by Jim Boyle
Richard A. Genck considered a career in ministry and nearly completed a degree in psychology before shifting his career focus to education while at Macalester College as a young man.
The decision served this Marine veteran well, allowing him to land administrative positions in Menomonie and Elmwood, Wis., and Winthrop, Minn., before he was snapped up by former principal and superintendent, George Zabee in Elk River.
Genck and Zabee worked well together and would become the best of buds.
“They thought alike and acted alike,” said Georgene Genck, Richard’s wife of 61 years. “Richard loved being with George.”
Genck’s career highlights included dozens of hires while working at Handke (when it was a junior high), South (which is now VandenBerge) and helping develop and open Salk Junior High School (Now Salk Middle School).
Richard spent two decades as an administrator in Elk River before retiring. Allergies cut his career in education short, but he picked up work at Walmart in Fridley. He went on to live out the rest of his days in Elk River; unfortunately many of them were tarnished by medical ailments.
“He suffered from 20 years of heart attacks and aneurisms,” Georgene said. “He was in really poor health for his last 10 years. The good news is we know where he is now. We will miss him, though.”
The Cleveland, Ohio-native died July 12 at the age of 84.
He is being remembered in educational circles for how he handled children and staff that he worked with during his tenure here.
“He was extraordinarily fair and unbelievably helpful,” said Harvey Schroeder, who enjoyed working as an assistant principal for Genck, and many years of friendship. Genck and Schroeder were allies in education and fierce chess competitors.
“He was very competitive,” Schroeder said. “He would take the chess board home and practice his moves … He was very good and dedicated.”
He had the same type of work ethic when it came to developing his teaching staff and working with children. Teachers liked him and children liked him, even though he didn’t shy away from disciplining either.
He was both creative and effective when it came to handing out punishment to children.
Some of his psychology studies may have helped him think of certain punishments, like the time a child got caught spitting or when the squirt guns came out near the end of the school year. Rather than sentencing the youth to detention, he made at least two violators so sick of their wrongful act they must have thought twice before committing the same mistake again.
To the boy who spit, it was an afternoon of spitting into a bucket. To the ones with squirt guns, it was something on the order of filling an ice cream bucket up one squirt at a time.
“The child’s hands had to be so tired,” Georgene said.
Other times it just took the wave of his pointer finger or a gentle yet firm poke on a student’s chest.
Genck’s most lasting legacy, however, may be his hires and the ways in which he developed them.
The Elk River Area School District does not keep such records, but former teachers have suggested some of his hires included Tom Fuller, Louise Kuester, Marilyn Olson, Su Arnold, John Olson, Harvey Korte, Jerry Abraham, Albert Sanudo, Gary Simonson, Marilyn Commaford, Ed Luukonen, Alice Bird and Todd Nelson among others.
Genck was as diligent a hirer as they come.
Steve Schroeder-Davis remembers that Genck made two trips to St. Cloud State to check him out before scheduling an interview with then-Davis. His records weren’t quite ready on the first visit, and they were barely ready on the second visit.
“He was ready to leave when he was told they’re ready now,” Schroeder-Davis said. “He called me in for an interview, and I will never forget it.”
It wasn’t as much an interview as it was a two-hour political debate.
“Despite the fact that we disagreed on everything political, he appreciated my interest, enthusiasm and intellectual orientation,” said Schroeder-Davis, who will never forget the kindness afforded him when he came to Elk River and the intellectually stimulating atmosphere.
Schroeder-Davis remembers lunch discussions, not over politics but rather books that were traded between administrators, teachers and students.
“It was one big caldron of discussion,” he said.
And when teachers struggled with one aspect or another with their teaching, Genck went into overdrive.
“He would tutor these people…,” said Harvey Schroeder, “to give them every possible chance to succeed.”
And when he retired from education, he was not above working at Walmart where he, among other things, cleaned toilets.
Georgene recalls about 20 different jobs that her husband had from the time they were first together, married and poor. About the only job he wouldn’t take was that of a bridge painter. He once responded to an ad to paint the Hastings bridge. He went for an interview but realized, walking halfway across the bridge scaffolding to the interview, that the combination of heights and crazy acrobatics it would take to do the job wasn’t for him. He turned back and found another way to earn money.
Genck, however, was ready to put his life on the line for his country during World War II. He was training in Puerto Rico to go overseas when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was discharged early afterward.
“It wasn’t something he talked about,” Georgene said, acknowledging Richard had a brother (Worthington) who served in the Battle of the Bulge.
When Richard came back from his service, he thought of a career in the ministry before pursuing a psychology degree.
“He thought he’d be too controversial as a church leader,” Georgene said. “He would witness to children instead. He loved kids.”