware of one thing, you will be hired, but I want to caution you about the projected drop in enrollment, and since you are at the bottom of the totem pole, you would be the first one to go”, warned Bob.
Sharon recounted her prior conversation with the Principal. “I was told it would be a plus if I could teach social studies”; to which Sharon added, “I have enough credits to do that … and they want me to take debate.” At the time, extra-curricular programs were overseen by long-tenured teachers, some looking to offload these responsibilities. “They like faculty members who deal with extra-curricular programs, and if the program is successful, debate could keep you here”, advised Bob. Sharon’s immediate response, “I can get the debate program ready by the fall.”
Many years later Bob reflected, “I don’t recall Sharon mentioning her debate experience in that conversation. Sharon had demonstrated her abilities, her talents, and her gumption to do something. When it first crossed my mind, well — the way she sounds — maybe she does know debate.”
Bob continued, “Sharon jumped into it headlong and went after it full bore. She did her homework and from the first year on delivered a good solid program that grew. She took to it so well; her talent was so strong in working with the kids and getting them to do things. No one could have done this — the teams, the tournaments, the creation of something quite wonderful. Sharon was the most successful debate coach Greendale High School ever had, leading a debate program that was highly regarded state-wide for over thirty years.”
When asked about debate, Sharon’s long-time friend Carol said, “I don’t remember how Sharon got into debate; but once she started, she really got into it. When she was not taking courses, Sharon would spend her summers at the UW-Milwaukee library researching topics, reviewing periodicals, developing reading lists, preparing materials. She would buy so many books and magazines for debate to bring her team on board. Sharon had such a great skill at working with students, she got my children Brian and Amy into debate and it helped them so much in their lives.”
Sharko was good to everyone, she bonded with a large number of students. Her students would hang out with her during lunch hour, during her prep time, before school and after school. Sharko helped her students with their homework, discussions, debate research, and speech preparation. Her classroom was a comfortable place for students to meet, especially those who were more reserved.
Sharon taught English her first year, part English and part Social Studies in her third year and eventually Social Studies and Advanced Placement (AP) afterward. Sharon was voted Wisconsin Debate Coaches’ Association “Coach of the Year” in 2002 and served as WDCA President in 2003-2004. She received the Wisconsin Debate Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame Award for 2015. Sharon served for many years on the Wisconsin High School Forensics Association’s Board of Control. Her Forensics Teams were consistent winners of the coveted Hintz Award for Excellence in Speech. Sharon’s family and friends remarked how much she loved teaching, her students, debate, forensics, questioning authority and championing the underdog at Greendale.
In 2011, this much-beloved, long-time Social Studies and AP Educator, Gifted and Talented Specialist, Debate and Forensics Coach retired from Greendale High School. After her retirement, she mentored student teachers at Alverno College. Sharon passed away unexpectedly the morning of Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.
Sharon Sharko is best remembered in the words of her students.
Jessica: “If there was a patron saint of awkward/weird teenagers it was Sharon Sharko. She was more than just an educator, mentor & dear friend. For me and many more who entered her classroom and her life, she was a touchstone, a catalyst, and an anchor point. She provided a space in which students could grow, stumbling around into thought, sometimes saying wonderful and in turns horrible things to better grasp a concept or ideal… Most notably what kind of person we wanted to become. She widened your worldview, providing information and her opinion freely, encouraging everyone to do the same, to discover our own opinions, arrive at our own conclusions and to be open with our thoughts.”
Tmara: “Sharon took her students under her wings and brought out the best in us. She took care of us, she dedicated herself to us. Along with my parents, she saw potential in me that I didn’t. She taught me to debate and find my voice. She taught me to lead and stand my ground. She was a wonderful person who knew nothing but kindness.”
Michael: “A Croatian, purple-haired, political science teacher may not have been typical in a suburban Midwestern town, but she carved out her niche and was never shy about expressing her true opinions on every topic. Almost 25 years after our last class, she still made an effort to keep in touch with students and never lost the same drive that inspired so many students to become teachers and pass on her values, perspectives, and ideas.”
Sabrina: “She also had a knack for knowing people. When I first joined her debate team, Sharko decided to pair me up with a quiet girl named Linsey. Linsey and I were debate partners for only a year, but we still talk to this day. In fact, she was a bridesmaid at my wedding. The next year, Sharko paired me up with a boy named Ken, who knew more about politics and government than I ever cared to learn. Somehow, our personalities meshed and we really clicked as debate partners. These two people that I believed had nothing in common with me have ended up being my lifelong friends. I am forever thankful to have them in my life. Sharon Sharko helped make me the person I am today. At her memorial, someone said that Sharko was the “patron saint of awkward teenagers.” And it’s true. When I was a shy, unsure, timid teenager, Sharko took me under her wing and helped me discover a confidence in my speaking abilities. She helped me foster a love of helping people and standing up for what I believe in. That’s what she always did. She loved and accepted every student that walked through her door, regardless of age, confidence, and beauty. She took you and made you a better person. A better speaker. A better advocate. She was always there for her students, both when we were in school and out in the real world, guiding us, supporting us unconditionally, and helping us become the wonderful, expressive adults we all are today.”
Jon: “Sharko, as we all called her, was a political activist, a teacher union leader, and a vocal Democrat during the Reagan-Bush 80’s. However, none of this was evident to 14-year-old me. All I knew was that I felt like I didn’t fit in everywhere, and Sharko took me under her wing, and she nurtured my sometimes unconventional wit, and she helped me to find my voice, and, as I found it, she lovingly encouraged me to use it to change the world for the better.”
Ben: “Few, if any, students here today ever met Sharon in person. You would remember if you did – she had bright purple hair and the bold personality to match – but many of you have felt her influence through your own coaches. In the days after her passing, social media was flooded with messages from coaches throughout the state who said that they began their coaching careers hoping one day to have the sort of influence and impact that Sharon had. Every time your coach pushes you to try something new and scary or steers you away from a terrible decision you don’t even realize you’re making or even just sits and listens to you vent, it’s because they see the potential for greatness in you and are committed to helping you achieve it. Listen to what they have to say. There’s a little bit of Sharon’s voice in their words.”
Russell: “Friends, here’s my post announcing that I’ve accepted a job offer teaching economics and US history! This one is for Sharko: I’ll make you proud!”
Mark: “I’ll never forget sitting there in Sharko’s AP Politics class. I will also never forget her encouragement and support of my desire to become a teacher. She would always tell me not to give up on my dream and what a great teacher I would make. I’ll never forget her and I will think of her every day I teach in the future. I will tell my students about her and what she did for me.”
Cassandra: “Wishing my long-time mentor a very happy birthday up in heaven. We all miss you so much. Enjoy your special day!”
And what about debate? As Sharon Sharko coached her students and as her students demonstrate today, debate is the ultimate instrument that empowers a love for education, a passion for critical thinking, a skepticism for authority, and a compassion for the underdog. May Sharon’s legacy continues on.
-Written by Timothy Sharko