¡Que viva Señor Nagel!
After 17 years, beloved Pequot Lakes Spanish teacher retires
Some 20 years ago, Dick Nagel thought he might never teach again.
“I was getting up there in age,” he said.
He’d left a teaching position in northern Illinois in the mid-1970s after three years to help his brother, Craig, with a stonemasonry business and the newly started Country Echo newspaper. After one ill-fated year of substitute teaching English in Backus that did not lead to a job, Nagel nearly resigned to the idea that his teaching career was over.
In 1997, however, the tide turned when Nagel was offered a position to start a Spanish program at Pequot Lakes High School, in response to community support for adding the language to the curriculum.
With the opportunity, Nagel could combine two of his greatest passions: the Spanish language, which he’d loved since his own high school days, and kids.
“Choose a job that you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” he said. “For teaching, that’s pretty much how it’s been for me.”
Nagel originally hails from Long Lake, Illinois, where he grew up with two brothers and two sisters. His mother stayed at home with the children, and his father worked as a wholesale drug salesman. He heard German spoken by his older relatives but never learned it himself. There was another language that would catch his interest.
Nagel’s love affair with Spanish language and culture began in the classroom, where his own high school teacher, a naturalized citizen from Italy, lit the fire. Of Spanish culture, Nagel said he admires the close-knit nature of communities and the regard for elders.
“As a whole, they are a very warm people,” he said.
He spent two summers working on the railroad in the Chicago area, where he worked with nearly all men of Mexican descent. He did not have the desire to go to college upon graduating high school in 1967, but his father, who’d gone no further than 10th grade in his own education, insisted.
Earning a degree from MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, turned out to be a key factor in what would become his life’s work.
Known to nearly two decades’ worth of students simply as Señor, Nagel not only developed the Spanish program in Pequot Lakes, he also took hundreds of students to Mexico and Spain — many of whom likely had never left the state, let alone the country — to experience other cultures.
“We live in a fairly isolated place here culturally,” he said. “(When traveling, students) see that we are all the same on certain levels, but also things are done quite differently.”
Language itself, he added, shapes people’s world views.
“Different people live different ways,” he said. “When you travel, we have so many things to be thankful for here (in the United States).”
Nagel said that although teaching language is important to him, “I teach kids first and Spanish second.”
“It would be impossible for me to teach if I didn’t try to connect with the kids on their level,” he added.
His retirement this year is mostly due to his age (he’s 65) and partly because of changes in technology he doesn’t believe benefit language instruction (he called it Old Fart Syndrome). Nagel also experienced a health scare late last year that nearly took his life.
While hunting duck with his son in North Dakota in September, he suffered a heart attack. An ambulance transported him 120 miles to the nearest hospital, where doctors performed quadruple bypass surgery.
The event kept him from teaching through the rest of the semester. Against odds, however, Nagel returned in January for one final half-year of dispensing wisdom to Pequot Lakes students.
“(Students are) telling me they’re going to miss me,” he said. “Of course, it goes right back. I’ll miss them, too.”
Nagel plans to spend his retirement traveling with his wife, Liz, and doing some of his favorite things: fishing, hunting, gardening, reading and finding reasons to be outdoors.
As far as advice to aspiring teachers, he recommends getting as much instruction in what you’d like to teach as possible. But above all, he said, “Make sure that you love kids, first.”
Chelsey Perkins can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her at facebook.com/PEJChelsey and on Twitter @PEJ_Chelsey.