Somewhere during the 34 years she spent teaching high school English, Marilyn Bangtson Wilhelm earned the nickname “Sarge.”
Perhaps it was because she could quiet a rowdy student with a mere glance, and she enforced proper spelling and grammar with the same urgency as a military drill, former students and fellow teachers say.
But when the bell rang at East Chain Consolidated School near Fairmont, then at Lincoln or Kennedy high schools in Bloomington, students stayed simply to talk to her, said Fran Russell, who once taught alongside her.
“She had high expectations, and you did not mess around in her class,” Russell said. “But [the students] always knew where they stood with her, and she would always listen to them. They loved being around her.”
When Wilhelm died from heart failure on April 12 at age 88, several former students from more than 30 years back formed a group text to mourn her loss. “I’ll never forget how to spell accommodate and accumulate,” one text read. “One has one m, one has two.”
A Willmar native who graduated from St. Cloud State Teachers’ College, Wilhelm was known as a “feisty” woman who always wore her hair short, read four newspapers a day and didn’t hesitate to voice her opinions, said her daughter, Valeria Linn.
“She was as tough as nails,” Linn said. “But she always was an advocate for the underdog, in all people, in all situations.”
Wilhelm met her husband, Bill, when after watching him play a game in an arcade, she asked to try her luck. She topped his score; soon after, he popped the question.
Linn remembers her mother as extremely organized and sometimes strict, but someone who wore her passions on her sleeve. Wilhelm played the organ and loved music, and their home was almost always filled with the crooning of Nat King Cole and other ’50s-era artists. A die-hard Vikings fan, she often tailgated outside the old Met Stadium in all weather conditions, bringing along Linn when she was about 8, dressing her in a sleeping bag zipped over a snowmobile suit. She also loved playing cards and backgammon with her sisters LaVaughn and LaVerne — or anyone else who would accept the great risk of losing to her.
When she retired, she and Bill moved to a house on Woman Lake, near Hackensack. As years passed, her body aged but her wit and acuity did not, Linn said.
“Last Christmas, a neighbor came over and taught us a card game called ‘Oh heck,’ ” Linn said. “She’d never played it before, but at 87, she beat him on the first try.”
Wilhelm’s greatest devotion was teaching. While she didn’t accept mediocrity, she never raised her voice, Russell said. She believed all students were capable of learning, and in her classes, they did.
“If she was teaching Macbeth, all students learned Macbeth,” Russell said. “No one fell behind in her class — she taught all levels and she had the skill to do that.”
Years after they graduated, many of her students kept in touch.
Greg Hoffman, a student at Kennedy in one of Wilhelm’s last years teaching, would send her essays to proofread when he was in college. He’d planned to get an engineering degree but ended up earning dual bachelor degrees after adding liberal arts to his major.
“She had such a passion for the subject,” Hoffman said. “I was not headed down that path, but she sparked the interest.”
Wilhelm, a National Honor Society adviser, retired in 1985 as a recipient of the nationally recognized Excellence in Education award.
“It made you better to be around her,” Russell said. “She was kind of a legend in her own time — people talked about her while she was still alive.”