Minnesota's Tibetan community lost an influential educator and cultural mentor Saturday when Wangyal T. Ritzekura died after a series of strokes. He was 61.
Born in Dzonga, Tibet, Ritzekura moved with his family to India at an early age. He attended a school established by the Dalai Lama in exile and served as a teacher in Tibetan schools in India from 1976 to 1992. He was among 1,000 Tibetans who immigrated to the United States under a special visa program established by Congress in 1990.
Ritzekura worked odd jobs for six years before he sent for his wife, Kunsang Choezom. They settled with their four sons — Khedup, Jampa, Jampel and Jingme Ritzekura — in Fridley.
In 1997, Ritzekura returned to a career in education when he helped form the Tibetan Cultural School to preserve traditions and language among fellow Tibetan immigrants.
In 1998 he was hired by Minneapolis public schools as a liaison to Tibetan students, and he started a communitywide recognition of Tibetan high school graduates and workshops to help them prepare for college.
Tenzin Kunchok, an incoming 11th-grader at Edina High School, said her former teacher and principal made a big difference in her life.
"He pushed me to achieve better in life," she said.
Kunchok recalled an episode last summer when she had balked at giving a speech about a trip she had taken to Tibet. Ritzekura called her and her parents and convinced her to reconsider.
"I didn't want to do it, but he encouraged me to do it and try my best, she recalled. "So I went up there and just spoke about everything I thought about my trip to Tibet, and I won third place. It made me feel really good that he … made me do it," she said. "He knew that I was better than who I thought I was."
Kalsang Phunstok, a longtime associate, said Ritzekura left an indelible mark on the Tibetan Culture School, which has drawn a number of dignitaries and visitors to Minnesota.
Ritzekura insisted that language holds the key to preserving culture, and recently spearheaded a yearlong project to adapt textbooks for Tibetan students in grades four through eight. The project was funded with a grant from the St. Paul Foundation's Asian Pacific Endowment.
Ritzekura also served as a former president of the Tibetan Association of Minnesota (now called Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota).
"As in Buddhist belief, we pray for his soul and quick rebirth," Phunstok said.
Services have been held.