In a recent issue of The Journal, Harvey MacKay stated that teachers are the unsung heroes behind almost every successful person. He went on to say that a person without an education is like a building without a foundation. How true! Many of my friends point to a teacher somewhere in their history who encouraged them to pursue their dreams and stretch to reach for their goals in life. This week, American Education Week, I thought it would be fun to take a backward glance at the teachers of yesteryear, and who and how various teachers touched my life, the lives of my friends, and family.

A chat about teachers must include, Oats Legrand. Sports Illustrated named him, “the voice of small town America.” The man is an icon in this community, and although I didn’t have him for a teacher, (men were not PE teachers for girls in my day), I knew him, he knew me and everyone else in the school. He was famous for his “board of education.” If you misbehaved in class or were mouthy, you would get the paddle. If you received that correction three times, you signed the thing. I do not know firsthand, you understand my knowledge is purely hearsay, but boys reported being so proud of their paddle adventures, they acted out in class just so they could sign it. To me it sounds like tough talk, because I didn’t know anyone personally that held that claim to fame. Nevertheless, everyone loved Oats.

I asked my brother, Steve, about his favorite teachers. He told me stories I can’t put in the paper. One teacher who was finishing out the school year after her resignation wore hot pants the last six weeks of school. I bet that went over big with administration! He had lots of interesting comments including that Fergus Falls had a great school. He commented that we were fortunate to grow up where we had wonderful teachers and an excellent education. Teachers that he mentioned that were special to him included Mr. Donahue, Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Stueve, and Mrs. Youngren. He also talked about his homeroom teacher, Ms Sisk. She was the girls PE teacher. He explained that he met his wife in Ms.Sisk’s class. His wife informed me she always wondered, “Who is that guy? He only lives three blocks from school and is always late, and why doesn’t Sisk ever send him to the office?” She decided Ms. Sisk thought it was fighting a losing battle. My brother and his high school sweetheart have been married for 46 years.

Steve and I had Mrs. Jesme in sixth grade. Steve remembered she always checked for dirt under fingernails and behind our ears. She taught my class to say “ Yes, please,” or “No, thank you”. You should never say “I don’t care,” when someone is offering you something like an apple. She said it is rude to not care. It tells the person their offering isn’t important to you. I always remember that lesson.

Ms. Halcrow taught me how to write a check and balance my checkbook. By the time I had my first job, I knew how to manage my finances. Mrs. Berge taught me to love history even though I couldn’t get an A if my life depended on it! The only poems I remember I learned in seventh grade English with Ms. Leafblad. Lastly, Mr.Kies, my math teacher taught me to always learn the “why?” He said if you know the why, you’ll be able to figure out the what and how. It applied to math, but he said it applied to all of life. Forty-five years later I found myself asking my staff to identify the why before we moved forward with figuring out the what and how. Life lessons.

I asked my daughters which teachers impacted their lives. They both identified math teacher, Mr. Holicky. He was known as the toughest teacher in school. One daughter said his class was crazy hard, but he taught them perseverance. (She graduated college as a math major.) The other said she learned that a D wasn’t a failure. Not trying was a failure. She learned to not be afraid to try something new.  She went on to earn her B.S. and B.S.N. Both women believed that Mr. Iverson was so loved that everyone wanted to work hard to please him in band. Other favorites were Mr. Link because he “sees” you, and Ms. Schradick because she listens. “ Sometimes I just needed someone to hear me” my youngest daughter explained.

One daughter shared the story that Mr. Zosel, sixth grade, taught her to give a firm handshake and to look a person in the eye when they talk to you. She reported he taught them to look at a speaker and nod, even if you don’t agree, to let the speaker know you are listening and following what is being said. She said that skill has served her well in her professional career.

Another popular grade school teacher was Mr. Boen, third grade, McKinley school. They had a ‘community’ in the classroom. “We had a store, we made purchases, wrote checks, had jobs, and even got paychecks!“ Mr. Boen made learning fun!   

There have been many wonderful, caring and impactful teachers in School District 544.  People who devoted their lives to us and our future, as well as to our children and grandchildren. If your favorite teacher wasn’t mentioned in this story, I apologize. There are so many great stories, they would fill a book. This week is American Education Week. Thank a teacher today.

Sue Wilken is a lifelong resident of Fergus Falls. Her column appears on Thursday.

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