Constable: Former troublemaker, disciplinarian at Conant reunite after 40 years

Forty years ago, at the start of her career at Conant High School, Hoffman Estates teenager Amy Powell got accustomed to the walk. She'd leave whatever classroom she'd gotten kicked out of for causing trouble and follow orders to make the familiar trek to Room 105, the office of disciplinarian and Assistant Principal Don Grossnickle.

“I had something of an insubordination issue in high school,” remembers the woman, now 55 and using the last name of her husband, Kevin Wojdak. She didn't have a drug problem, wasn't destructive and remembers getting into only one fight. “It was more me not liking authority. I was just this big-mouthed kid.”

Grossnickle, who was always “Dr. Grossnickle” to her, suspended her when required, but he says he always thought the girl was kind at heart and had great potential.

This month, when Grossnickle's profile came up on Facebook as someone she might know, Wojdak sent him a friend request. Grossnickle didn't recognize the name but figured it was a former student and accepted her request.

“I was born without my hand if that helps you place me,” wrote Wojdak, who was called Amy “No Hand” in grade school and made great efforts in high school to hide the fingerless nub at the end of her right arm.

“A lot of my insecurities came from being physically different and being adopted,” Wojdak says. “I was a very angry teenager. But Dr. Grossnickle always was extremely kind. I don't remember any specific conversations. I just remember how he made me feel.”

  Catching up after 40 years, Amy Wojdak welcomes Donald Grossnickle, her former assistant principal at Conant High School, to her home in Elk Grove Village. Both say they learned valuable lessons from each other during those turbulent years. Mark Welsh/

When they reunited at her house in Elk Grove Village this week, Grossnickle, now 73 and a deacon for Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, brought her flowers and “Unbreakable Resilience,” one of the books he has written that focuses on the spirit of eight young athletes who endured after catastrophic injuries that left them paralyzed. Wojdak gave him a pair of earrings for his wife, Kathy, from the artsy collection she makes. They shared a hug and immediately jumped back to the relationship they forged 40 years ago.

“You made me feel heard and seen and listened to. I fondly remember our conversations,” Wojdak says.

“I really didn't see you as a troublemaker,” Grossnickle tells her. “I saw a sweetness in you. I still see you as the beautiful person you are and were.”

Grossnickle was a biology teacher at Palatine High School for a decade before getting a doctoral degree in curriculum and becoming assistant principal at Conant and later Addison Trail High School. He tells Wojdak he never was comfortable doling out discipline to kids who were works in progress and mostly just needed a friendly face and support.

“Amy taught me hundreds of lessons,” Grossnickle says, noting the troubled teen found a way to channel that energy into positive things, such as her auto repair class with teacher Jerry Rice and sewing in home economics with teacher Joann Icenogle. She designed and sewed her own prom dress and studied fashion design at Harper College in Palatine.

She liked music but figured she couldn't play an instrument with one hand. “I always wanted to do drama, but I was too insecure,” she says. “I didn't want my hand to be on display.”

She made great friends in high school, many of whom she still has, and was no longer a discipline concern when she graduated in 1985.

Amy Powell in her Conant High School yearbook picture.

During their frequent sessions in high school, she and Grossnickle never talked about her missing hand or her feelings about being adopted. It wasn't until she was in her 20s that Wojdak tracked down her birthparents.

“You were a detective,” Grossnickle says as he hears how she used her smarts and charm to get answers. Her biological mom, Bonita Witt, had gotten pregnant at 16 and gave up her baby for adoption without knowing the infant was missing a hand. She also found her biological father, Mitch Aliotta, the bassist for Aliotta, Haynes, Jeremiah, the band that performed the 1973 hit “Lake Shore Drive,” which remains a cult classic.

She built a good relationship with both of them before they died, and a wall in her home includes photos of biological relatives from both sides, including a shot of her with Aliotta's three other daughters, as well as the family and extended family who raised her. Wojdak says her adopted parents, Bill and Gerri Powell, “were wonderful parents” and adopted two older brothers and also had a biological son. Wojdak has a daughter, Haley, from her first marriage, and adopted Noah, her husband's son from his earlier marriage.

“My mother was fantastic at showing me how to improvise and do things for myself,” Wojdak says of the mom who raised her and died a decade ago. She still is devoted to her dad, who started the CBS Messenger Service in Des Plaines and Palatine, where Wojdak handled accounting duties for three decades.

While she's endured some tragedies, including a couple of relatives who took their own lives, Wojdak says she's been happily married for 16 years and has a good life. The “craft room” in her house is where she has restored furniture, sewn things and now makes jewelry. The angst and anger she had as a teen has been converted into positive energy. “If I want to do something, I do,” Wojdak says.

Rekindling a relationship forced upon them during difficult times in the early 1980s is paying benefits for Wojdak and Grossnickle, neither of whom realized the other found value in their times together all those years ago.

“It's good to know that even though I was kind of a troubled kid, I made an impact on you,” Wojdak tells Grossnickle.

“You have been a teacher in my life,” Grossnickle says. “I'm glad you include me in the mix of your happily-ever-after story.”

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