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WHO WAS BILL NILSEN?

Posted by Ross McGlasson on

WHO WAS BILL NILSEN?
This is a departure from the typical monthly activities at your Foundation. We are installing a stone bench, small altar and planters in front of the Columbarium. The plan is to make the area more spiritual. We are also hosting an informal dinner for members of the Tartu Academy in Estonia. It is scheduled for October 9. Look for details in the bulletin.

The headline is about history that I think we should all know. It is about Bill Nilsen, a member of the Excelsior Lutheran Church before the name change and before the sanctuary (now Heritage Hall) was built. Bill, along with his family, which includes Corrine Peterson, his daughter, came to Excelsior as Superintendent of the Excelsior School District in 1943.

The challenge back then was how to expand the curriculum to meet the growing and changing needs of the students, who numbered only about 100 students per class. Post-war requirements for advanced mathematics, science, and better world understanding all called for curriculum change. Finding more students to create a critical mass was the only answer. So, with School Board encouragement, Mr. Nilsen began discussions with the neighboring districts.
Six years later, under his leadership, six small independent school districts (Clear Springs, Deephaven, Excelsior, Groveland, Minnewashta and Tonka Bay) consolidated into one larger system, the Minnetonka District #276, with Bill Nilsen as its first Superintendent until his retirement in 1968.

The radical notion of consolidation was new to Minnesota, and the Minnetonka School District #276 was its pioneer in our area. At that time there were over 4000 school districts in the state of Minnesota.
Moreover, high school sports, like today, were a powerful magnet in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Small high schools played one another on an even-keel basis. The Excelsior High School Basketball team won the State Championship shortly before the merger conversations started, further making a new route into the future an uphill battle.
The climate for consolidation was highly political, and emotions were very evident. How could this possibly work? Mr. Nilsen and his School Board sold the idea of focusing on what is best for the kids. They stressed the future of our community and placed emphasis on teaching and learning. This attitude prevailed and on March 15, 1949 the voters agreed by 89 percent. It is important to note that this decision was not just a philosophical one. Land had to be purchased, buildings built, bonds sold, tax levies managed. The high school, two junior highs (middle schools now) each with a swimming pool, and an additional elementary school were built to create the present-day Minnetonka School District. All present elementary schools today were built or remodeled during Mr. Nilsen’s Superintendency.

Thankfully, through careful planning and far-sightedness, area citizens were open to conversation, dialogue, and eventual decision-making on the best interests of the whole regarding the education of youth. Their vision, tenacity and entrepreneurship in those early days paved the way for the ongoing commitment and what was best for the kids. It became a model for other school district consolidations that followed in Minnesota.

Bill’s leadership skills prevailed at the newly formed Mount Calvary as well. I got to know him after his retirement. By then, Dr. Don Draayer was the superintendent and the school district continued to grow and prosper. Bill was active on the Gifts and Memorials Committee, the forerunner of the Foundation. His visionary thinking was instrumental throughout the church. The newer stained-glass windows in the sanctuary, the ones depicting communion, baptism and the Holy Spirit descending upon Mount Calvary were a project of his committee. Later, he was instrumental in the installation of our wonderful pipe organ. That committee consisted of many members, mostly musicians, that led that movement.

Remember, in the early years of the Foundation, when we were trying to build the principal endowment fund, there were no grants to be given. Bill’s hallmark was that money for capital improvements had to be raised ahead of time. Bill was a master at fundraising. We have much to be thankful for because of Bill.

Information submitted by Ross McGlasson, Don Draayer, & Corinne (Nilsen) Peterson: 2017

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