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A teacher who made a difference: Mary Beth Blegen remembered

WORTHINGTON -- As a teacher in Worthington School District 518, Mary Beth Blegen reached out and impacted many students' lives. As the 1995 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and 1996 National Teacher of the Year, Blegen reached out and connected with...

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Mary Beth Blegen and President Bill Clinton pose for a photograph in the Oval Office of the White House as part of the ceremony for the 1996 National Teacher of the Year.

WORTHINGTON - As a teacher in Worthington School District 518, Mary Beth Blegen reached out and impacted many students’ lives.

As the 1995 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and 1996 National Teacher of the Year, Blegen reached out and connected with fellow educators across the country and even around the world, sharing and debating educational philosophies.

And in a more literal gesture, Blegen reached out and touched then-President Bill Clinton during the 1996 Teacher of the Year ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. That impulsive act that flaunted protocol earned Blegen a bit of razzing upon her return to Worthington.

“I asked myself, ‘Mary Beth, how could you do that?’” she said in retrospect. “But I invited him to King Turkey Day.”

Blegen, 72, died Monday morning under hospice care at the Twin Cities home of one of her three children, having just been diagnosed a month earlier with pancreatic cancer. As news of her death spread, former students, colleagues and friends mourned her loss with heartfelt expressions of sympathy, and tales of the impact she made on lives were posted on social media and the CaringBridge site started by her family in the wake of her diagnosis.

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“In high school she once made me re-write the same two-page creative writing assignment six times until I got it perfect,” wrote Lynel Honerman, Worthington High School Class of 1991, who now lives in Quebec, Canada, and works as a technical account manager. “She then published it in her column in the local Worthington news paper. The article was about coming to terms with my father’s death at a young age. After the article was published, I got letters from people I had never met that had known my father. It was a life changing moment for me that I will never forget.”

Honerman also recalled tagging along with a friend to the tryout for the high school production of the classic play “Harvey.”

“... (she) told me I got the part of Dr Chumley. I said I was not there to audition, but she would not take no for an answer,” he related.

A native of Chamberlain, S.D., Blegen was hired to teach humanities - history, English, writing, theater - in Worthington in 1967, shortly after her graduation from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. At WHS, she met her husband, David Blegen, and they had three children, Kristy, Mark and Sarah. They later divorced.

Blegen was initially chosen as the Worthington Education Association’s 1995 Teacher of the Year, followed by her selection as the 1995 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. As a finalist for the national honor, Blegen traveled to Washington to be interviewed, and a week later received a call that she was to be the 45th teacher to receive the national designation.

With that announcement, Blegen became an education superstar - and a celebrity in her community. A sign proclaiming “Home of 1996 National Teacher of the Year Mary Beth Blegen” was erected at the entrance to the city, and there were recognition ceremonies at the school and City Hall. She was sent off to Washington with much fanfare, accompanied by five of her students and five of her WHS colleagues.

For the White House ceremony, the students were able to be in the Rose Garden, while the Worthington teachers watched the proceedings from the office of U.S. Rep. David Minge.

“I have pictures of us sitting on the floor, watching it,” said Dee Hale, one of the teachers who made the trip to Washington. “It was a fairytale kind of thing.”

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“It was quite exciting,” concurred Larry Petersen, who in pictures is shown escorting Blegen along with fellow teacher Pat Shaughnessy, both men clad in tuxedos. “I think she was a lot more comfortable than Pat and I were in our tuxes. … She was an excellent representative of teachers, of rural Minnesota, and she always had rural Minnesota in her heart.”

With Blegen standing next to him in the Rose Garden, President Clinton spoke about the challenges facing education and held her up as an example of what teachers needed to do to impact their students. (His speech can still be viewed on C-Span archive footage - http://www.c-span.org/video/?71404-1/teacher-year-award .)

“Her greatest achievement has been her ability to help her students understand the complex relationships that exist in our changing world,” said Clinton. “And I might say that that may be the toughest thing we all have to do. We have to figure out how to meet the challenges of tomorrow while preserving our basic values. … Mary Beth likes to say, ‘Good teaching changes lives.’ She has changed countless lives in 30 years of teaching, and I am proud that she is here as a symbol of all the good that America’s teachers do every day all across America.”

For the five students who made the trip to Washington, it was an awe-inspiring occasion, and Blegen made sure it was also an educational experience amid all the fanfare.

“One of the things that I remember is that, this whole event was about her, but she turned it into all these teachable moments for us,” remembered Kris Woll, now a writer living in Minneapolis. “She was interested in what we were thinking and seeing and processing - always the teacher. She was curious about what we were noticing and learning. She knew that for all of us it was a huge experience - to be a senior in high school and stand in the Rose Garden - and she was interested in helping us process it and think about it.”

But the students were accustomed to that tactic from their teacher. Blegen was always pressing them to question their situations - and she listened purposefully to their answers.

“Whatever subject we were talking about, she made very relevant to our lives,” explained Woll. “The way she did that is she took time to become very interested in my story and in the story of all of her students. … She stressed how important it was for each of us to have our own voice, develop our own voice, and see how our voice intersected with history. I think that has stayed with me well. She listened so much, asked so many questions to help us go deeper, not only to make us better students or scholars, but to get to know us as people.”

During her tenure as National TOY, Blegen took a year off from WHS - a year filled with educational conferences, speeches and other events across the country and abroad. At its conclusion, she was asked to join the Department of Education under the Clinton administration. After three years in Washington and with the change of administration, she returned to Minnesota and was most recently employed by the St. Paul Public Schools.

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Although she never returned to teach in Worthington, the students she mentored there were always near and dear to her heart, and she interacted with many via social media.

“We had reconnected on Facebook,” said Amy DeFor Riley, class of 1985, who now owns a restaurant, 3B Eatery and Catering, in Lyle, with her husband. “I was grateful that I got to tell her what she meant to me even before she was sick. One of the things that I told her I most appreciated was her classroom was a level playing field. You were who you were - it didn’t matter how anyone else defined you. She wanted you to have a voice.”

Riley had spent her junior year abroad as an exchange student, and when she returned to WHS, Blegen pushed her to live up to her potential.

“School was always easy for me, and I didn’t always work real hard at it, and she made sure I worked real hard at it,” said Riley, relating a tale of Blegen pushing her to complete a six-page paper and adding a page to the assignment for each day it was late - 22 pages by the time she turned it in. “She wouldn’t let people take the easy way out. … For someone like me, she saw the potential, and she saw the potentially fatal flaws and said, ‘I’m going to step in and redirect some of this.’ She saw people where they were, saw where they could be, and she would not just point them in the right direction, but come alongside them and mentor them through it.”

In writing down her own philosophy of teaching and learning as part of her Teacher of the Year experience, Blegen echoed some of Clinton’s comments about the future challenges for education:

“The longer I teach, the more I realize that although we need to teach facts for a basis of thought and discussion, more importantly, we need to teach process and discovery. No longer do I spend hours making up ‘good’ multiple choice tests. Kids learn through discussion, creating, composing and connecting. No ‘perfect test” that I could give would in any way equal the learning that takes place when I ask them to create a question and answer it or discuss an issue and justify their ideas.

“... One of the biggest challenges we face now and in the future is to make school meaningful and relevant to all students. Our challenge lies in our ability to assess what we are doing and to ask ourselves honestly what need to be changed to make a difference. We need to make real change in all classrooms. We must no longer give lip service to such change. We will fail miserably unless we determine just what we should be doing to reach all students in this complicated age.”

A memorial service for Blegen will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 700 Snelling Ave. S., St. Paul. Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. today, also at the church.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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