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Reaching new heights in retirement

He's been nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year twice -- winning it once, in 1995. His students have advanced to regional, state and national competitions. He's saved scrapbooks filled with thank you notes from -- and articles filled with the accomplishments of -- former students and colleagues.

Yet it's not the accolades that Gary Pieske will miss when he steps down from his position as a sales and marketing instructor at Minnesota State Community & Technical College (MSCTC) in Detroit Lakes at the end of December. It's the day-to-day interaction with his students.

With just four classes left between now and the last day before holiday break on Dec. 21, Pieske says, "I'm really going to miss teaching -- I'll miss the daily contact with the students."

But that doesn't mean he won't keep in touch with them. Through all his 36 years of teaching -- 33 of them at Detroit Lakes -- Pieske has maintained contact with the vast majority of his estimated 2,300-2,500 students.

"I can tell you where the greater majority of them are right now," he said, noting that he frequently drops in to visit them in his travels around the country. "It's fun to stay in touch with them and see how they're doing."

Through his career, Pieske has also taught multiple generations of the same family. "I've taught fathers and sons, mothers and daughters," he said.

Pieske also noted that he likes to feel he played at least some role in what his former students have become, both personally and professionally.

He doesn't feel teaching should be confined strictly to what's written in books -- in fact, Pieske said, the No. 1 priority of all teachers should be to impart a sense of ethics and responsibility to those they teach.

"Ethics and personal values -- leaving behind more than you take -- I think that should be No. 1 on every class list from kindergarten on," Pieske said. "It should be paramount."

He also noted that he feels "every teacher should have a counseling degree. Sometimes, giving advice is just as much a part of the job as teaching."

Though he has truly loved what he does for a living throughout his 36 years of teaching, Pieske said, education was not his first career.

A native of Woodworth, N.D. -- a small town approximately 40 miles northwest of Jamestown -- Pieske said he "didn't have the faintest idea of what I wanted to do" when he graduated from high school there. But his uncle had just been hired as the new dean of students at the State School of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., and Pieske was "first on his list" for recruiting.

After touring the school and meeting with the faculty, Pieske decided to enroll in the secretarial program. His class included two other men, and 82 women. His two male counterparts, unable to handle the teasing, dropped out before the end of the first semester. Pieske remained.

In fact, he thrived, consistently coming in second in his class. "There was always this one girl I couldn't beat," he said.

But before he'd even completed his degree, Pieske received word that there was an opening for a male stenographer at the Northern Pacific Railway Co. in Fargo. The job description specified that the opening was for a man, not a woman.

Because Pieske was basically the only male stenographer available in the area, they offered him the job before he had completed his degree.

"I still graduated," he said.

That first job as a stenographer proved to be a stepping stone for Pieske, who was promoted to become the personal stenographer of the railroad's division superintendent in Duluth, Minn. But his next opportunity for advancement would unfortunately involve a relocation to either Kansas City or Chicago, and Pieske didn't want to move.

So he went to work at the district office of Standard Oil of Indiana, which was also in Duluth. A year and a half later, that office closed, so he was sent to the company's offices in New Brighton, Minn. After another year and a half, he was offered a promotion. The catch: He would have to move to Kansas City, or Chicago.

The idea of moving from the area still held no appeal for Pieske, so he decided to go back to school and enrolled at Moorhead State College, where his youngest brother, fresh out of the service, was also going back to school.

Pieske enrolled in what was then a brand-new program, marketing education. He spent two years there, though it was, admittedly, a struggle.

"I kept wanting to drop out," he said. But his professor, Dr. Don Kohns, talked him into staying. The two men would remain close; in fact, Kohns is planning to attend Pieske's retirement party, which is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 8, at the MSCTC conference room, from 3-5 p.m. The public is invited.

Though Pieske's teaching career is about to come to an end, he plans to continue in his second profession, selling real estate. He and his wife, Connie, are also planning regular visits to their son, Rick, daughter-in-law, Nikki and 8-month-old granddaughter, Ava, at their home in St. Louis, Mo. He wants to spend some leisure time at one of his favorite hobbies, reading.

But that's not all. Eleven years ago, Pieske put together a list of five goals he wanted to accomplish over the next decade. He still has one left.

Some of those goals included parasailing, white water rafting, flying an ultralight plane, and skydiving.

The last one on the list is to take a hot air balloon ride.

"This summer, I'm going to do it," he said, adding that his wife would be accompanying him on his journey.

Pieske also noted that he is considering adding a sixth goal to that list.

"I want to ride in the back seat of a fighter jet, but I haven't set it as a goal yet, because I'm not quite sure how to pull it off," he said.

"When I say I'm going to do something, I do it."

Still, Pieske believes it will happen someday.

"If it is to be, it's up to me," he said, quoting one of his favorite adages from motivational guru Zig Ziglar.

In short, Pieske isn't one to sit back in his rocking chair and rest on his laurels.

"I just need to find a new plane to jump out of," he said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454