He was old-school, and not in a bad way. ... His heart was with the staff and the kids."
As the first principal of Brooklyn Center High School, Wallace "Gunnar" Bernards did everything from hiring a teaching staff to picking the school color. Long after retiring, he was a regular at school events and helped raise money for student programs.
"He was Mr. Centaur," said friend and retired teacher George Larson, referring to the name of the school's teams. Bernards, principal of Brooklyn Center High School from 1960 until retiring 23 years later, died Jan. 22 of complications from pneumonia. He was 85.
A native of Blue Earth, Minn., Bernards graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1950 and promptly landed a teaching job in Chamonix, Mo. After teaching science and math there for two years, he was hired by Olivia (Minn.) High School, where he worked until 1960 as a teacher and then principal.
At the time, Brooklyn Center was a rapidly growing suburb and its residents decided they needed a new high school. Bernards was chosen to be its principal in 1960, and a year later the new school opened in a part of the suburb that still sported cornfields.
Bernards "put all the pieces together to make it happen," said Keith Lester, superintendent of the Brooklyn Center School District and a 1965 graduate of Brooklyn Center High School. Lester said that as far back as his own school days, he recalls Bernards as "a real down-to-Earth guy."
Larson, a teacher, hockey coach and then principal at Brooklyn Center, said Bernards was a traditionalist. "Reading, writing and arithmetic" were emphasized. "He was old-school, and not in a bad way. ... His heart was with the staff and the kids."
Bernards piloted a school that to this day is part of one of the smallest metro school districts. The much larger Osseo and Anoka-Hennepin districts have long claimed much of Brooklyn Center. Teenagers who live across the street from Brooklyn Center High's football field are assigned to a school in Champlin.
The set-up was sometimes frustrating for Bernards. "Every year, there were rumors we were getting consolidated into the Osseo or Anoka district because we were too small," said Neal Bernards, Bernards' son and a Brooklyn Center graduate. "That really bothered him." Despite the school's small size, its sports teams excelled in the 1970s and 1980s, Neal Bernards said, and Brooklyn Center won the state Class A football title the year before Bernards retired.
Bernards, who lived in Brooklyn Center, remained active with the school. He was a board member of the Centaur Foundation, which raises money for educational activities like student field trips.
And he gathered monthly for breakfast with retired Brooklyn Center teachers at a restaurant near the school.
Bernards is survived by his wife, Elaine, three sons, three sisters and nine grandchildren. Funeral services have been held.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003