Fr. Joe with claw marks color.jpg

One year ago today, I covered the most unusual story, so far, in my career, and Jefferson County got a new resident in a most unusual way.

I refer to the day an adolescent black bear ran into a Eureka school – an elementary school I attended years ago – and decided to hang out for a while.

It was May 28, 2019. We were on deadline at the Leader, which always gets the adrenaline pumping. Turned out, I learned my own system could pump into a higher gear.

I was in the newsroom finishing up stories for the May 30 Eureka Leader, which was being sent to the printer in a couple of hours, along with its sister paper, the Jefferson County Leader.

Finally done with my stories – and presumably, mostly done for the day – I got on Facebook to see what was happening. Almost immediately, I had to stop scrolling, stunned by what I was seeing.

It was a video of a bear in the lobby of Most Sacred Heart School in Eureka, where I had attended school through third grade. On top of that, I’d been a parishioner at Most Sacred Heart for most of my life.

I called Eureka Leader editor Tony Krausz over to my desk.

“I’m not crazy, right? You see a bear, too?” I asked.

He did.

This was breaking news for Eureka. At that point, I was only about five months into the job and had not reported a lot of Eureka breaking news. It’s hard to report breaking news in a paper that comes out every other week, but I knew if I acted quickly, I could get a story in the paper that would be in mailboxes just two days later. And the Leader website had a chance at being the first to report the full story.

I started by calling the school and the parish pastor, Father Joe Kempf. No one answered, but soon Father Joe called me back.

He told me he was sitting in his car outside the school, hoping to see the bear run out. And then he started cracking bear jokes.

Father Joe described himself as “psyched,” and called the experience “awesome.”

How could this have happened? I asked.

“It was just great timing on the part of the bear,” Father Joe said. “During the school year, we keep the doors locked as part of our security protocols for our children. Since the school year had ended, a teacher had temporarily propped a door open as she was emptying her stuff from her classroom. It was in that two-minute span that the bear visited.”

Father Joe speculated that the bear must have thought the open doors looked like a cave.

It was undoubtedly a most unusual day for the young bear, too. His saga started at about 8:30 a.m. in the Legends subdivision in south Eureka.

Residents reported seeing a bear and Eureka Police responded to the subdivision, but did not find the animal. Then, at about noon, the bear was sighted in downtown Eureka.

Jeff Glassner, president of Urethane Roller Specialist at 100 South Central Ave., said he saw the bear run by his security cameras at 11:37 a.m.

Police were hot on the bear’s trail when they spotted it running up a nearby hill. Then, it scurried into the school.

I bet most schools would have tried to cover up how the bear got in, worrying that people would see a flaw in the security system.

But Father Joe was honest about how it all went down. A year later, he shares the bear story often and has kept a permanent record on display – the claw marks the bear made on school walls.

“I am still excited every time the conversation comes up,” Father Joe said. “I am so grateful for the wonderful life we have inside our buildings here. Man, I’m also so excited about the wonderful life (nature) we have outside our building.”

The bathroom where the bear became trapped and caused some damage was repaired. But the claw marks in the lobby stayed. The gouges are now protected under a piece of plexiglass, and there is a plaque explaining what happened, along with other memorabilia.

“When people are touring our school or new to the parish, we love to show them the claw marks, the ‘bear-crossing’ sign, and the giant stuffed teddy bear we put there,” Father Joe said.

During the parish rummage sale, a sign declaring “Our prices are unbearable” was placed next to the marks.

Back on May 28, 2019, the bear couldn’t be lured out and had to be tranquilized after spending four hours inside the school.

Dan Zarlenga, St. Louis regional media specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, speculated that Mama Bear had recently kicked her son out of his childhood home. Who knows, maybe that experience damaged her kid’s psyche and led to his very bad day.

Zarlenga said the bear, whose ear was tagged, was taken to an undisclosed location in rural Jefferson County and was released. Hopefully, far, far away from any institutions of learning.

A few days ago, Zarlenga said no one has reported seeing the bear, and there have been no reports regarding the tag.

So, now a year older and a year wiser, the bear, most likely, is happily going about life somewhere in Jefferson County, perhaps missing the amenities the bathroom at Most Sacred Heart had to offer.

And by the way, one year ago today, I got a pretty cool website scoop. Thanks, Father Joe.