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Eleanor E. Kraker had little in the way of support or school supplies when she started teaching in Gilbert, Minn., in the early 1940s.
There wasn't much of either to be had on the Iron Range at the time, with so much being rationed for the U.S. effort in World War II. But such was the situation Kraker, then a recent college graduate and new home economics instructor, found herself.
"She basically had to build that program up from scratch," Jeff Kraker, her son, said in an interview.
And it wasn't the only time that she had to do so. Kraker, who died at her home in Woodbury, Minn., on Dec. 19, 2020, was a driving force behind educational efforts in northern Minnesota as well. She was 97.
Born on May 25, 1923 to Paul and Helga Huhtala, Kraker spent part of her childhood in her father's native Finland before returning to the U.S. and settling in Calumet, Minn. She attended high school in Keewatin, where she lived with relatives, and graduated valedictorian of her class in 1941.
She attended Hibbing Junior College for two years and concluded her education at the University of Minnesota at the St. Paul “farm” campus.
Her job as a home economics teacher in Gilbert was her first out of college and set her on the path to meet the man she would later marry, Bernie Kraker. An Army Air Corps navigator recently returned from the war, Bernie bounced a basketball in the high school gym to Eleanor one day to strike up conversation.
They wed on June 18, 1949, and, not long after, they moved to Duluth where Kraker accepted a teaching position at the University of Minnesota campus there.
After leaving the workforce for a time to raise a family and later teaching night classes at the local public schools, Kraker would help to build up another education effort again in 1974. According to Jeff Kraker, she was the only faculty member at Duluth Secondary Vocation Center with a background in education when it first opened.
As a result, she became a mentor to the other faculty members, who had been recruited from the fields they were supposed to teach about.
"They had people who had run auto repair shops, and people who had been chefs and run kitchens in restaurants, so they didn't have any teaching experience," Jeff said. "So he was their mentor as far as how to handle the classroom, how to put together a lesson plan — all of the different particulars that you need to know to run a proper classroom, they really didn't know."
"So they really became quite close in those early years," Jeff said, "and she remained in close contact with them the same way that she did with her students at (the University of Minnesota Duluth.)"
For taking charge at the vocational school, Kraker would be named Minnesota's home economics teacher of the year for 1979. According to Valerie Hill, Jeff's wife, the accomplishment was among Kraker's most cherished.
And one year later, Kraker was runner-up for that same award at the national level.
Eleanor Kraker is survived by sons Jeff and Michael Kraker, their spouses, and numerous grandchildren. Bernie Kraker died in 1994.
Read more about Duluth native Eleanor Kraker in her obituary at www.duluthnewstribune.com/obituaries.