If it was up to Dick Mortimer, Columbus School District’s first Lifetime Service to Education Award would go to someone “more deserving.”
But it’s difficult to find someone who had a greater impact on the school district than Mortimer. Mortimer spent nearly 40 years teaching and mentoring Columbus’ youth. To honor his distinguished career, Columbus will present Mortimer with the award at the Cardinal Apple Awards March 10 at the Columbus Country Club. The event, from 2-5 p.m., will include hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar. The district encourages Mortimer’s friends and family to attend, honoring him for service to the community.
“We thought he would be the perfect person to be the first recipient,” said Superintendent Annette Deuman.
Even at age 96, Mortimer still likes to catch up with his buddies. On a recent morning in Columbus, Mortimer shared stories and a few laughs with friends while sipping on coffee at Julie’s Java House. Among them was Joe Conlin, a member of the Columbus School Board.
“Dick was my ag teacher,” Conlin said. “You couldn’t have picked a better recipient for the first (Cardinal Apple Award). He’s been a lifelong mentor to me.”
Despite many accomplishments, Mortimer remains humble.
“I don’t think there is a need for an honoree or anything,” Mortimer said. “I was just an employee there for many years.”
He served in the Army, from 1939-44, and was deployed to the Pacific theater during World War II.
“I trained in Aberdeen, Maryland and knew I was going to be shipped overseas,” Mortimer said. “I thought it would be to the European theater because that’s where most of the troops were at that time. But I ended up training in Australia and eventually spent about two years in Japan, New Guinea and some of the other Pacific islands.”
After returning from the war, he finished school at the Wisconsin Institute of Technology (which became UW-Platteville) and accepted a vocational agricultural teaching position in Columbus. That was 1948. He’s remained in the city ever since.
“I really appreciate everything the community has provided for me and my family,” Mortimer said. “When the position for ag teacher came up, I was immediately available to begin and very happy to do so.”
Mortimer taught ag for 11 years before becoming high school principal in 1958. He said he enjoyed teaching ag because it was a year-round position at a time when public education jobs were often nine-month terms. He also traveled with students to local farms, giving them hands-on experiences. Mortimer valued his time in the field and built relationships with local farmers.
While teaching, one of his favorite – and students’ favorite – days, was apple day. Students brought a fresh crop of juicy apples from home and Mortimer would share with faculty and staff.
“It was a treat and a nice little break in the daily routine,” he said.
While family farming has changed dramatically since the 1950s, Columbus students maintain a strong interest in agriculture with a vibrant FFA chapter.
“We did have a good ag program,” Mortimer said.
When he started teaching, Mortimer was just pleased to land a job. He never envisioned becoming principal, but spent 18 years leading Columbus High School. One of his fondest memories as principal was opening the new high school building in the late 1950s. Mortimer enjoyed working with area administrators throughout CESA 12. He also never missed a chance to reconnect with former students, attending several class reunions through the years.
In 1972, Mortimer completed a Specialist Degree in Educational Administration from UW-Madison. The degree helped Mortimer become district administrator/superintendent of schools in 1976. He retired in 1986 but continued to stay active in the school district and community.
“I think as superintendent some of my best memories were working with staff to build a good educational system, remodeling projects and hiring good staff,” Mortimer said.
Mortimer, who grew up in Wonewoc, on the border of Juneau and Sauk counties, was raised in a household that valued education. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father a school board member. His sister also became a teacher.
“They instilled in their children the value of education and encouraged all of us to further our education,” Mortimer said.
His wife, Beth, was a kindergarten teacher. The couple was very proud when their two daughters, Jane and Sue, also became teachers.