A teacher for decades, he was praised by those who knew him as a man inspired by curiosity and hard work.
Spend a few minutes with people who knew William J. Shimek and you start to wonder: What couldn't he do? A math teacher who played music and performed for kids, Shimek spent much of his life asking why and how.
How does music get made? Shimek taught himself, on piano, trumpet, guitar, French horn and banjo.
How do you run a marathon? Shimek did, at age 50.
How do you build a house? He did that, too. Twice.
Struck with an enthusiasm for learning and life that left his friends thankful they knew him, Shimek finally stopped asking questions on Aug. 17. He was 77.
"He had a monstrous curiosity about him. He would delve into so many things," said lifelong friend Jerry Pearo.
Shimek grew up poor in Sunrise, Minn., an upbringing that taught him to do things for himself, said his son, Dale. He made it to the University of Minnesota in Duluth, and there met his future wife, Marilyn. He studied music and math, marveling at the relationship between the two fields before choosing math for practical reasons. He thought it was easier to get a job as a math teacher.
First in Barnum, Minn., and eventually in Brooklyn Center, that's what he did until retirement from Brooklyn Center Junior/Senior High in 1996.
He kept music in his life by singing for friends, performing in a swing band at the university, and playing guitar and singing for kids at the family's annual pumpkin-carving parties. The campy tunes included "The Laughing Song," an original written by his grandfather.
Not content to spend summers at home, Shimek rented out their house so that he and Marilyn could take their four kids on months-long summer trips. They drove to Alaska. They bicycled around part of Lake Superior. They eventually counted 49 states in all on their summer travels.
The family lived in Blaine, but Shimek wanted to build a house and found land in Brooklyn Center. He taught himself how to do everything and finished a 3,600-square-foot, two-story home. One of his three daughters moved in. When people asked why he was building it, he said "I'm practicing," according to his son, Dale. A few years later Shimek built a second house, this one in Cedar for himself and Marilyn. Shimek hired Dale to work with him on the house.
"He had a way of instilling that kind of confidence with everyone," said Dale, who helped build the house, learning from a book as they went.
Dale remembered his father waking up early to do homework for classes he was taking at the University of Minnesota to become an instructor in a program for gifted children. After homework he went to class, then came home in the afternoon and worked until dark on the house. He eventually became an adjunct professor at the U, teaching gifted math students through a university program for exceptional junior high students.
At the end of July, Shimek's family brought him to the Gunflint Trail to see Pearo's new cabin. In an electric wheelchair, unable to move most of his body but still able to speak slowly, Shimek marveled at the cabin and its surrounding woods. Among Shimek's questions: Which lakes could you paddle to from the cabin?
"He always wanted to know 'Why? Why?'" said Pearo. "He was the consummate inquisitive mind. You could see why he would be such a wonderful teacher."
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747