Retiring superintendent named as parade Grand Marshal

The leadership of Maple Lake Schools by the Carver boys is about to end.  But not before the second of the two educators from Carver is honored in Maple Lake as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal.

Maple Lake Schools Superintendent Ken Engel and former Superintendent Roger Riesgraf were neighbors in Carver when Engel was growing up and Riesgraf even served as Engel’s Little League coach. So when a teaching position opened up in Maple Lake in 1963, Engel was the man Riesgraf called.

Riesgraf was honored as parade Grand Marshal in 1985 when he retired as superintendent and Engel assumed the leadership of the schools. And now, after 40 years with the school district and 18 years as its superintendent, Engel, who is retiring at the end of this school year, will ride at the head of the parade as the 2003 Grand Marshal.

Spending nearly his entire career in Maple Lake, Engel taught only one year in the Butterfield/Odin school district before that life-changing call from Riesgraf.   Engel was hired as a senior high math teacher and coach when all of Maple Lake Public School’s students were housed in one building on a Division Street site that is now the parking lot for St. Timothy’s Church.

High school in Maple Lake in 1963 was a very different experience for students. “There were no girls athletics in those days,” Engel said. “Other than things like speech and drama, the only physical extra-curricular activity for girls was cheerleading.

“There were no specialists, no nurses, two cooks, the superintendent and principal both taught a class or two and even the librarian was part-time.”

Engel himself never imagined he’d spend his entire adult life in Maple Lake schools. “I was pretty certain I would not stay here,” he said, noting that he and his wife, Sharon, bought a mobile home for local accommodations. “I resigned after my second year because I had decided to do something else other than stay in education–something in the math world.”

But then Engel was drafted, something that wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed in teaching. “Rather than interrupt my career, I decided to re-sign before they hired somebody else,” he said.

Those early years in Maple Lake were busy ones for Engel. He played town ball for several years and became a charter member of the Jaycees, with a strong interest in youth sports. He became a T-Ball coach and organized the youth wrestling program. Engel had previously started and developed the high school wrestling program, conducting practices in the old elementary lunch room.

“There was lots of family involvement in the Jaycees that was just really fun,” Engel said. “It was a marvelous experience and there were really close relationships that developed between the families.”

When the high school was moved into its new building in 1967, Riesgraf asked Engel to take on a new role as high school principal.

“I had no experience or training to do that,” Engel said. “But I took it on and then attended St. Cloud State for certification as a principal and later, certification as a superintendent.”

Riesgraf and Engel presided over the construction of all of Maple Lake’s current school facilities, with Riesgraf at the helm of the 1967 completion of the high school and a 1976 addition, while the 1990 construction of the elementary, the 1994 and 1998 additions to the schools, the completion of the school’s athletic fields and Irish Country Stadium, and this year’s remodeling of the high school were completed with Engel’s guidance.

“I have a strong belief that pride in our facilities has a tremendous impact on the community and on the learning that occurs with kids,” he said. “But just wanting something without action does nothing. I just planted the seed and a lot of other people took on the challenge.”

There have also been other highlights for the school district over the years that stand out for Engel: The community effort to build Centennial Playground, the selection of Maple Lake Elementary as a Minnesota School of Excellence, Maple Lake’s fifth graders recording the highest scores in the state on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, the outstanding productions of the Village Players and Maple Lake Community Theater bringing the community into the school, Gary Porter’s state tournament Midget baseball teams, the individual wrestling state titlists, the state tournament appearance by the boys basketball team, and the state tournament run by the gymnastics squad.

“In every case, the excitement and good feeling that these activities generated was tremendous,” Engel said. “They were exciting, they were joyful and really brought a closeness between the school and community.”

Engel said there have been other advantages to taking a good job in a good community and staying with it for 40 years.  “I’ve had the opportunity to review the results of my actions, and to refine those actions to achieve the results I really desired,” he said. “After 40 years, you get that opportunity many times over.  “The last years of my career have been so absolutely marvelous because I had the opportunity to make those adjustments. If there is a benefit for long tenure, that certainly would be it.”

Spending more time with his family will be one of Engel’s retirement plans. He’s been married for 42 years to Sharon, whom he dated in high school and now works as a chemical dependency counselor.   Son, Jaime, who owns a computer consulting firm, and his wife, Lisa, live in Maple Grove with their two children: Erin, 8, and Mitchell, 6.   Daughter, Chris, is a litigation supervisor for MetLife, who lives in South Minneapolis with her husband, Charlie, and they are expecting their first child.  And youngest son, Michael, works as a salesman and field representative for a company that installs commercial kitchens. He and his wife, Stacy, live in St. Michael with their two-year-old daughter, Katelyn.  “It is my belief that this is the career I was destined for,” Engel laughed. “Being a grandpa.”

Engel said he and his wife will also likely do some traveling, and his home in Becker is located on the Pebble Creek Golf Course. But he said he expects to have considerable time on his hands.  “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” Engel said. “I enjoy coming to work each morning and I just love walking into this school.”

And for good reason.  “Without any question, the greatest impact on my life has been the friendships,” he said. “So many wonderful people over the years, both students and staff, who have come through our schools. That is definitely the highlight of my career. Just the enjoyment of the relationships I have been fortunate to be involved in is the highlight as I look back.”

Engel also has high expectations for the future of Maple Lake Schools.  “My greatest hope is that the commitment for this school district to be exceptional and more than just okay or ordinary continues,” he said. “We have chosen not to be ordinary. We have chosen to be an exceptional, extraordinary school district.”