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End of an era at Lake Park-Audubon

Fran DeCock, right, started teaching agriculture at Audubon 34 years ago; two years later, Erlene got a job teaching English at Lake Park. This past spring, the pair opted to exit the district together; their retirement becomes official at the end of the school year.

For more than three decades, Fran DeCock -- known simply as "D" to his students -- has been sharing his passion for all things agriculture with high school students in Audubon, Lake Park and Detroit Lakes.

And for most of those years, his wife Erlene has been just a few doors down the hall at Lake Park-Audubon High School, teaching English.

But on Friday, the DeCocks both taught their last day of classes at LP-A. The pair announced earlier this spring that they would both be retiring at the end of the semester.

Their departure marks the end of an era at LP-A --in more ways than one. Fran DeCock's position will not be replaced, as the district has opted to discontinue its ag education programming. Not surprisingly, Fran is unhappy with the board's decision.

"I think it's terribly short-sighted," he said. "It's depriving an entire segment of the student body of its opportunities for learning ... there's no welding, no carpentry, no small engines ... no hands-on alternatives."

"It's going to be a huge loss," added his wife, Erlene.

Students interested in taking those types of courses will likely have to do so in the form of an independent study, working with the Hawley ag instructor, Fran said.

His passion for agriculture, and education, remains undaunted. But a head injury last year while adding on to the home the couple shares in Rochert made Fran acutely aware of his own mortality.

"I didn't even think about retirement -- the years just seemed to pass by pretty fast," he said.

But after the head injury -- a skull fracture suffered from falling onto a concrete floor -- Fran didn't know if he would be able to completely recover. Fortunately, he did, but after that experience, he "came to realize that a person doesn't know how many years you have (to live)."

"We realized how lucky we were -- people often die from this type of injury," Erlene added.

Forced to miss the last nine weeks of school in 2008 in order to recover, DeCock decided to wait on retirement for another year.

"We decided it would be nice to go out at the same time," Erlene said. And besides, he "didn't want to go out on that kind of note," by missing the last nine weeks of the school year, she added.

Now that he's fully recovered, the couple can concentrate on enjoying their retirement -- things like building that garage their son wants to add on to his home, or reading books for leisure instead of as background for an English class.

It's something they haven't really had the chance to do since they were married almost 35 years ago.

The two had been teaching together for about a year at a new high school in the paired district of Grygla-Gatzke when they decided to get married. After returning from their honeymoon, there was a message waiting on their answering machine about a job offer for an ag instructor in Audubon. But Fran didn't jump on the opportunity immediately.

"I wanted to make sure my wife had a (teaching) job before I accepted," he said. Fortunately, there was an opening for an English teacher in Detroit Lakes.

So the couple took the mobile home where Fran had lived while teaching in Grygla and moved it to the Riverview Terrace Mobile Home Park in Detroit Lakes.

Unfortunately, Erlene's job ended up being for a year only, so she spent a year without a job -- but she used the time wisely, to find the couple a permanent home.

They settled on the tiny community of Rochert as the best place to live -- but shortly after purchasing the property, Erlene found a teaching job in Lake Park. Still, the commute wasn't too bad; their home is roughly equidistant from Lake Park and Detroit Lakes (where Fran taught two days a week for about a year).

When Erlene wasn't teaching, she was raising their two sons, Nathan, now 30, and Austin, 27. When Fran wasn't teaching classes, he was ... still teaching.

"My main extracurricular (activity) has been FFA," he said. Over the years, he has had several state championship teams, and his students have been regional, state and even national champions.

His involvement with the FFA agriscience program also led to his work with the LP-A science fair, where he helped several students with their ag-related projects.

And as evidenced by the crowd of students past and present who crowded into the theater at LP-A High School on Friday, May 26, for the district's final FFA banquet, DeCock's efforts have not gone unappreciated through the years.

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