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North Branch Schools

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August 17, 2022

6/10/2022 2:19:00 PM
Trio of retirements; a century of service

“A teacher affects eternity. They can never tell where their influence stops.” - Henry Brooks Adams.

As schools throughout the Chisago Lakes District wind down this week, it will be a farewell for students and staff alike to three school principals as they head into retirement with over 100 years of combined service to education.

High School Principal Dave Ertl, Middle School Principal Ralph Fairchild and Primary School Principal Brenda Schell are calling it a career at Chisago Lakes at various points this summer, and these few days this week will be their last among the hustle and bustle of students, staff and parents.

All of them have differing paths from where they came  to where they are now, and they all have different reasons for retiring this year. But there is one common thing that is certain among the three of them and that is  their absence will leave a massive hole in the buildings they are departing.

Ertl has been around the area the longest, per se, as he is a Chisago Lakes High School alum and has been either the associate principal or head principal since 1998.

He grew up outside of Center City near Linn Lake on a gravel road, and he says, that’s where he picked up the work ethic that he carried with him throughout his tenure.

“I grew up watching mom and dad working very hard and very diligent and I took a lot of that and applied it with my job and raising my family. The sun up to sun down mentality, and doing whatever it takes,” he said. “I learned that from them.”

Ertl said neither of his parents had a post-high school education, but they made sure it was important for him and his three siblings, and so he went to Concordia Moorhead, where he studied and played football for the Cobbers.

Right out of college, in 1989, Ertl and his then fiancee and now wife, Sara, both got teaching jobs in Minot, North Dakota, but that only lasted nine months. “We were just too far from family,” he explained.

They moved back to the area and Ertl started working in the Rush City School District until he finally got his opportunity to come back home to the Chisago Lakes School District in 1998.

He became the associate principal to Bob Masche and remained in that spot for three years until Masche retired and Ertl began his tenure as high school principal.

“It felt like the time to do something different. I just had my third grandchild, and there’s some grandpa things I’d like to do,” Ertl said. “There’s some consulting possibilities, as well, but there’s also a lot of volunteer work I’d like to do.”
Ertl said he’s investigated volunteering for disaster relief  organizations to give back in a different way. “But nothing is hard and fast,” he said. “I could end up mowing some grass in the fall and spring at a golf course or around the district.”

He said he was going to take the first part of next year’s school year, September to January, to really investigate his options, but he said in the meantime, the community will still be seeing him plenty. “[Activities Director] Jodi Otte has some ideas for me,” Ertl said, laughing. “Fall football games, shot clock operation at basketball games. If it will be up to her, she’ll have me working four or five nights a week!”

His perfect retirement day, he said, is to wake up with an early morning walk with his wife, spend some time at some thrift sales and then take a pontoon ride at their seasonal resort in Chetek, Wisconsin. “Just puttering around the lake and doing some pan fishing,” Ertl envisions. He also said he will be doing some traveling and that’s one of the reasons why he’s leaving his post at a fairly young age. “We’ve done some things that would allow us to retire at a younger age than typical. We have our health and talked about doing things now rather than when we are 90 to 95, God willing.”
No matter what he does, he said he will always be tied to Chisago County. “It’s been too good to my family,” he said, noting that outside of his career in Chisago Lakes and Rush City, all three of his children attended North Branch High School.

Ertl looked back on what has stuck out to him over his two-plus decades at the school, and he really marveled at the facilities, but in a way that is lasting. “We’ve been so blessed with these facilities at the high school. Major additions, projects and expansions. What a gift it’s been. The students, staff and community are all really blessed with top notch outstate facilities,” he gushed. “You’ll be hard pressed to find facilities like ours and it’s been a fabulous experience to be a part of this legacy. These four walls will always remain for future generations to take part in and use.”

Ertl added that he strived to make sure that the facilities, staff and curriculum at the high school were well rounded. “I’m proud of how hard everyone at this school worked to make this a comprehensive building. We aren’t just college prep or career tech. There is something here for all at this building.”

Going forward, Ertl is excited about the direction the high school is headed, but he knows there’s still challenges out there and that he hopes his replacement can navigate.

“We made it through COVID — knock on wood — and now it’s time for someone to put that behind us and to lead in our educational world. I did what I thought was best, always, for our staff and our students. Now it’s time for someone to really take it, and run with it and do good,” he explained. “But, no matter what, we have to keep the students in the forefront. I know with social media and all the negativity with posting this and that, it’s tearing some communities apart. We have to accept and embrace difference because that’s what makes this whole thing go around. Our country was built on diversity and differences. Let’s do what’s right and show our kids that we can get along even though we may disagree, but doggonit, we can do it.”

Ertl’s parting remarks were dedicated to his family, and in particular, his wife, Sara. As he battled tears back, he thanked her and his kids for their support. “I’ve been very blessed to have given back to a community that gave me so much,” he said. “My family has taken a toll because I’ve been here, at this Chisago Lakes family for 24 years. And my family is very important to me. They’ve been highly supportive and I want to thank them. They’ve been my rock, especially my wife Sara.”

Ertl will remain on through the summer to help transition the new principal, so, his last official day isn’t until August, but this week marks the last time he’ll be in the building with students directly under his guidance, and it’ll be tough for him, he said. But, he’s excited for the next chapter and excited to see the direction that the school goes.

Brenda Schell, the principal at the Primary School in Chisago City, always wanted to be in education. Despite finding herself in many different locations early in her career, it turned out she didn’t have to go far to find her dream job.
Schell grew up in Osceola, Wisconsin, and still resides there, but after educational stops in Stillwater, Duluth, Forest Lake and North St. Paul, she found her calling in the Chisago Lakes School District. She spent 25 years working for CL, including her last 15 as the Primary School Principal.

Schell made her decision that she was going to be an educator at an early age. When she was in second grade, her teacher had all the students in the class announce what they wanted to be when they grew up, and Schell said her response was teacher. “And I never really wavered from that,” she said.

Schell’s life has revolved around children. She has spent over a quarter of a century educating them as her profession, but she was also a long-term foster parent in her private life. She raised children in her home and even adopted some under her care. She also said some children aged out of the system at her house and still come back to “home” for holidays and celebrations.

In all, Brenda, and her husband Scott, raised 16 children, and most of them spent at least a year and a half in the Schell household, where she was able to mold them in their most impressionable years.

But, now is the time for Schell to take a little bit of a step back and enjoy retirement. “I love 95 percent of what I do here, but we really want to start traveling,” she said. “I had a scare with breast cancer and my husband has had a few health scares and we don’t want to wait too long. We really want to go out and do some fun things, and we’re in a position that we can.”

Schell said she already has a two week excursion to Maine scheduled for this summer and a month long stay in St. George, Utah, in the winter. “We’re going to see all five of the national parks around there,” Schell said excitedly.
Although Schell is looking forward to traveling, she said she will be doing things that still involve children going forward. In fact, as she was contemplating retiring, her church had an opening for a part time youth director, which is a role she’ll be assuming after retiring.

She even said she has taken a liking to playing the ukelele and will work to perfect her craft in retirement. “I joined a local group called the Good Neighbor Ukelele Group,” she said. “We have started to play at nursing homes, churches, women’s clubs and other non-profit venues.”

Looking back on her career at the district, Schell has many fond memories. “Primary-aged children are absolutely great,” she said. “Just their fun little stories from the kids every day. They have these cute stories and I get these little hugs every day, ready or not. They also can be brutally honest. They tell me on a daily basis how much they like my outfits or hair.  But, they will also tell me when I don't look so good.  I have heard something like this more than once:  ‘I can tell you are very old because you have a lot of cracks in your face.’”

But, Schell wants her current and former students and her staff to know that she will miss them and that she always did what she thought was in their best interest. “I want them all to know that I worked hard and I gave it my very best,” she said, fighting off the emotions of long and short term memories. “Everything I did was for the kids. I hope I treated you well, and I want really good things for this building and for the district. It’s like my home that I’m turning over to someone else.”

Much like Ertl, Schell is making sure that her home is in good hands. She’s staying on through August 31 to help transition the school as it’s going through multiple remodeling projects currently. But, after that, the world is her oyster, and Schell will be exploring it, even if she misses her Primary family. Whether that’s from the coast of Maine or the trailheads of Utah, the children of the Primary School will never be far from her mind.

Chisago Lakes Middle School principal Ralph Fairchild has had the shortest tenure of the retiring principals in the district, but like Ertl and Schell, he has long dedicated his life to children.

Fairchild, who is leaving his post at the middle school after four years, isn’t even sure how he’s going to fill that void of service once he retires, and it is a bit of a struggle for him to figure out, he said.

He came to Lindstrom from the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop School District, where he was a middle school principal for 17 years.

Before that stint, Fairchild had put in a number of years as an educator, administrator and coach at the Mora School District.

When the GFW district was going to combine the middle school and high school principal into one position, they offered the spot to Fairchild, but he passed. “I’m a middle school guy,” he said of his decision.

He wasn’t necessarily on a job hunt then, but the opportunity to come up to Chisago Lakes and be the middle school principal presented itself, and he took it. He moved to Lindstrom with his wife Jean, and he got to work.

The last four years, of course, were brutal at the middle school level. “This was four very hard years. We had three years of severe budget cuts and three years of COVID,” Fairchild said. “And two of them overlapped. I was up for the challenge and was able to execute the mission, but it was hard.”

Fairchild, who has two children of his own and just welcomed a new grandchild, said now was just the right time to hang it up. He said he is ready and able to retire, and that he’s seen some friends who aren’t a lot older than him pass away. “You think what are we doing? What is this for? Am I having as much fun as I want to have at work?” he asked.
But, he’s also not totally sure what to expect going into retirement since he’s spent the bulk of his life affecting youth in a positive way. When asked what his perfect day of retirement would be, he said “I’m struggling to figure out what it is. My sense of relevance will be a question mark and will I find something to retire to? Will I find something that will have a meaningful impact on people?

“I have hobbies, yes, but the big focus of my life has been to help people. How to help them become better and bring joy. So, how do I make a difference? And when I step out of this arena, I think it will be a challenge for me to find that new thing. I’ve always been able to find it but I have no preconceived ideas of what that will be.”

Fairchild though, said those around him that know him best don’t give it long before he’s back at it working some sort of job.

“My brothers give me until November until I need a full time job,” he said with a chuckle. “My wife said I can get a new full time job but that I have to tell them I don’t want to be the boss. I’ve been in a leadership position for a long time. There are parts I do extremely well and parts that aren’t my strength and I’m smart enough to know which ones are which.”

Fairchild did eventually reveal his post-retirement plans, or at least the loose framework. He said he bought a BOB single wheel trailer that hooks on the back of his bike. He’s going to pack his camping gear in the trailer and take an extended, self-contained bike trip. When asked what his final destination is, he said, “somewhere between Scandia and the Gulf of Mexico. And if it gets too hot, I’ll go in a different direction.”

Fairchild rides bikes often, but stopped short of calling himself an avid bicyclist. He goes to an annual ride in Iowa every year and puts between 350 and 500 miles on his bike in a week’s time. “I bike a lot, but I’m not good at it or fast, but I’m stubborn enough to stay with it.”

He also said he would do some fishing out of the canoe, which is something he used to do often but hadn’t found the time for in his four years up here. He even revealed that of his two canoes that he owns, neither is actually at his house, with one up north with his son and one down south with his nephews. Fairchild said it’ll be time to collect on at least one of them.

But, as he struggles to find his purpose after retirement, Fairchild will have fond memories to look back on from the middle school.

“It’s been an honor to get to work with people who’ve chosen to spend their lives working with kids in any capacity. Every time I moved, I wondered if I was going to find a group of people who cared about the kids as much as the last. And it’s funny, because it’s always the same level of care.

“When you get to hang out with people who care about kids like this group does, that’s the memory. The 10,000 high fives you get, the comments you get, when the kids tell you something and trust you. When I can help staff. When I can help kids, it’s so rewarding.

“I would hope everyone who ever has dealt with me understands that the kids come first. If my lasting impact is that the kids come first, that’s it. That’s what I want.”

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