Mark Reinsmoen was the kind of teacher who loved to give his fourth-graders Laffy Taffy candy and read the jokes on the wrappers out loud with them.
After a class had been gone a few years from Echo Park Elementary in Burnsville, where he taught for 27 years, he “missed not knowing what they had become” and found himself looking through local newspapers for their names, highlighter in hand, or attending high school sporting events to watch them play, he said.
Connecting with students, even after they left his classroom, was — and is — Reinsmoen’s forte.
“That was my first priority — to connect with my students,” he said. “I think I brought a lot of laughter to the classroom and made them feel comfortable and confident, and that’s the name of the game.”
Reinsmoen’s latest project has been to write and self-publish “J-Hawk Nation,” a fictional story about a teenage boy coming of age in rural Iowa. The book, which took him three years to write and was published in June, follows the story of a winning basketball team in their final season before their school is shut down. It’s based on Reinsmoen’s own experiences in the 1960s.
Last week, Reinsmoen, now retired, held a book signing event at Echo Park Elementary. About 50 people attended, many of them former students and teachers.
Former student Tim Soliday, 27, remembers Reinsmoen as an avid bicyclist who often biked to his students’ sporting events. At school, he liked to take his class outside to kick a soccer ball around, playing along with them and teaching them new skills.
He was an active guy, Soliday said, and a great teacher. “It’s not surprising that he’d take on a challenge like [writing a book]. He’s not someone who would sit around doing nothing,” Soliday said.
Being a male elementary schoolteacher was pretty rare when he started out, and kids sometimes told him he was their “first boy teacher,” he said. After a few years teaching, Reinsmoen “found his place” teaching fourth-graders, whom he found to be funny and smart. In 1979, when Echo Park opened, he was a “charter member” of the staff there, and never left.
When Reinsmoen retired in 2007, he continued subbing in the district. Occasionally, he and his wife, Dianne Reinsmoen, also a longtime teacher, would sub together as “tandem guest teachers,” even though they were paid as just one teacher, he said. “The wonderful part of that is that you always have someone there when you have to go to the bathroom,” he joked.
Reinsmoen, who has three children, was also a girls and boys soccer coach. He led several Apple Valley High teams to state championships in the ’90s, he said.
Today, he spends half the year in Arizona, where he has three grandchildren, with two more on the way, he said. The months away from Minnesota cut into the time he has to catch up with former students, but he still makes time to attend games when he’s here. Students in his last class are now juniors, and he can name which students are playing which sports in high school, he said.
He’s also working on a new book, tentatively titled, “By the Seat of My Bike: Humorous and Ridiculous Bicycle Stories.” The book, “guaranteed to make people laugh,” chronicles funny things that have happened to him on bike rides, including 10 European bicycle trips and many throughout the U.S., he said.
His bike stories might sound familiar to his students, said Soliday, who recalls Reinsmoen telling kids each day about what he’d seen and found on his before-school bike ride.
Then he’d empty his pockets, revealing golf balls or coins, Soliday said. “We were always really fascinated by his stories,” Soliday said.
Though he stays busy, Reinsmoen said he misses teaching. “I miss making a difference,” he said. “You have to have a purpose in life, and teaching certainly gave me a purpose.”