Don Kuzma, a hero wherever he taught

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2009 - 4:13 PM

The popular high school teacher challenged students intellectually and athletically, pushing them to do their best.

Long before it became fashionable for players to drench their coaches with Gatorade and participate in other celebratory stunts, Don Kuzma put out a challenge to the 1960 Biwabik High School boys' swimming team. He told the boys they could shave his head if they won the state championship. That's all the motivation the team needed to become state champions that year and to repeat the following year.

For that, Kuzma was a hero in the northeastern Minnesota town of Biwabik, said his daughter, Dawn Kuzma of Minneapolis. He also was a hero in the eyes of many with whom he came in contact while coaching or teaching in Biwabik and Bloomington, where he spent most of his career.

"He was the best instructor I ever taught with," said retired Bloomington Jefferson High School history teacher Bob Normoyle. "He was so intelligent, so creative, and he packed a three-foot vocabulary. He always had his students rise up to his level."

Kuzma died of complications after surgery for anemia July 29 at St. Charles Hospital in Bend, Ore. He was 82.

He was never short on ideas on how to get students to do their best, whether that be in the pool, on the basketball court or in the classroom, where he taught philosophy, 19th- and 20th-century European history and world history. He taught in Niche, N.D., Bowman, N.D., and Biwabik before he moved to Bloomington in 1962. He taught at Lincoln High School from 1962 to 1971 and at Jefferson High School from 1971 to 1988.

At Jefferson, Kuzma was the head coach of the school's first girls' basketball team. He directed the Jaguars to the state title in 1978.

"He was like a father to all of us and loved us," said Laura Stromgren, who played on the state championship team and later for the University of Minnesota. "He would tease and laugh with us on the court, but he would teach and correct us. He was so patient, so positive and so encouraging."

Kuzma was a "tremendous motivator" and intellectual, Normoyle said, and started a quiz bowl team that qualified for the national finals in San Antonio in its first year.

"He had a place in his heart for geeks," Dawn Kuzma said. "He loved sports, but hated the fact that high school popularity was rooted in sports rather than what kids who study can achieve. He wanted to show those kids that they could be proud of what they can do."

In retirement, Kuzma recounted atrocities of war he witnessed while serving in the Army in occupied Vienna during World War II. He recounted the events in a book called "Lazlo's War," something he wrote on a yellow pad and paper and had his wife, Yvonne, type into a computer. He was very proud of the book, his daughter said.

Kuzma graduated from Ely High School and attended the University of North Dakota, where he played football and earned a bachelor's degree in history. He later earned a master's degree in history from the University of Minnesota. He moved to Bend in 1988.

In addition to his daughter, Kuzma is survived by his wife of 59 years, Yvonne of Bend; two sons, Mark of Minneapolis and Scott of Portland, Ore.; four brothers, Leo of Muncie, Ind., Albert of Minneapolis, Raymond of Ely, Minn., and Bernard (Fuzzy) Marsnik, of Gilbert, Minn.; four sisters, Ruth Mahin of Portland, Fran Weiler of Los Angeles, Jeanette McManus of Peoria, Ill., and Delores Kuzma of Ely; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at First Unitarian Society, 900 Mount Curve Av., Minneapolis.

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