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Profesora de español: Le Lucht's career evolves with changes in the local community

A painting and doll created by friends in Costa Rica and a handpainted plate from Spain (below) are among the collectibles that adorn the Luchts' home.

WORTHINGTON -- When Le Lucht began teaching Spanish in the Worthington school district in the early 1970s, there were few people of Latino heritage living in the community. Beginning in junior high, she taught her students basic conversational phrases such as "Hola," "Como esta?" and "Como se llama?"

Now, as she contemplates retirement from her most recent post as the diversity coordinator at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Le reflects on a career that has seen Worthington go from a community where Spanish was only spoken in her classes to one with a large number of Spanish-speakers and a great need for Spanish-speaking skills.

Early career decision

Le was born and raised in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where her dad was a dentist, and she graduated from high school in nearby Burlington, Iowa. By the time she was in the eighth grade, Le knew she wanted to be a Spanish teacher.

At the tender age of 13, Le met husband-to-be Larry, who only lived there for a year before his dad transferred for work back up to Worthington. Even though they were separated by distance, Le and Larry kept in touch throughout their high school years -- and fell in love.

"Neither of us was very happy," she recalled about the long-distance relationship. "But through all our high school years, we'd call and write."

They married young and moved to Worthington so Larry could manage the local Quik Stop, a drive-in burger joint, which they eventually bought out. Le pursued her goal of becoming a Spanish teacher first at what was then Worthington State Junior College and then at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., where she earned a degree in secondary education with a double major and Spanish and English.

"There was no Spanish program here at all, but there was a position open in Slayton that was Spanish and English, so I did my first year in Slayton," Le recalled about the beginning of her teaching career. "After I finished that first year, Roger Gruss was retiring as principal (of Worthington Junior High) and was going back to teaching English. ... The French teacher was retiring, and he thought it was the perfect time to get Spanish going. So, in 1972, my first year in Worthington, I taught English that first year, and the following year we started Spanish. Right from the beginning, I had two or three classes, and little by little we kept building them up. Pretty soon it was built up to the point where I just had Spanish. It was probably way more than full-time between the junior high and high school."

There were times over the years when, due to budget cuts, the language programs in District 518 were in jeopardy of being cut, but Le credits a couple of foresighted administrators with encouraging her efforts.

"When there are tight budgets, it always seems music and language are the first to go," she reflected. "There were some who never saw it as a core subject. But Roger (Gruss) saw the importance of it, and (junior high/middle school principal) Dave Suman was a very strong supporter of language."

The Spanish language program continued to grow as Le pushed for advanced placement courses for her students. Her higher level students prepared teaching units for younger grades and produced plays, videotapes that are still in Le's collection. She also encouraged them to explore the world through tours to Spanish-speaking countries.

"I had many kids from junior high all the way through high school and had a close relationship with them," she said. "I've had a number of them who have gone on to teach Spanish."

Family life

As Le continued to grow the Spanish program in District 518, the Lucht family was also expanding and changing. Larry eventually left the Quik Stop, returned to school and became a lawyer who continues to practice in the community.

They had three children, all who pursued advance schooling in their chosen fields (and who all also studied Spanish, Le notes proudly) after having attended Minnesota West.

"All five of us went to Minnesota West," Le said. "We are huge supporters of the local college for education."

Oldest son Mark earned a master's degree and is employed in online training for Wells Fargo in Seattle, Wash. Daughter Carla studied deaf education and also has a master's degree. She and husband Christopher live in Willmar and are parents to Ceci, 7, and Anthony, 3. Youngest son Matt and wife Michelle live in Topeka, Kan. With a degree in videography and broadcasting, Matt is a public relations officer for the Air National Guard there. They have one daughter, Emma, 4, and are expecting a second child in October.

Changing community

As the only Spanish teacher in town, Le became a resource as local companies began to hire workers whose primary language was Spanish.

"Campbell Soup was the first to contact me," Le said, recalling how she put together some basic materials for the company to use in training its workers. "Then the clinic, and then Bedford began getting letters from South America that needed translation. I'm not a translator, I'm a teacher, but I tried to help."

Le stayed with the local school district through 1994. With the encouragement of Dale Carlson, Le had done some part-time adjunct courses at Minnesota West for several years, but dividing her time between the public schools and college became too heavy a load.

"I couldn't keep up the pace any longer, and the college wanted to start a full-time language program," she explained. "Dale encouraged me to apply, even though I didn't have a master's degree. I had tons of graduate credits, but not necessarily in one program. So I finished my master's degree at the University of South Dakota --a master's of selective studies in language and culture --in a short period of time while I was teaching at Minnesota West."

Although she was sad to leave her high school students behind, Le enjoyed the challenge of teaching at the college level, and it also allowed her to be more involved in the community.

Le was also encouraged to pursue training in Command Spanish -- language programs that apply to specific professions, including law enforcement, education, nursing and food production.

When you do Command Spanish, it's speaking and listening for a response," she described. "It's only the vocabulary and phrases that fit into the profession, a specific protocol."

Le has utilized her Command language training at companies throughout the region. After she presented the training at Gold'N Plump in Luverne, she was asked to also take it to the plant in Cold Spring, teaching some workers as they ended their shift for the day and others as they began theirs at night. She's also done Spanish for nursing on the Minnesota West campuses where the nursing program is offered and at regional hospitals.

"A lot of it has been word of mouth," she said. "The second sabbatical I did, I connected it to law enforcement. I ended up doing a piece of it in Costa Rica, connected with a company that set up an exchange program. I went to penal institutions, penitentiaries, the morgue, their Supreme Court, law enforcement schools."

An avid traveler, Costa Rica is just one of many countries that Le has visited, either in a professional capacity or for pleasure. For another sabbatical, she had planned to tour Peru and the Galapagos Islands and create a program for the Nobles County Integration Collaborative (NCIC). But then the college's diversity coordinator left unexpectedly, and Le was approached about the position.

"For a number of years, the college had a diversity coordinator, someone of color but not necessarily connected to our community," she explained. "The last one left in July 2008, and they didn't know what they were going to do. (College Provost) Jeff Williamson called me in and said, 'Would you consider rewriting your sabbatical and helping us out with diversity?'"

Le agreed to change the focus of her sabbatical and took over the diversity duties. Working closely with NCIC director Sharon Johnson, they attended conferences, brainstormed ideas and began implementing ideas. One such was the Culture Corner, a showcase featuring representatives from Worthington's diverse cultures hosted on the Minnesota West campus. Le also brought in theater presentations, developed a Worthington World Market, initiated social justice workshops and collaborated on International Festival and other community events.

"Every time I go to a conference or a workshop, I come back with a list of things we should be doing," she said.

Retired or not retired?

Le's first taste of retirement came two years ago, when she gave up her college Spanish classes. But she continued to serve as the college's diversity coordinator and did selective Command Spanish training.

This time around, Le is a bit more serious about retiring, although she's agreed to continue with a few activities.

"For me, it's difficult to say no to anybody, but it'll be more flexible hours," she said, adding, "Flattery gets them everywhere, but as long as it stays flexible enough that when we want to go someplace we can just go."

The Luchts were able to "just go" on a trip to one of their favorite places, Costa Rica, taking the extended family with them in celebration of Le's retirement. She also wants to be able to "just go" when the new grandbaby arrives in October. But Le expects to put in at least a few hours at the college when the new school year begins in the fall.

"I need a place to hang my hat," she said. "I'm kind of a workaholic. My kids are skeptical that I can ever retire."