Ronning also BHS’ first band director
The comments beneath Ronald Ronning’s online obituary are numerous and ebullient.
The teacher of music and humanities at Burnsville High School was “one of the great ones,” wrote Mary Upson — “the sweetest, kindest and most influential teacher I ever had in high school.”
“His high school band performing the Finale of the Shostakovich 5th was unmatched,” wrote Rod and Jane Ellickson.
Ronning’s “ability to set my mind afire” and “infectious curiosity about the human condition” persuaded Nancy, Class of 1969, to major in humanities.
Ronning, who was the school’s first band director and later cast a wider arc with his popular humanities classes, died Dec. 9 at his Northfield home. He was 92. A memorial service was held Jan. 8 at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville.
He taught at Burnsville for 30 years before retiring in 1986, said Rebecca Ronning Weinbeck, the youngest of Ron and Bettye Ronning’s four children.
Then Ronning turned to folks more his age, founding the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium, which offers college-level courses to people 50 and older taught by professors in Northfield. Ronning taught music through the collegium.
“It was one of the first of its kind in the country,” Ronning Weinbeck said. “Other communities reached out to Dad wanting the format because it was so successful. Their first semester they had 30 students. And now they have upwards of 600. And it’s going strong.”
There at the beginning
Raised in a “traditional Nordic” family in Minneapolis, Ronning played clarinet and graduated from Patrick Henry High School, entered Gustavus Adolphus College, joined the National Guard and was stationed at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where he led a Dixieland marching band, his daughter said.
“He met Bettye Ruth at a dance in the commissary that his band played at,” she said.
They married and came to Minnesota, where Ronning finished his education degree and sought work.
“He was a Fuller Brush salesman for a little bit,” Ronning Weinbeck said. “And then he got his first job in Washburn, North Dakota.”
Three years later he was being recruited by John Metcalf, the School District 191 superintendent and state senator from Burnsville. Ronning began work here in 1956, the year the high school opened.
The Ronnings built a house in the Orchard Gardens section of then-unincorporated Burnsville. The “little house on Deerwood Drive” is “considered home for all of us,” Ronning Weinbeck said, noting that her parents moved to an empty-nester home in Burnsville before moving to Northfield 26 years ago.
Her father suffered hearing loss while teaching music and band and stopped after about 10 years, switching to social studies, she said. John Welckle, who chaired that department, was already impressed by the older instructor’s “presence of importance” and satisfied with Ronning’s college minor in social studies.
He also liked Ronning’s ideas about teaching high school humanities, which included a dissection of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and why its tonalism remained foundational to Western culture.
“We were in the formation of the school,” said Welckle, who came to Burnsville in 1961 and retired in 1990, “and we were trying to lay down, I suppose some would say, a predicate, a foundation, of what education should be. It was a really heady time. It was the era of the New Frontier, Kennedy’s opening up, exciting times.
“And it was also the time of existentialism. And Ron was a serious reader and wanted to have serious discussions. I was working on my master’s at the university in social studies and wrote my master’s thesis on existentialism in social studies. And so that became the basis of our conversations. He was reading Jean-Paul Sartre.”
Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, architecture, Beethoven and more were all part of the mix in Ronning’s classes.
“He’d lean on the desk and say, ‘Is this real? Is this here?’ ” Ronning Weinbeck said. “That would be the first time a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old thought about philosophy and expanded their thinking.”
The ’60s and ’70s were a “golden time of teaching,” with schools across the country embracing higher thinking and the arts, she said.
“Expansive is a word I like to use,” she said. “Teachers really pressed students to think higher.”
Ronning’s students responded.
“Oh, God, they loved it,” Welckle said, noting that many of the new breed in a community shedding its farming roots dreamed of getting into good colleges. “What did they love? I think they loved him, certainly. He was a powerful presence. He understood how to lead young people into learning. He had a gravitas about him that youngsters admired, were wishing for.”
Her father was a performer who loved to make students laugh, Ronning Weinbeck said.
“So many students stayed after class to discuss their first forays into philosophical thinking,” she said. “He enjoyed that so much. He was an excellent teacher. He connected fundamentally with his students.”
Ronning was also a taskmaster. Students wrote college-level theses of at least 30 pages, the work stretching over an entire semester, Ronning Weinbeck said. It came to be known as “The Project,” she said.
“Not everybody got an A,” she said. “You had to really earn that A. I got an A on it, but I got a B-minus on it for spelling. There wasn’t such a thing as spell check back then.”
Ronning also loved the outdoors, fishing and the work of author and environmentalist Sigurd Olson. He tied his own flies and built a cabin on Ruth Lake in Emily, Minnesota, Ronning Weinbeck said.
Welckle said he and Ronning stayed in touch until three or four years ago, when his friend’s worsening dementia made communicating difficult. Welckle followed up his master’s degree by earning a doctorate in the social and philosophical foundations of education.
“And I realize now, in retrospect, that he is one of the early catalysts in my life,” Welckle said. “He created the spark, encouraged me, prompted me to pursue much more seriously this idea, the idea that there are ideas behind education. So I treated him as a mentor. That’s what I’m discovering now as I’m dealing with his passing.”