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Seipkes dedicates 36 years at WDC Elementary

When school starts on Sept. 8 at Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools, Mary Seipkes will be savoring a cup of hot chocolate on her lakeside deck near Henning, reflecting on her 36 years of teaching at WDC Elementary.

Seipkes announced her retirement the week after school recessed for the summer. While not an easy decision, Seipkes said her teaching career at WDC was a journey that will never be forgotten.

"My 36 years teaching in Wadena-Deer Creek have been outstanding. I will miss my teaching partners, colleagues and the students more than they will ever know," Seipkes said.

Jean Rortvedt, who taught next door to Seipkes at WDC Elementary, is glad her close friend and former teaching colleague is retiring.

"Now I have someone to play with!" chuckled Rortvedt, who said their lake homes are within walking distance of each other on West and Middle Leaf lakes.

Rortvedt described Seipkes as "very organized, creative, kind, helpful, loyal, a team player as well as a leader."

"She's one of the most dedicated teachers I've ever met," said Rortvedt, who taught with Seipkes for 15 years before retiring in 2005.

WDC Principal Louie Rutten worked with Seipkes for the past six years. He said her ability to work with students, parents and colleagues was outstanding, but it was her compassionate heart that made Seipkes a special teacher and colleague.

"She always thought of others even to the point of her decision to retire might possibly save someone else's job," said Rutten. "Her students were at the heart of everything she did. She will truly be missed."

Her mentors

Born in Litchfield, Minn., Seipkes was raised on a farm near Darwin, Minn., which according to Seipkes, is famous for housing the largest ball of twine in the world.

While attending grade school in Darwin and high school in Litchfield, Seipkes recalled two teachers who inspired her to follow in their footsteps.

"I knew the first day of first grade that I wanted to be just like Mrs. Rutherford when I grew up," Seipkes said. "I was sure she lived at the school, day and night, preparing lessons just for me. Every morning, she had a smile on her face, ready to start the day and she finished the day with a hug for all of the children, even the ones who got in trouble during the day."

The second teacher who inspired Seipkes was Miss Slinden, her high school English teacher. She was extremely strict, but had a heart of gold, recalled Seipkes.

"I was very shy and had a hard time going from 16 students in my grade school to 206 students in my grade in high school," Seipkes said. "After a few weeks of noticing that I hardly said a word, she asked me to stay after class to visit. She then told me she also had come from a farm, small school and was shy when she was growing up."

Slinden went on to share with Seipkes that her dream was to be a teacher to help others like herself achieve their goals and follow their dreams. "Miss Slinden literally pushed me into joining the speech team and according to my family, I broke out of my shell and haven't stopped talking since!" Seipkes said.

When Seipkes enrolled at Willmar State Junior College, she knew she wanted to be a teacher; she just didn't know what kind.

"There were so many subjects that I loved -- music, theater, reading, science -- and I always loved working with young people," she said.

Seipkes graduated from Bemidji State University with a teaching degree in elementary education as well as concentrations in reading and speech/theater.

It was during her last year of college that Seipkes got to student-teach in an elementary classroom. Little did she know her first student-teaching experience at WDC Elementary would lead to a full-time position for the next 36 years.

Teaching colleague Linda Macklanburg wasn't surprised by her loyalty to WDC Elementary. She said she considers Seipkes not only a wonderful teacher but a great friend.

"I will miss our times when we had prep time together three days a week. It was a nice chance to coordinate our lessons and talk shop," said Macklanburg. "I will miss her greatly, as will the staff and students."

Looking back

Over the course of 36 years at WDC, Seipkes has taught second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades, Title Reading, summer school and after-school Targeted Services.

As Seipkes reflects on her career, she said there have been so many highlights that she could fill a book. Here are a few:

During the Bicentennial year 1976, Seipkes volunteered to refurbish the old country school at the Wadena County Fairgrounds. She then organized trips for students to see what it was like going to school many years ago. Thirty years later, in 2006, Seipkes planned a week discussing what it was like going to country school.

"We went to spend a day at the school dressed in the 'country school' attire of long ago and planned activities around that theme," Seipkes recalled. "The children and I had a fantastic time."

In 1988, the second-grade teaching team at that time -- Mary Brown, Junelle Jackson, Lucy Tucker and Seipkes -- were invited to bring their classes to perform their "Mousercise" halftime show at the Minnesota State Basketball Tournament.

"Our classes had been performing for games and playoffs here in Wadena and were enjoyed by so many. We decided to accept the invite and travel to Minneapolis too," explained Seipkes. "It was an awesome trip and the kids did a super job."

One of Seipkes' classes found a special connection with a soldier in Iraq, Channing Peyton, who was a former second-grade student of Seipkes'. The class wrote to Channing and later was visited by him when he came home to Wadena.

Other highlights for Seipkes included in 1992, when she and Principal Jack Stouten performed with Garrison Keillor; being selected as "Who's Who Among American Teachers;" and, of course, Seipkes' classroom plays.

"My classroom plays were a top priority to me, always hoping to help that shy child come out of their shell," Seipkes said.

Enjoying retirement

Seipkes isn't one to sit for long. She likes to stay busy and looks forward to spending more time with her family. She and her husband, Don, who teaches special education in Henning, have four grown children -- Chad, Josh, Grant and Abby. They are blessed with three grandchildren and a fourth grandchild is due in November.

It appears the Seipkes' influence has inspired two of their children to become educators, too. Son Chad is a fifth-grade math teacher in Las Vegas and daughter Abby teaches kindergarten in Frazee and her husband teaches fourth-grade in Henning.

Even though Seipkes doesn't have any retirement plans yet, she said she's going to just wait and see what tomorrow brings. She's always had a love for poetry and enjoyed sharing poetry writing with her students. Now, she will have time to devote to composing more poetry.

At the moment though, Seipkes is going to settle into her favorite chair with her hands wrapped around a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the evening sunset.