University Marketing and Communications

Kathleen Happel

January 06, 2021

Written by Craig Schreiner | Photos by Craig Schreiner

In WHY I TEACH, Kathleen Ann Happel, a lecturer of health, physical education, recreation and coaching, prepares students who want to make a difference in adapted physical education and as role models in school and recreational programs. 

Happel was born and raised in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, and came to Wisconsin in 1988 for graduate school at UW-La Crosse, earning a master’s degree in adapted physical education/special populations. She joined the faculty at UW-Whitewater in 1995 and will begin her 26th year as a lecturer in January. 

Happel is proud to be the child of immigrant parents and a first-generation college student.

“My mother was born on a farm in Ireland and had a high school education. My dad was born in a coal mining community (in England) where you became a miner at 14 and your education stopped. My father did that until the age of 21, then bought a one-way ticket on a ship to New York City. My mother also crossed the Atlantic by ship and landed at New York. They met and were married in 1958. I am the youngest of four children.”


Kathleen Happel speaks with students in a gym.

Kathleen Happel speaks with students in a gym.


“At 45, my father suffered a massive stroke that left the right side of his body completely paralyzed. He was our sole provider and we lived in a simple apartment in the upper Bronx. Mom was a stay-at-home mom. Our lives changed quite intensely, overnight. Dad was in the hospital for several weeks and shockingly to the medical staff he was surviving because of his strength, his stubbornness, the love from us and the intense care my mother gave him. It was highly suggested to mom that she could not care for him along with three children in the home and that she should put him in a nursing home or the VA hospital. Never tell an Irishwoman what to do. Dad came home and we all took care of him. My father lived 31 years after that, 20 years in New York and the last 12 in Wisconsin. I converted him to being a Packers and a Giants fan. He passed away at 76 and had seven grandchildren whom he was able to know and spend time with.”


Kathleen Happel speaks with students in a gym on the UW-Whitewater campus.

Kathleen Happel, gesturing, lecturer in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Coaching, teaches her class "Activities of Inclusion from A-Z" as part of the adapted physical education licensure on April 8, 2019. Students in the class created projects focused on including students of all abilities in physical education.


“I based my life since the age of 10 on helping people with disabilities in a way that is fun and joyous to their life. Physical education and adapted physical education were a perfect fit for me. I tell stories when I teach, usually about my life. I use teaching examples and experiences both good and bad. It’s an Irish thing for sure. It lets the students know I am real. I have made mistakes and have had struggles in life. But I made it and kept going to be that difference-maker in someone’s life.”


A student in a wheelchair demonstrates a game they have created with a stick and a ball.

A student in a wheelchair demonstrates a game they have created with a stick and a ball.


“I also teach courses in the physical education major and teaching license area. My favorite now involves teaching rhythms and dance. In all my courses, I include a wide variety of activities as class exercises to keep the mind and body moving and to instill in my students the trial and error which is part of all aspects of teaching.”


Kathleen Happel, left, hugs a student at graduation, both in cap and gown.

Kathleen Happel, left, hugs a student at graduation, both in cap and gown.


“My students want to promote movement and health and inclusion, in a way that will motivate and inspire kids to want to be healthy and live positive lives. They want to make a difference just like I did. They are wonderful people who will become physical education teachers, coaches, health teachers and adapted physical education teachers. We have an amazing program in our department that can serve all those needs and requirements, so our students are hired in the positions they seek. What makes it most rewarding for me is to see my students become who they want to be in their own style and manner of teaching and to see them being positive role models to all the children they meet. I always say to them, when they go out to student-teach, ‘Go make me proud,’ and they usually laugh and promise that they will.”

WHY I TEACH is a series about the dedicated professionals at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, including professors, coaches, advisors and other staff members, who make every day a teachable moment — and every place a learning place — by their expertise and example.

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