'Enjoying every minute' of teaching since 1965 – Park Rapids Enterprise

When the Nevis School Board meets later this month, Gary Stennes won’t be at the table.

After serving on the board for over 20 years, he decided it was time to step down and didn’t run for election in November when his term expired.

“I am retired, so I have to take it a little easy,” he said.

His idea of taking it easy is different than most people’s. He is on the sub list for area schools, and most days find him in the classroom.

Stennes started teaching music at Nevis School in the fall of 1965. Back then, there were only 125 students total in grades K-12, and he taught music to all of them.

He remained at Nevis for 34 years, retiring in the spring of 1999.

“About the last five years, they got a music teacher for elementary,” he said. “Before that, it was just me.”

Once he retired, Stennes got on sub lists at schools in Nevis, Park Rapids and Walker.

“I keep busy,” he said. “Lately, I’ve been subbing almost every day. Mostly, I’m in Park Rapids. Elementary is my favorite, but I like high school, too.”

He met his wife, Connie Ahles, in 1972. “She was the maid of honor and I was the best man at my brother Kent’s wedding,” he said. “That’s how we got together. She was from St. Anthony, so we were long distance for a while, going back and forth to see each other for about a year before we got married.”

The couple has two daughters, Erica and Shanna. Both are graduates of Nevis. “They were both in band and choir,” he said.

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They have one grandson, Holden Stennes. He is in ninth grade in Bemidji, where he plays trumpet.

When Stennes graduated from high school, he got his certification as an accountant. “I worked at a desk for one year and decided that was not for me,” he said.

Stennes had always enjoyed singing and playing piano. He also played the baritone euphonium in concert band.


Gary Stennes learned to play every instrument and taught band and choir at Nevis School from 1965 to 1999.

Contributed / Nevis School

“I went to college at Moorhead State,” he said. “I love music, but wanted more security, so I chose teaching over being a professional musician. I got a vocal degree in Moorhead and then after I started teaching I went to Bemidji State University and got my band degree.”

Having grown up in the small town of Hendrum, Stennes said when he got the call asking him to interview for a position in Nevis he thought it would be a good fit.

“A small school, that was fine with me,” he said. “So I signed up there and stayed until I retired.”

Even when Nevis was a small school, the band was good-sized.

“I think there were 50 students in the band,” he said. “We also had a pep band. When I started out, the band also marched in seven town celebrations every summer. We did that for about 10 years.”

Stennes also led students in putting on Broadway musicals in the original gym three nights each spring.

“We did ‘Camelot,’ ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ ‘Music Man,’ about 20 altogether,” he said. “The first night was dinner theater in the old gym. The FHA (Future Homemakers of America) put on the dinner. The next two nights it was just a regular theater.”

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He said the best thing about teaching all those years was the outstanding musical students. “Those are the ones I knew the best, and some I still keep in touch with,” he said.

While many people who retire are focused on enjoying recreational activities, Stennes has kept doing what he enjoys most – teaching.

“Kindergarten is my favorite. I think they’re wonderful. They’re so much fun to work with,” he said.

Because of the shortage of subs, he often gets booked ahead of time.

“I have a couple of weeks booked in January already,” he said. “What’s really nice now is the teachers have everything on the smart board. They have the whole schedule for the day and the links if they want to show any videos. That makes it really easy.”

He said he thinks kids are much the same now as they were when he started. “In a lot of ways, it’s easier now because we have many special programs to help the students who need it,” he said.

“I like to think of education as a three-legged stool. You have the parent, you have the teacher and you have the student. If one of those legs is weak, it’s not going to be good. You have to have all three. There are different teaching methods, but it all comes down to that. You have to have all three working together.”

He said classroom management is extremely important for teachers, and even more important when subbing.

“They have to know they are not going to get by with anything,” he said. “The administration helps a lot, because if you have a student who is disruptive, you make it clear from the start that they will be sent to the office if they are. Usually, they take my word for it. They know me by now. In 22 years of subbing, I am seeing seniors I had in kindergarten. They get to know me and know what I expect.”

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He said the most fun about teaching is when students get the concept he’s trying to teach.

“I love seeing the light go on,” he said. “I enjoy every minute of teaching. It definitely keeps you young. And it helps to have a little nap at the end of the day.”

Stennes said when students in the classrooms where he subs ask why he only has one eye, he tells them the story of when he was in third grade and didn’t listen to his supervisor who said not to get too close to the shear when his brother was demonstrating how to block a sheep in 4-H.

“He leaned on the sheep with the shears and the shears went into my eye,” he said. “It didn’t hurt and they stitched it up the next day, but by then the sheep oil had infected the eye, so they had to take it out. I use that as a life lesson that shows why it is important to listen.”

Stennes has also kept active in community music. He performs with a choir in Sebeka and with the Park Rapids Community Band.

“I also play organ at Bethany Lutheran in Nevis and sometimes sub at St. Paul’s in Hackensack and at Calvary in Park Rapids,” he said.


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