April 18, 2022
The full story appeared in the April 14, 2022 edition of The Brillion News.
By David Nordby
The Brillion News
BRILLION – Gert Behnke says she would teach today if she could.
The 97-year-old retired teacher says she truly loved teaching, loved her coworkers, loved the kids and loved Brillion.
“I’d go back now if I wasn’t so old. I’d go right back now,” Behnke said.
She hasn’t taught since 1988 but she, and her legacy, are alive and thriving.
Behnke became one of the longest tenured teachers in the history of the Brillion School District at 42 years (1946-1988), one of the longest tenured residents of the city and one of the oldest living residents in Brillion’s history.
Her career was so long she had students who were the grandchildren of fellow former students and to this day, still hears “Mrs. Behnke” called out by former students in public. (“Some are very official with that,” she says).
Behnke’s time in Brillion ended last weekend. She moved to River Falls to be closer to her son, but the mark she left at Brillion High School was solidified a long time ago.
Path to Brillion
Behnke grew up on a farm west of Hilbert near Sherwood.
“Very fine set of parents. We had a very good life,” Behnke said.
Her adolescent years are a bygone era.
“We enjoyed it and we made the best of it, I guess. We didn’t realize all the things that they have now. It was completely different from living a teenage (life) now. I think it was probably a lot better. It was a slower living. We enjoyed it; we enjoyed every minute,” Behnke said.
School was a natural place for Behnke. She wanted to be there as soon as she could – when she was just 4-years old.
“I wanted to go to school with my sister, so they let me go, and the priest had said, ‘We’ll let her go and if she makes it, OK, otherwise she has to repeat.’ I fooled them; I made it,” Behnke says with a chuckle. “I don’t know if I’d advise that. I think that was a little young to start because I struggled all the way through to keep up with everybody.”
She went to Hilbert High School then attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and studied business education.
“We had a high school business teacher who was very efficient – Mr. Kohl – and he was our band director also at Hilbert, and he was just a super fine teacher and after taking his classes and typing and bookkeeping, I thought, that’s what I want to do,” Behnke said.
So, she did.
“Then the only place to go at that time was Whitewater because at one time all these state colleges each had one major that they taught,” Behnke said.
A person’s vision of a college university today is about the exact opposite of what it was for Behnke.
“Remember this was the war years. 1942 I graduated from high school and … in 1946 there were 17 fellows in my senior class at college. That’s all. The rest were all in service,” Behnke said.
Students were not in dormitories. They stayed with various Whitewater citizens who offered up their homes.
She says she did have fun at Whitewater. She was in the college band, even though events were limited because there was no football team during the war.
“Our college life was not the typical college life because of the war years. We had no football games. We had one or two in the fall when we started and then pretty soon, they were all drafted,” Behnke said. “It was a quiet college life compared to what they do now.”
“Our big trip was on Sunday afternoons, we’d walk downtown from where we roomed in Whitewater out on the edge of town all the way down Main Street. Nobody had cars, oh my God, no. Way back then, we didn’t have a car. Nobody had them. I don’t know if there were any on campus, but we’d walk down and have an ice cream sundae, or something then walk back home. Very exciting,” she chuckles. “But there was nothing else to do, really. We missed out a little bit on some of the college things because of the war years, we did. That we did, but you made the best of it.”
Upon graduation, she was hired to teach at Brillion High School, not far from her roots in the Hilbert-Sherwood area.
Brillion High School
Among her courses, Behnke taught generations of high school students general business, bookkeeping, accounting and typing.
“Students were very polite back then, not that they aren’t now either. I know that there are plenty of polite ones now and I think it would be fun now again, but it was great. I loved going to work. I really did. I loved going to work every day. I looked forward to it,” Behnke said.
Once she was in Brillion, she never considered looking elsewhere to teach.
“I got here, and I liked it so well I just stayed here,” Behnke said.
Her classes were among the only electives offered at the time.
“We had a great group of students. I never had a problem child in all my years,” Behnke said.
“Then again, they were all in a subject that they chose to take … so that makes a big difference too.”
Behnke can still rattle off the names of former students. Some bring a gleam to her eye or smile to her face. Some she saw around Brillion for years after they had left her classroom.
“Some of the kids were characters,” she says. “It’s nice being in a small town like this where you see the students after they graduate.”
Behnke says it was fun having multiple generations of students, too.
“Because you already knew the family and then you could kind of work from there,” Behnke said.
Teachers and students worked closely together, she said.
“We had a lot of interaction with the students. All the help had to come from us and not from a machine,” Behnke said.
Conditions at the school were different then too. Accounting classes were sometimes in the home economics room. She was on the third floor of the former “core building.”
“There was a big room … and there were small little (typing) desks. (The taller fellows) couldn’t even get their knees under the desks, and that was half of the room. The other half had the … desks with the arms on the sides, and that was the accounting section,” Behnke said.
Behnke was one of only two teachers on the third floor, essentially the building’s attic.
“Right next to the birds. There were all these stuffed birds,” Behnke recalled.
Behnke and the other teacher on the third floor were on the north side and her only window was a skylight with the attic on both sides of it.
“And we had to go through the attic to go down the fire escape in the back, that was kind of scary … The fire escape was in the back of the old building, an old rickety. It was rod iron steps and everything, but it was kind of scary,” Behnke said. “It wouldn’t pass (inspection) now … I don’t know if they had such a thing as anyone inspecting.
“But we enjoyed it.”
During her time, the Brillion student population expanded, and so did the teaching staff.
She spent her summers traveling on road trips with fellow teachers. She enjoyed Canada and the West Coast the most, and also saw Texas, Florida and the East Coast.
“Eventually it got to be four of us,” Behnke said. “Everyone drove and we had the whole summer … We’d take three weeks and go west and just go at our own speed.”
The trips could deviate from their itinerary.
“If we were someplace and somebody told us about a great side interest, we would take a little side trip because we had no set schedule. We could take three weeks and be gone three weeks, and no one would care,” Behnke said.
At the school, Behnke was involved with extracurriculars, including the yearbook.
“I had never worked on a yearbook before. It was quite an enlightening thing, but I had some very good editors,” Behnke said.
By the time that she retired, the world of computers was just starting to enter the fray. She uses technology now, but back then, she wasn’t ready to adapt.
“I think I had a phobia about that, and I must have just had a block in my head that I didn’t want to do that,” Behnke said. “I’m trying to learn (now) … I try to keep up.”
Age is just a number
Behnke’s days in Brillion came to an end last weekend. She said she had been saying goodbye to friends for weeks and it was an emotional move.