NEW ULM - Many will remember Arlene Stewart as the "heart and soul" of District 88 events; the gregarious MC who contributed the flare, hilarity and warmth that helped make occasions such as homecoming or employee recognition banquets unforgettable.
This public persona is an added dimension to Stewart's primary role as an art teacher who, over the course of nearly four decades, has fostered high standards in creativity and art appreciation in nearly 10,000 students.
At the end of this school year, Stewart is retiring after 38 years of teaching art, of which 34 in New Ulm.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Art teacher Arlene Stewart is retiring after working in District 88 for 34 years.
Born and raised on a dairy farm outside of New Hampton, Iowa, the fifth of eight children, Stewart graduated from New Hampton High School in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War.
"I had three older brothers who had draft numbers pulled, but they either joined the National Guard or were lucky in that their number was high and none had to leave the States," Stewart says. "I remember this as a very stressful time for my parents and family."
She graduated from Iowa State University in 1974 and did her post-graduate study at Mankato State. Her areas of concentration were drawing and pottery. She had a full-ride academic scholarship to college, having graduated top of her class of 198.
"You cannot mention New Ulm High School or District 88 without thinking of 'Arlene Stewart.' Arlene has been devoted to District 88 for 34 years. She has been the voice of reason when it comes to policies, procedures and tradition. Her common sense thinking and ability to thoughtfully articulate her point of view has been an administrator's best friend. She has maintained the pulse of education and survived one change after another. From outcome-based education to performance packages to graduation standards, Arlene has forged through the process, making changes when necessary, all to continually meet student's needs. Her strength, passion and commitment is an inspiration to me and should be to all educators. Thank you Arlene, for your guidance over the past nine years."
Mark Bergmann, High School Principal
"The top three students of my high school class all went into teaching," she says. "I don't think that happens any more."
Stewart earned spending money in college by reading college texts to a blind student.
"I went through high school in years before girls' sports, but between chores and milking and time riding and showing horses with my friends, I didn't notice," she says. "Although if I went to high school now, I most certainly would be involved in extracurriculars. I like to keep busy!"
Stewart's first teaching job was at a small school not far from her home, where she taught K-12 art in a cafeteria.
"They didn't have an art teacher before I came," she recalls. "The kids appreciated the opportunities, and it was a great place to start."
After four years, Stewart decided it was time to focus on one age level.
"I found the K-12 almost impossible to prep for, and such a wide range of behaviors. I had six different classes every day!"
Stewart started looking for a high school art position, and applied at New Ulm.
"I looked at a map and saw this big lake nearby called Swan Lake and thought it would be a great place to live," she recounts. "I didn't know at the time it wasn't a fishing lake, but it was enough to lure my future husband to come to Minnesota with me!"
Stewart took over the high school position in 1978 after the previous teacher retired, and except for a few years traveling daily to the junior high for a class or two, she has been at the high school for 34 years.
As the head of the department for many years, Stewart has witnessed the changes that have come with the elementary art program being dismantled, then reassembled into the configuration currently in place. She has also seen the incorporation of state and national standards in all the arts areas, and the requirement of one credit in fine arts for graduation.
"I have experienced wide support for the high school program throughout the years," she says. "I think people in New Ulm value the arts, and I have had excellent support at high school administration level.
"The job has been a good fit for me. I don't like to see materials and supplies wasted, I have high expectations for effort and behavior, and the administration has always helped me by getting the things I needed, and listened to my suggestions about curriculum and courses," she says. "I have many former students involved in art-related and advertising careers; I like to think they got their start and inspiration here in New Ulm."
Stewart says her job has evolved into almost entirely teaching pottery. She has many current students whose parents had pottery with her, as well, she says.
"There is something visceral in the connection that humans have with clay," muses Stewart. "It responds to pressure and control in certain ways that are almost magical. The permanence of the product is unique, and kids love it."
She also teaches some drawing and painting and design.
"The rise of computer technology and digital imagery has brought big changes to design and other two-dimensional work, but clay and sculpture haven't changed much," she says.
In 1994, Stewart was honored as the New Ulm Education Association Teacher of the Year and proceeded to the state level where she was honored as a top-fifteen finalist.
"But, really, I was and am no better than the raft of colleagues that I work with. It was just nice to be recognized."
Her least favorite part of teaching is grading and the problems created when parents want to fix everything for their youngsters, make their life perfect, she says.
"Parents like everything their children make, no matter the quality, and it is hard for them to accept that their student may not be top all the time. In fact, many students who find academic classes easy find creative classes difficult, and the thought of getting a B or a C in art sends them over the edge. One of the most critical lessons students can learn is how to handle adversity and recover from small failures. They are better prepared for handling the big setbacks that are sure to come along."
Stewart says she likes to think she was a teacher who guided her students, provided them with an environment conducive to learning, and gave them the background and knowledge necessary to understand the concepts of art. She likes to think she has then been able to step back, let students do their own work and make their own decisions in its creation, all the time setting the bar high for success.
"When I see the quality of the work my students create, I think it is working! New Ulm students are really great people. I will most certainly miss them."
Stewart's husband died in 1999 when their children were 10, 13 and 16. The years since have been busy with work, activities, college, jobs and everything else that goes with being a single parent, she says.
(Stewart's older son, 28, is a chemical engineer; her daughter, 26 is a doctor of veterinary medicine; and her younger son, 23, is a junior at St. John's University in biomedical engineering. "No teachers. I tried," she jokes.)
"I have not had time to become involved in the local arts community, and I look forward to doing that in retirement," she concludes.