Erich Hoffer: Committed to Catholic Education
Erich Hoffer’s initial plans didn’t include a commitment to Catholic school leadership, let alone the University of Notre Dame’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program.
Not even close.
For one thing, he wasn’t Catholic. He also had aspirations to major in political science and head straight to law school before beginning a long and successful career.
To hear Erich tell it, the story involves a series of “2-by-4 moments” in which God smacked him in the head with a new plan for his life, beginning on the campus of the College of Saint Benedict & Saint John's University (CSB-SJU) in 1999.
“In my freshman year dorm, I met a man named Fr. Paul Schwietz—who was just an amazing person—whose witness and untimely death that year affected me deeply,” said Erich. “He had written a note for each of the boys in our dorm, and mine said, ‘God has a plan for your life. Be his instrument.’”
“That note drastically changed my outlook on life,” Erich continued. “I became Catholic as a sophomore and then when it came time to go to law school—I had applied, was admitted, and was ready to go—I felt a strong pull to volunteer.”
Erich applied and was accepted into AmeriCorps, but just as he was preparing to start his service the program’s funding fell through, leaving him and other Saint John’s volunteers in a bind.
“My original plan had blown up: Law school wasn’t happening that year, and I wasn’t going to be volunteering with AmeriCorps anymore,” Erich continued, “so I decided to spend a year serving with the Brothers.”
After a quick trip to the school, which pretty much consisted of teacher orientation, Erich told his parents he was going to the Gulf Coast for a year. His dad helped him pack up the car and Erich made the long drive south from his home in Minnesota.
One year of volunteer work at Saint Stanislaus became two, which turned into a teaching position for year three. The school year was only three-weeks young when Erich’s next “2-by-4 moment” hit: Hurricane Katrina.
“I’ll be honest with you, if Katrina had not hit the Gulf Coast I don’t think I would still be in education,” Erich said. “I probably would have taught for a year or two, and then gone on my way to those plans I had back in college.
“But the people in Mississippi became such a part of my heart, a part of my soul,” Erich continued. “Watching that devastation happen to people I loved and cared about changed my heart and what I was being called to do.”
Two months after the storm, Erich returned to the Gulf Coast and started the process of rebuilding Saint Stanislaus while living in a FEMA trailer with another teacher’s family.
“I went to school everyday to help clear out my classroom and get everything put back together,” Erich noted. “Our first day back in class, we started with just a concrete floor and flood lights plugged into a generator outside.
“That was the best year of school I have ever taught in my life, and that experience showed me the power and importance of a Catholic school community,” Erich continued. “That’s when I knew I was supposed to be an educator.”
While a catastrophic hurricane caused Erich to realize his vocation as an educator, his call to educational leadership was a much more gradual process. During his time at Saint Stanislaus, Erich served in a number of different administrative capacities, including dean of students and assistant principal for guidance, before Br. Ronald Hingle, S.C., now the Provincial for the Province of the United States, affirmed Erich’s potential to be a school leader and set him on the path to apply to the 16th cohort of the Remick Leadership Program.
“Br. Ronald was instrumental in saying, ‘I believe this is where God is calling you,’” Erich said. “Hearing those words of invitation from somebody you love and trust is very powerful, and that act of affirmation is something that I try to do now in my own leadership.”
When asked about Erich’s leadership style, Michael Zelenka—a Remick graduate himself who now serves on the faculty—stated, “Erich is relational in a way that imitates Christ. He pulls people into conversations, invites others into projects, and welcomes their insights and perspectives.”
Erich’s current leadership role is as principal at Christ the King in Denver, a move made in 2019 after 16 years of service at Saint Stanislaus and yet another “2-by-4 moment.”
“I had interviewed at a few different places and had been offered those jobs, but then I walked through Christ the King and started the interview process here when I got a strong feeling that this is where God wanted me to be,” Erich said. “I had a break between interviews and called my dad to say, ‘If they love me as much as I love them, then we’re going to be alright.’”
The interview process and Erich’s decision to move across the country to a new school was made much easier because of the formation he received throughout his time in Remick, as well as the strong network of Remick Leaders already established in Denver, including superintendent Elias Moo (ACE 14, RLP 15) and associate superintendent Abriana Chilelli (RLP 16).
“I felt so prepared in all of my interviews because I knew what I believed, I knew what our faith believed about education, and I knew what I wanted to see in a school,” Erich said. “Having that vision before you ever step foot in a building is really powerful.
“My biggest takeaway from the entire Remick program is the importance of school culture,” he continued. “Education will fall in line after you have built a God-centered culture, after you have root beliefs and core values. Those are the things that make the other decisions possible.”
“As he led Christ the King through a process to identify the community's root beliefs, Erich ensured that teachers, families, students, community members, and parishioners had a voice,” said Zelenka. “For Erich, this approach stemmed from a deep conviction that we are made for each other in the image and likeness of God. Erich's unique leadership style is firmly anchored in his faith."
One of the decisions Erich had to make at Christ the King involved grappling with a significant budget deficit, and yet he was able to systematically hold up each expenditure against the school’s beliefs.
“I never would have had that lens if it hadn’t been for Remick,” Erich said. “I never would have had the wherewithal to look at a huge problem and compare it to a set of beliefs to help determine what our next steps needed to be.”
Erich isn’t sure when his next “2-by-4 moment” will happen, but he’ll be ready and willing to implement the new plan when it does. Not only for himself, but for all of the students that he comes in contact with as well.
“If I am able to help each of our students understand that they are beloved children of God and that he has a beautiful plan for their lives, then I will have made a valuable contribution to our archdiocese.”
That doesn’t sound like a bad plan at all.
Do you think the plan for your life might include Catholic school leadership? Learn more about the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, and start your application today!