Students in Mary Lenhardt’s government classes didn’t just learn about the political process and public service, they lived it.
The popular Burnsville High School teacher had students work as election judges and meet face-to-face with legislators to discuss the merits of their bills.
“She was an inspiring teacher, because it was obvious that she deeply cared about teaching her students to be smart and informed citizens, and really stressed the importance of civic engagement,” said Catherine Boruff, who had Lenhardt as a teacher during the 1998-99 school year and is now working as an assistant public defender in Anchorage, Alaska. “What set Lenhardt apart was her extensive knowledge of the issues and the degree of passion and enthusiasm she brought to trying to impart all of this great knowledge to 17- and 18-year-olds.”
Lenhardt was found to have a rare gallbladder cancer last August and died at her Minneapolis home on Jan. 30. She was 62.
Lenhardt taught government and women’s history and pioneered curriculum on civil rights during her 34-year career, all at Burnsville High. Remembered for her animated daily discussions of news and political events in class, Lenhardt encouraged students to augment their in-school civics lessons by getting them to serve as election judges in Burnsville, Eagan and Savage and to attend precinct caucuses. Each spring, she had students study a bill, then write letters to its author stating why the bill should pass or not. As an extension of that exercise, Lenhardt set up meetings with legislators and took students to the State Capitol to meet them each spring.
“It is impossible to run into a student who had her as a teacher and does not have some fond memory of the class, or a memory of what they did, or how they got involved,” said Colleen Coleman, a Burnsville High government teacher who called Lenhardt her mentor. “We still feel like we owe Mary for all the good work we do for our students. She built the foundation, and everything we do goes back to Mary. Her gift to us teachers, and all her students, was getting people involved in the process. She believed in her students. That rubbed off on those of us who are still teaching.”
Lenhardt worked on the 1990 campaign of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. It was through that experience that she met former Congressman Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., and invited him on several occasions to speak to her students.
“She was very inspiring,” said Ramstad, who awarded her the “Social Studies Teacher of the Year” award. “She was one of the brightest, loved and respected. She was the best of the teaching profession.”
Lenhardt was involved with Burnsville High’s Youth in Government program. She also established Burnsville’s College in the Schools, a program through the University of Minnesota in which students take college-level classes for credit at their high school.
Burnsville ranked near the top in terms of student participation in the program. During the 2011-12 school year, students earned 2,669 credits saved $1.2 million in tuition costs, according to school district and University of Minnesota sources.
After she retired in 2007, Lenhardt served as school liaison of special projects for the U’s College in the Schools program, working with high schools throughout the state.
Lenhardt was a runner who regularly ran around Lake Harriet, and who ran three marathons. She also enjoyed biking, often riding her bike to work at the U.
Lenhardt is survived by her husband, Tom; two sons, Tim Hennum and Jesse Hennum; two sisters, Linda Donaldson and Mona Koebele; five brothers, Mike, Rudy, Robert, Dave and Pete, and four grandchildren. Services have been held.