One of Minnesota’s Longest-Serving Teachers Retires: Carlton Urdahl ’63

Staff photo (l-r): Craig Lachowitzer ’10, Carlton Urdahl ‘63, Nick Guida ’97, Jeanie Guida (Nick’s mother), Mark Tuchscherer ’02, Anita (Erkens) Trutwin ’96, and Marah Moy ’18 — at the retirement celebration.

After an impressive 60-year tenure teaching math and German, divided between two schools, Carlton Urdahl ’63 sits among the top 1% of longest-serving K-12 teachers in Minnesota.

For the last 50 years, Urdahl, who retired in May, taught at Buffalo High School, Buffalo, Minn. Urdahl was responsible for Buffalo High School adding calculus to its curriculum. He said students kept coming back from college saying Buffalo should have calc, but the other teachers thought they should leave it to the colleges. Though he kept pushing the idea, it didn’t go anywhere.

Then he received a National Science Foundation grant to continue studies in math education at the University of Minnesota and spent three summers studying calculus, which came as a shock after not studying it for 25 years.

“The first day,” Urdahl said, “the instructor had given an assignment, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what they’re talking about.’ I was really quite depressed. Honest to God, I was going to quit.” But he thought about the fact that his winning the NSF grant had been in the Buffalo newspaper, and he decided to go back and was glad he did.

He said he met some of the best math teachers in the state there. By the time he finished, he felt he was ready for anything instructors could throw at him. He went back to Buffalo High and again tried to talk the teachers into offering calculus. This time his persistence paid off, and he started teaching calc in 1990 and AP calc in 1995, eventually preparing hundreds of students for the AP exam with pass rates well above state and national averages.

Urdahl had always wanted to be a teacher, and he always knew it was going to be math. As a kid, he went to a country school with eight grades where the older kids helped the younger ones learn. Urdahl found he really enjoyed that, and his decision to become a math teacher was born.

When he got to high school, he realized that he’d missed out on meeting kids who had all grown up together. Growing up on a farm, he’d spent a lot of his time helping with chores instead of school activities. He said he was a shy kid and found high school to be a lonely place. But Concordia changed all that.

Concordia was the only college he was really interested in and said his choice to attend was a no-brainer. His older brother, Loren, had gone to Concordia and loved it, but he credits his pastor for being a Concordia “pusher.” It was because of him Urdahl chose Concordia.

“I was kind of a loner,” Urdahl said. “But when I got to Concordia, everything just opened up. I look at Concordia as the beginning of my real life because I had friends right away, friends I still have. And I had some really good teachers — Frida Nilsen, Hiram Drache, Gerald Heuer, Elwin Rogers, Arthur Grimstad, and Mirdza Eglitis.”

Urdahl said he didn’t even like history until he took Drache’s class and thought Heuer in math and Grimstad in religion were fantastic. He had Eglitis three of four years in German and really liked her and Rogers, who was also in the German department.

“I was very fortunate. I think all of my experiences at Concordia were very positive,” he added.

Urdahl hadn’t intended on majoring in German in addition to mathematics, but he figured he would lose all the German he had learned if he didn’t continue. In the end, it was due to his German major that he landed his first position in Granite Falls, Minn. After a few years, he also started teaching math there.

Urdahl said he believes that God had a hand in his career. After teaching in Granite Falls for 10 years, he just decided on a whim one day he would resign when the school year ended. After sleeping on it, he went ahead and submitted the resignation without another job lined up.

“I guess I just did that as kind of a quirk,” he said.

After the school year ended, and without any job prospects, Concordia’s placement office notified him they’d sent his papers to Buffalo for a position they thought he’d be interested in.

“So I called them and met with them in the morning, and I just fell in love with Buffalo,” he said.

And the rest of the story lasted five decades.

Most of those 50 years, he lived in Litchfield, Minn., driving a round trip of about 85 miles every day to school, never missing a day because of weather. Although, because he left so early each morning, he did arrive at school sometimes before getting the notice that school was either two hours late or canceled.

Though originally Urdahl was not interested in having a retirement party, two other teachers were retiring so there was a joint celebration and Urdahl said he was glad he went. The party included a virtual appearance from now former Concordia College President William Craft offering his congratulations.

“It was fun making contact with kids I had years ago, and I had three kids from Granite Falls come,” Urdahl said. “A lot of former students came to the party, and I also received some nice letters from former students.”

Ryan McCallum ’01 graduated from Buffalo HS and had Urdahl as a
teacher. After graduating from Concordia, McCallum returned to
teach English at Buffalo HS and became a colleague of his former teacher.

Also, since it’s Buffalo High School, the retirement gift was a fitting statue of a buffalo.

After Buffalo started offering calc, Urdahl continued his education and started going to Carlton College for its AP summer school in 1995. He went again last summer and, when they said his name, a woman from the AP Institute told him, “You’re a legend around here. No, really, you came the first time in 1995 and this is your 15th year.” Nobody in the history of the institute had done that.

Urdahl laughed and responded, “Well, I’m really a slow learner!”

He not only wasn’t a slow learner, but he helped hundreds of others with math, something many people don’t find easy. He found great joy when things clicked with his students and was especially excited when a student who had a lot of trouble grasping a problem finally found the correct answer.

Though he’s officially retired, he’s really not ready to give it up even after 60 years and will be a substitute math teacher this school year.

“But I’m only going to do senior high math, so I’ll be a little choosy,” he said. “I want to be able to help out.”