Boyd Simonson remembers the first students he taught.
A framed picture of that class hangs on the wall behind his desk at Waupaca Learning Center (WLC), and he points to a boy sitting in the front.
“That’s Jerry Strelow,” Simonson says.
When that picture was taken, Strelow was a first-grader.
He was Simonson’s only first-grader in the one-room school that included first through eighth grade. Among them were three sets of twins.
It was 1956 when Simonson started his first teaching job at Brushville School, a rural school near Poy Sippi. In the spring of that year, he had graduated from the former Waushara County Teacher’s College in Wautoma.
“It was a two-year teacher college program,” he said.
Simonson grew up on a small farm near Mount Morris and graduated from Wautoma High School.
“Dad sold insurance, and Mom was a teacher,” he said.
Several of Simonson’s aunts were also teachers, he said in explaining his decision to be an educator. He believes his mother influenced him the most.
Simonson taught at the one-room school for five years, and was then activated into service and sent to Fort Lewis in Washington for a year with the 32nd Infantry Division. He had joined the National Guard in high school.
“I came back and thought it would be a good time to move. I applied for a teaching position in the Shawano School District,” he said.
Simonson was hired to teach fifth grade in Gresham.
While he was working there, he began preparing for his future career in administration.
The Shawano School District offered a program for those interested in becoming administrators, and he signed up for it.
Simonson had already completed his bachelor of science degree in elementary education through the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
The administrative program was through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1970, he earned a master’s degree in educational administration.
From 1968 until 1970, Simonson served as the principal of two schools on the Menominee Reservation.
“Then, there was an opening in Waupaca. I applied and came here in 1972,” he said.
Simonson has been an elementary principal in the district since then and is at the end of his final school year here. He is retiring.
“I’ve been thinking about it the last two to three years,” he said.
Initially, he thought about retiring after his daughter Sarah was out of school, but his grandchildren who go to school here wanted him to be their principal at WLC. And so, he continued working. The youngest of those grandchildren has just completed fifth grade.
“I still enjoy it. My health is good,” Simonson said. “I’m from that age that you never retire.”
His father did not retire, and his mother taught into her late 60s or early 70s.
“I just thought this was a good time. I’ve been in education a long time,” Simonson said.
When he began working in the district, the elementary students were in 13 different places.
“It took me half a day to find where everybody was for the first half of the year,” he said. Students were in schools in Waupaca and in the rural parts of the district. Rooms were also used in several churches.
Within a year or two, a new high school was built, opening up space for the elementary program. In 1989, WLC was built as a K-8 school. “We had one wing,” Simonson said. “The middle school had the other wing.”
At one time, there were about 1,200 students in the school.
After the new high school opened in 2000, the former high school was remodeled into the middle school. A year later, the middle school moved out of WLC.
There are now about 800 students at WLC in early childhood through fifth grade.
Through the years, there have been numerous changes. The most recent one occurred about six years ago when the decision was made to close Riverside and Westwood elementary schools as the district began to see a decline in enrollment.
Other changes had to do with technology and curriculum, and he said districts will be realigning their curriculum to meet the new common core standards.
Yet, another big change he saw during his tenure was how educators base their instruction.
Today, data helps monitor growth so they know if students need help.
“The key is still the classroom. It’s not so much what’s in the classroom but who is in the classroom. I’ve always felt that way,” Simonson said. “I’ve been fortunate, through the years, to hire many good teachers. Is it good for the kids? That’s how I’ve always felt. That’s what schools are for.”
He said no two days were ever alike.
Simonson’s days began with the students, either in the gym or the commons. Once the school day began, he alternated which wing of the school he visited, stopping in each classroom to say good morning to the students and teachers.
A large part of his job included attending meetings with staff and administration about individual education plans and curriculum.
“And, you try to go into the classrooms as much as possible,” he said.
Simonson always told the students that going to school is their job and that they need to work hard and be responsible.
During the past 50-plus years, he has seen major changes in how families are involved in schools.
Simonson said parents want their children to do well in school, and they value education, but many parents cannot volunteer at school like they did in the past, because they are working. “The times have changed,” he said.
Simonson and his wife, Jane, have four children, Mike, Dawn, Rick and Sarah.
“The funny thing is the three (Mike, Dawn and Rick) who are teachers were never going to be teachers, and Sarah (who is going to law school) always was going to be a teacher,” he said.
With grandchildren in the district, Simonson said he will continue going to programs at the schools.
“It’s going to be different. I still enjoy what I’m doing,” he said. “John (Erspamer) is coming here. I’m optimistic it will be a good transition.”
Erspamer has been a principal at the high school.
District Administrator David Poeschl said this was part of the transition plan when Ben Rayome took over the middle school principal position. That occurred after Wayne Verdon retired last year. Rayome had been the dean of students at Waupaca High School.
Erspamer’s position will be replaced at the high school.
“It has certainly been a pleasure working with Mr. Boyd Simonson for the past 19 years. Education has undergone some turbulent times over the years, and I believe his leadership has allowed the students and staff at his school to weather those changes in a consistent and productive manner,” Poeschl said.
“Mr. Simonson’s compassion for students is rivaled only by his passion for student success. He is well-respected by his peers, his staff and the parents of his students because of his burning desire to do what is right for children. Mr. Simonson’s leadership, enthusiasm and integrity will be missed,” he said.