West Central Area Secondary School Science teacher John Van Kempen hadn’t really thought of retiring this year. Van Kempen, a native of Morris, and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Morris, student taught, in 1987, under Lyle Krusemark at West Central High School in Elbow Lake. Following graduation, he taught eight years at Evansville. He was at a basketball game between WCA and Brandon-Evansville when then WCA Superintendent Jerry Ness approached him about interviewing for an opening at WCA.
“From my contacts, I already knew a lot of teachers at WCA, so I decided to give it a try,” Van Kempen recalls.
He got the job and started teaching at WCA in the fall of 1997.
Van Kempen says he became interested in the idea of teaching science when he used to visit for hours with his seventh grade science teacher, John Anderson, as he gardened near his house in Morris.
“He was a fascinating man and made science fascinating too.”
At WCA, Van Kempen filled in coaching and assistant coaching most of the sports offered, but found his passion in coaching cross country running. In fact, he coached the first five years as a volunteer for no pay. Since then, his WCA cross country teams have become a major force throughout the state, while both the boys and girls teams have made it to the State Meet, the boys team have been there several times in a row. WCA has also sent dozens of individual runners to the State Meet.
Van Kempen’s wife Chris taught special education for several years at WCA before going back into the classroom to teach second grade at Evansville.
The couple have four children: Holly, 25, Abby, 24, Ella, 21, and Jack, 20. Only Ella showed interest in teaching and her father said he talked her out of it.
“I told her to remember how I came home from work, sat down in the living room, and went to sleep. Teaching is a demanding career. I might have made it tougher on me than I had to because I would take it home with me.”
Van Kempen said a couple of factors came into play when he decided to retire.
“The pandemic changed everything,” he claims. “Teaching is different now and we, older teachers, are not equipped to handle it.”
Also, he said, taking care of his good friend and fellow WCA teacher John Zdrazil as he fought a losing battle with cancer last spring, taught him a valuable lesson.
“Watching what he went through, I realized I wanted to retire so I could try some other things before it got too late.”
One of the things Van Kempen is looking forward to trying is his new job as driver/librarian for the Viking Library System’s Bookmobile.
“It sounds like a great job, getting to drive around to all these small towns, and meet people while offering a valuable service.”
He admits, however, he better start reading more so he can recommend titles to Bookmobile patrons.
Van Kempen is also a member of the Elbow Lake City Council.
“I have loved this place,” he says looking around his science classroom at WCA. “And learned from everybody I have worked with.”
He has been working on his retirement speech he plans to give to his fellow educators, saying he wouldn’t change living and teaching in a small town for anything.
“Teachers should become part of the community, and here they can. And it’s great to know who your kids are hanging out with and they have had so many wonderful experiences here.”