In it for the long haul: George Berndt retires after 51 years in education
ELLSWORTH — Amid a scattering of senior graduation announcements and photos of classic cars, a sign tacked to the door of George Berndt’s office lists his job titles:
High School Principal
Driver’s Education Instructor
Additionally, Berndt serves as superintendent of the Ellsworth School District, and the women who work in the office jokingly added one more duty to the list: “Pain in the Neck.”
Over the course of 50 years with Ellsworth Public School, Berndt has assumed all those duties — even admitting to the “pain in the neck” with a smile for his co-workers — and he also maintains a boiler’s license in order to deal with building mechanics. But within just a few short weeks, the sign, car photos and the accumulation of many years of stuff will be gone from Berndt’s office, and someone else will have to troubleshoot the boiler. He is retiring as soon as he teaches one last class of driver’s education.
“I’ve got 12 or 13 students left, and I don’t want to leave them hanging, so I’m going to finish that up,” he explained.
While 51 years in education is a milestone that few reach, Berndt’s longevity is even more surprising considering he didn’t enter the field until after a stint in military service and early career as an iron worker.
A graduate of Tyndall, S.D., High School, Berndt joined the Marines and was stationed in Japan and Okinawa for 18 months.
“I was in an anti-tank division. Our job was to shoot the tracks off enemy tanks,” he explained.
When he returned stateside, Berndt was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in California.
“After my discharge, I went back home for a week, then I went to Pierre, S.D., where they were building the Oahe Dam. I got hired as an iron worker with Local 184 out of Sioux City for one year and two summers.”
Deciding he wanted to go to college, Berndt did one year at what was then Southern State Teachers College in Springfield, S.D.
“Then it was back to construction. I worked on missile sites in North Dakota, a sugar beet factory, a taconite plant in Minnesota, a John Deere factory in Illinois, a chemical plant in Iowa, a bridge over the river in Mobridge, S.D.,” he detailed.
Once again, Berndt returned to the Springfield college, this time sticking it out for three years and getting a degree in industrial technology and a minor in physical education. During the summer months, he continued to work construction, calling friends to find out where jobs were available. But with diploma finally in hand, he first taught for one year in Rapid City, S.D.
“I was making $15,000 doing construction, and my first teaching job I made $4,400 a year,” he recalled about the disparity in income.
The cost of living was high in Rapid City and Berndt wanted to get closer to the Sioux Falls, S.D., area, so he applied for a job in Ellsworth in 1964, teaching industrial arts and coaching football.
“I didn’t have a clue where Ellsworth was, and I wasn’t going to accept the job, but somehow the superintendent convinced me to take it in about five minutes on the phone,” Berndt related. “Then I was only going to stay two years. I had decided I was going to go back to California, because I had liked it out there. … I even had a contract with the Los Angeles school district. But then we were having some success in football, so I decided not to go. I have no regrets.”
In about 1980, the Ellsworth school board encouraged George to go back to school, so he earned master’s in administration and specialist in education degrees. He became the school principal and a few years later was named superintendent, too.
“They were tough on principals,” he noted about his expectations for the position. “They had previously only kept principals for one to three years, I figured if I took the job I was only going to make it two years. But pretty soon it was the third year, the fourth year. Each year got a little easier.”
The ensuing years seemed to fly by for Berndt. He and wife Barbara raised four children, including twin boys, in Ellsworth. Barbara died in 1980.
“When our kids were in about seventh, eighth and ninth grades, we went on a trip where we followed the coastline of the United States all around, starting in Washington (state),” he recalled about a memorable family adventure. “We put on 12,500 miles in 58 days, camping all the way and stopping to see things. I mapped it out through AAA. The summer before I saved enough money to take the trip. We just got this old pickup and camper and away we went.”
A highlight of Berndt’s educational career were the back-to-back state boys basketball championships in 2007 and 2008.
I go to every home event and every away event I can,” he said about following the school’s athletic teams. “I’m going to sit down and figure out how many events I’ve been to over the years.”
Berndt is also proud that the Ellsworth school has not been forced to consolidate with another district, standing on its own except for pairing with Edgerton for football and Adrian for softball.
But for the most part, it’s been the day-to-day accomplishments of Ellsworth students that have kept Berndt on the job for so long. He made his presence known in the school on an hourly basis.
“When the bell rings, he’s out there standing by the window,” shared administrative assistant Judy Huisman, who staffs the office along with Darcy Groen. “These kids just know that he’s watching, and that alleviates a lot of problems. … He has a pretty good relationship with them. They know he cares about them.”
“I get along with the students really well,” Berndt agreed. “I don’t think there’s a one that if I’d ask them to do something they’d turn me down.”
Next year, someone else will keep that close eye on the students. That’s an aspect of the job Berndt will miss. What he won’t miss is getting to the school before the crack of dawn each day.
“I get up at 4 every morning, and I’m here at 5 because I’m the bus coordinator,” he said. “I’ll probably still wake up, but I hope I can go back to sleep. Someone suggested that I should still drive bus, but I don’t want to get up that early.”
Not one to sit idle, Berndt isn’t sure what he will pursue in retirement, but he’s mulling over a few ideas. He has maintained a commercial driver’s license, so he figures he could do some trucking if he wanted.
Berndt enjoys going to auctions and buying anything he thinks is a good deal. He also collects cars and used to race, although he says that hobby has gotten too expensive. Along with friends, he attends the Sprint Car Nationals each year in Knoxville, Iowa.
“I’ve even thought about heading up to the oilfields of North Dakota, since I’m not a greenhorn to that kind of work,” he said. “And then I might just not do anything.”
Before he can move on to other endeavors or be content doing nothing, Berndt needs to clean out his office, including the three desks that furnish it.
“I’ve got a 5- by 8- cargo trailer. I’m going to back it up to the door and take out one box at a time,” he said. “In about a week, it’ll be cleaned out. Then it’ll take me a month to find what I’m looking for.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached