On the first day of classes, Fridley teacher Duane Georgius would stride to the blackboard and dash off: “Gum is sin. Teachers are love.”
With that setting the tone for the term, the big man with the booming voice went on to engage and inspire students and also colleagues. Many remember him as a mentor who taught not only English, speech and theater but also greater life lessons that guided them to success.
Georgius, of Mounds View, died Aug. 24 of cancer. He was 82.
“Duane was probably the most well-beloved teacher in the history of the Fridley school system,” said former teacher Elaine Bergquist, one of many protégés.
“This man changed lives, and he gave kids confidence that normally would have been just pushed by the wayside. The impact that he had was legendary.”
Georgius taught in Fridley junior and senior high schools from 1959 through 1992. He was the driving force in getting the districtwide performing arts auditorium built. He directed its debut play, “Finian’s Rainbow,” a full-length Broadway musical, performed by junior high school students in a drama program he had established.
He also advised students working on the yearbook, in the bookstore and on other activities. “You did good, kid,” he liked to say to students.
“Duane Georgius was a larger-than-life figure and a huge positive influence to so many kids at Fridley High School over the years,” said Star Tribune publisher Michael Klingensmith, a 1971 graduate.
“He was famous for being incredibly tough in laying down the law the first day of class. Then from that point forward he was the friendliest, most supportive teacher you can imagine. He also spent countless hours as adviser to our Student Council, and mentored many of the student leaders.”
Hilarious and edgy, Georgius made learning fun. He ran classes like a talk show, giving an opening monologue and casting students as talent and guests.
New teachers looked to him as a model. About 40 years ago, Bergquist was a neophyte passing by his open classroom door when she heard him reciting Greek mythology. She spotted him in full character, wearing a toga and laurel head wreath, his captivated students roaring with laughter.
“He had an uncanny ability to reach children,” Bergquist said. “I was a teacher as well, and it’s every teacher’s dream to be able to reach a child, and to have a child figure out what it is about their life that they can have a passion for — and he was able to light that fire.”
He prided himself on maintaining student discipline, even when not in the room, said Gary Zehnder, who became a teacher in the early 1970s and, like so many others, saw Georgius as a mentor.
“He’d tell his class, ‘I’m going to leave my room, and I’ll be right outside my door to see who’s behaving and who’s not.’ Then he’d go out in the hallway, leaving his foot wedged in the door, and carefully slip out of his shoe to do whatever he needed to do,” Zehnder said.
Georgius learned humor and animated storytelling from dad Amandus Georgius while growing up as the second-youngest of eight kids on a farm near Wabasso.
After Redwood Falls High School, he attended the University of Minnesota for two years, served four years in the Navy and in 1958 finished his teaching degree at Mankato State University. He learned acting and directing in college productions, and met Edna Moulton while performing in a play. She did the lighting.
They married 56 years ago. She became a school librarian, and they worked at two other schools before settling in Fridley. There they attended many activities and cheered on students’ achievements even after graduation. He served on local and national education boards and councils, evaluated U.S. college programs and supported causes including Fridley Alumni Choir. The choir raises money for scholarships for college-bound Fridley seniors who will study the arts. In the last 18 years, more than $51,000 has been awarded in scholarships named after Georgius and another civic leader, choir director Randy Edinger said. Georgius, a proud benefactor, sat on a committee selecting recipients. He was Edinger’s tough seventh-grade speech teacher and director in "Finian’s Rainbow." Edinger’s first music-teaching job was at Fridley Junior High School, where Georgius took him under wing, and they put on plays. With his high standards, he’d settle for nothing less than people’s best, Edinger said.