BY ANGIE LANDSVERK
WEYAUWEGA – After 32 years of teaching and coaching, Arnie Behnke is ready to retire.
The Weyauwega-Fremont High School math teacher, who has also been the high school cross country and track coach, says a number of factors played into his decision to retire after the end of this school year.
Among them were the death of his father last October and meeting a woman online.
“I realized I have other options. Life’s too short,” he said.
A native of Crivitz, Behnke said he realized he wanted to be a coach during his sophomore year of high school. And, at that time, in order to be a coach, one had to be a teacher.
“Being No. 2 in my class, I had a lot of options, but I was very pragmatic,” he said. “Social studies and history were my passion. The History Channel is one of my favorite things to watch after ESPN. But, mathematics is usable. The math gives you options. I liked math. I liked all of my classes. I was never one to not challenge myself.”
It was Behnke’s high school basketball coach who served as his inspiration to become a coach.
“My basketball coach taught me more lessons in practice – like how to keep struggling, how to keep battling, how to plan and get ready for a contest. Life is about contests,” he said. “I can tell you what to do, but you have to do it properly. He was one of my first heroes.”
From his coach, Behnke learned to do his best all the time, to give it his all and that if something did not mean anything to him, why was he working so hard at it.
Since becoming a teacher and coach, they were lessons he passed on to his students.
Behnke graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 1976 with a degree in mathematics education.
His first teaching job was in Campbellsport, where in addition to being a math teacher, he also coached football, basketball and track.
He taught there for five years, then took a job outside of the teaching profession for several years before joining the teaching staff in Weyauwega-Fremont.
He has taught in the W-F school district for 27 years and recalled how he did not know anything about cross country and turned to Jim Vollmer, who had taught with him at Campbellsport High School and was the cross country coach there.
Behnke still has the two pages of notes that Vollmer gave him to help him when he started coaching cross country.
Behnke said he remembers his years of teaching and particularly the athletes he has coached.
“My first captains from cross country and track married and had daughters, and the daughters ran cross country and track and were captains,” he said.
Behnke often ran with his students during practices but said that when it came to longer runs, he opted to ride his bike alongside them.
In the classroom, he describes himself as tough and demanding. “I demanded that they do their best. I still get upset when kids are not doing their work,” he said. “There are so many good kids that do pay attention, that do respect each other and their teachers. The ones that are not respectful, that are not model students, are becoming more belligerent and more demanding.”
That was another factor in his decision to retire this year.
During the past several years, Behnke has seen a change in some students. They want to do things their way and do not respect their parents. He also sees disrespect in the classroom. It has been a tough year.
“And, all of a sudden, this lady friend asked, ‘Why don’t you retire if you don’t like it as much anymore?'”
Over Thanksgiving, Behnke went to California to visit her, visiting her again over New Year’s.
He said, “Somewhere in that time frame, I decided this is it. This is enough. I’m done. I didn’t expect it. I expected to die in this building, but I also said as long as I enjoy it and the kids respect me.”
Behnke has two sons and one daughter. His daughter and one of his sons live in California, and his oldest son is thinking about moving to Montana.
As his final days of teaching wind down, he said that what he will miss is the interaction with the students.
“My biggest enjoyment comes out of seeing kids in the classroom and in coaching – to find out they are capable of more than they thought they were. It’s a sense of accomplishment. Maybe there are things they were told they can’t do that they can do. It’s the neatest thing when you see kids who were doubting themselves for years,” Behnke said.
He has enjoyed his teaching career but said the last few years have become a bit more difficult.
It is his hope that he is remembered as “someone who cared and someone who taught them life lessons, taught them that you work hard and you treat people honestly and straightforward and you do the very best every day.”
Students who ran cross country or track have come back to coach with him, and Behnke said that as a coach, he was blessed with conference championships and with students making it to state.
He plans to move to California in July.
“I’m healthy. I feel good. I get around well. I can run. I can bike. I can play golf. My mind is still quick, but it’s time. It’s just time to try something different. Maybe I’m making a mistake in these economic times, but it’s time,” Behnke said. “I could substitute teach. I imagine I could coach. I think 32 years of coaching track might be valuable. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Who knows? It’s an adventure. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s something where I’m breaking out of the world that I and everybody else have put myself into.”