These stories can also be heard Sunday mornings around 10 am on WILD 102’s “Look Back in Time” program. Each week’s radio story will be posted here on our website.
Weekly radio stories are researched, compiled, and read by Sheila Winstead, RCHS Board Member.
September 1, 2023
School starts up again this coming week for lots of kids and school personnel around the county. There are a lot of retired teachers that probably think about their first days of school teaching. One pair of teachers that I recently talked to are Bill and Helen Wagner, who now live in Roseau.
Bill grew up on a farm east of Fisher, Minnesota, and played basketball there with his cousin Norman Wagner as his coach. Bill said Norman was a big man, about 6’3” and probably 280 pounds and had the nickname of “Moose”. If you know Bill, you know that he’s a very tall man, too, but a slim fellow who looks perfectly built for basketball. He was out plowing one day at the farm in Fisher when the coach from Bemidji State College, Dr. Harry Fritz, paid him a visit and encouraged him to come to Bemidji and play for him there. Bill graduated in 1956 from Fisher High School, and went on to Bemidji to get his degree. He took Math and teaching courses there, getting his Bachelor’s degree with a Math Major, and Phy Ed as a Minor. He also participated in track and still holds the 220-yard Low Hurdles record of 24.8 seconds. He said that record will not be broken because eventually the races switched to metric measurements so no one will race under distances in yards again.
Helen grew up west of Roseau, the daughter of Odin and Clara Efshen. She went to her first six years of school at District 32, also known as the Rendal School, where her parents had also gone to school. When that school consolidated with Roseau, she completed her last six years at Roseau High School and graduated in 1955. She had been hoping to go to UND but was convinced by Principal Thoralf Melby to go to Bemidji instead. Her older sister Shirley had gone there, so Helen decided to take his advice. That was a lucky bit of fate, as Bill and Helen met there as dorm students, Helen in Birch Hall and Bill in Sanford Hall (which is no longer there). Dorm fees included meals in the cafeteria, and Bill had a job checking off the students who ate there from a long list of names. He got to know Helen that way and before long they were dating. He remembered their first date was to see the movie “Damn Yankees” at the Chief Theater in Bemidji.
Helen was co-editor of the college newspaper, president of Lutheran Student Association, played women’s intermural basketball, and was a member of Women’s Recreational Association. She graduated with honors from Bemidji in 1959. Superintendents from regional schools would send representatives to the college in the spring to interview students interested in teaching positions. Helen accepted a position in Deer River, Minnesota, on the edge of the Iron Range. She remembered that there was a strike going on there at the time, and lots of unemployed people were having a hard time making ends meet. She was told that sometimes the only warm meal kids got each day was the one at the school.
She and Bill were engaged to be married in August of 1960 after Bill graduated. But in April of that school year, Bill, while competing in a track competition in South Dakota as a Senior, got a call that Helen had been in a car accident. She had been a passenger with three friends. She and her roommate were going to Duluth to find wedding dresses. They had a head-on collision with a vehicle when the brakes on their car failed while going downhill. She said the only thing that saved their lives was hitting the other car, preventing them from going off a cliff. Helen sustained injuries to her face when her head went through the windshield. Seat belts weren’t standard back then. She remembers regaining consciousness and hearing the spectators tell someone to check the person in the car, and then an ambulance came. Her friends and the other driver were ok, but Helen went to the hospital and had to have a lot of stitches. Bill got to the hospital as quickly as he could and had asked a cousin to ride with him because he had only 4 hours of sleep the night before. Helen completed the school year at Deer River with bandages covering the injuries.
In the spring of that year, Bill was finishing up his time at college. He and Helen both talked about doing student teaching in their senior years at Bemidji. At that time there was a small elementary school right on the campus which was called the Lab School, and they had to do student teaching in their majors which included two weeks of observing other student teachers, and one week of teaching with others observing them after which they were evaluated and deemed ready to accept teaching offers. Bill remembered having to call square dancing with elementary kids during the quarter he did his student teaching in physical education. Helen had 7th and 8th graders for her art qualifications and they did loom weaving.
Since graduation, Bill has been inducted into the Bemidji Athletic Hall of Fame and the Bemidji State University Education Hall of Fame.
Bill had accepted an offer at Warren that spring as he finished his Senior year. Because of that, Helen turned in her notice at Deer River and was hired by Argyle to teach high school and junior high students. She mostly taught English, and had taken play directing at college, which then became one of her duties at Argyle. She enjoyed that. With a small student body, anyone interested in being in the play was given a role. She also taught art.
In August of that year of 1960, they were married at the Rose Church near Helen’s childhood home. They lived in Warren, and Bill taught high school math, and was the Assistant Basketball Coach, and Head Track and Cross-Country Coach, even taking one of his cross country students to the State Meet.
Their son Alan was born in Warren, and by the time Suzanne came along, Bill had been hired to teach in Roseau, and Suzanne was born here in Roseau. Helen stayed home to take care of the kids, and when they were building the house they now live in, her parents took care of the kids while Helen did all the wood finishing.
Bill taught math and was in charge of the Federal Title I program and was coordinator for Audio-Visual programs. He had to go back to St Cloud to obtain his A-V Certification. At first he only had one hour a day assigned to A-V coordination, then 2 hours when he did the same job for elementary classrooms. Some of the equipment was bought under Title I funding. After a while, he took movies and film strips out to Malung and Wannaska schools, too. Bill kept going back to school during the summers and one night each week at Bemidji after school for a while, and later at St. Cloud, getting enough credits to complete his Master’s Degree with more than 60 credits over the required number for that degree. He spent no time in the classroom for about seven years while he wrote the reports for his A-V job. Helen did substitute teaching for about 13 years, mostly in Roseau.
They both enjoyed teaching, and miss the kids. Bill enjoys running into former students who still call him Mr. Wagner. When he taught an introductory calculus class, he told his students that they’d take it slow so all would catch on. One girl later came back from her first year of college and with pride told him she got an A in her College Calculus class, and that they had used the same textbook he taught from.
Church has always been a very important part of their lives. After Helen quit teaching, she was janitor at Messiah Church for a while, and then worked at Wahlberg Drug Store. She had worked for the Lundbohms when she was a high school student. They took their kids to Washington DC and Philadelphia for the Bicentennial, and the kids got to touch the Liberty Bell. They were lucky to get a tour of Independence Hall while there. They’ve traveled to Norway, Disney World, Mount Rushmore, and the Black Hills, and Las Vegas with Helen’s parents, also visiting Hoover Dam. They visited CNN Headquarters in Atlanta, and San Francisco where Bill went shark fishing. They got to eat his catch and said it was delicious.
Covid precautions have kept them home a lot recently, but they maintain a productive vegetable garden in their yard. They’re an interesting couple, and I thank them for letting me ask all the questions for this story.
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