Being widely known as National Teacher of the Year didn’t faze Mary Beth Blegen, who patted President Clinton on the shoulder after he spoke in her honor in the White House Rose Garden. After that 1996 ceremony she asked herself, “What are you doing, Mary Beth? You put your hand on the arm of the president of the United States!’ ”
Remembered as an intense but kind teacher who helped students no matter the time or place, Blegen, 72, died Jan. 25, a month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“That ability to listen and not preach,” was how her son, Mark Blegen, described her special qualities as a teacher. “She was also so humble. She would never tell anyone she was National Teacher of the Year. She would say, ‘I’m Mary Beth; now tell me about you.’ ”
Blegen, who most recently lived in Lakeville, was a humanities, writing and history teacher at Worthington High School when she was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 1995. The following April she became the fourth Minnesotan to receive the national award.
“We can’t just be purveyors of knowledge anymore,” Blegen told the Star Tribune then about the teaching profession. “My kids did a project on the dropping of the bomb, and they got 62 pages of information off the Internet. Nothing I can give them can compare to that. But they have to be able to figure out stuff … who’s writing it, whose viewpoint are you looking at.”
A former student, Carolyn Ann Smith, said Blegen taught the importance of asking questions and was relentless about critical thinking.
“She was a force to be reckoned with and always very welcoming to all of her students,” said Smith, now a teacher herself in Green Bay, Wis.
Smith, then Carolyn Wolf, performed in Worthington High School’s fall drama production “The Diary of Anne Frank” under Blegen’s direction. She learned “the power of being able to tell a story like that on stage,” and the experience inspired her to become a teacher.
“I think my love for theater was definitely nurtured under her,” said Smith, who graduated from high school in 1996, the year Blegen received the national award. “She was very well loved. Everybody enjoyed her classes and had respect for her.”
Another former student, former Minnesota legislator Matt Entenza, said he was struggling in high school when Blegen, then his English teacher, stayed after classes repeatedly to help him.
“She really believed in the power of a teacher to make a difference, and she lived it,” he said.
Blegen grew up in South Dakota, where influential teachers nurtured her interest in education. That interest grew further when she attended Augustana University in Sioux Falls.
She taught in Worthington for 29 years. After being named National Teacher of the Year, she spent a year making public appearances as the National Education Association’s teacher in residence before going to work at the U.S. Department of Education as an adviser to Secretary Richard Riley during the Clinton presidency.
Most recently she was an education consultant in St. Paul, working with school principals on leadership development.
“What was most important to me was that she always listened and asked these piercing questions of me and was very kind in her answers. She never judged,” said Mark Blegen, who teaches exercise physiology at St. Catherine University.
“She had this lifelong passion for teaching and learning.” Her motto: “Good teaching changes lives.”
In addition to her son, of St. Paul, survivors include daughters Kristy Grigsby of Lakeville and Sarah LaBelle of Rosemount, her sister, Jeanne Conner, of Canton, S.D., and seven grandchildren. Services were held last week.