Body Double

March 01, 1999 5 min read

One morning last November, teacher Mae Schunk called her school to report that she would be a half-hour late. It apparently was a first for her in 36 years as an educator, but it couldn’t be helped. She had gotten only two hours’ sleep the night before.

Schunk arrived at Phalen Lake Elementary at 9 a.m. to find her principal and top administrators of the St. Paul, Minnesota, district waiting at the front door. “Oh, I’m so sorry I’m late,” the 64-year-old teacher said, ducking past them. “I’ll get right to my kids.” But before she started down the hall, Schunk was directed to the gymnasium. There, the school’s 750 students were waiting to greet her.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk
Age: 64
Education: Bachelor of science in elementary education, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 1958. Master’s degree in educational leadership studies, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., 1989.
Experience: Educator for 36 years, including 22 years in the 45,000-student St. Paul school district. For the past two years, she has served as a teacher of gifted and talented students at Phalen Lake Elementary School. She also has worked as an assistant principal and curriculum specialist.
Current residence: Inver Grove Heights, a suburb of St. Paul.
Personal: Married to William Schunk for more than 40 years; one son, Benjamin.

“I walked into the gym, and they had all these signs, and there was music, and the kids were so excited they were clapping and yelling,” Schunk recalls, her voice catching at the memory. “It was a party like I can’t tell you. They had a cake that said, ‘Congratulations, Lieutenant Governor.’ It was like, ‘How did they get all this done in half an hour?’ ”

Only a few weeks into her term as second-in-command to Minnesota’s unconventional new governor, Jesse Ventura, it’s clear that Schunk still carries her classroom career close to her heart and mind. And that’s exactly where she and the former-wrestler-turned-governor aim to keep it. In last year’s campaign, Ventura admitted that he knew little about education policy and schools and sought a teacher as his running mate on the Reform Party ticket. On the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance, he and Schunk met last June over salad and lemonade and talked for more than two hours about how to improve the state’s schools. After just one more meeting, the candidate known by his wrestling nickname, “The Body,” offered Schunk the No. 2 spot on the ballot.

For a teacher nearing retirement with a self-described passion for education, the opportunity was too good to turn down. “What he thought was wrong with education fit into what I thought was wrong,” Schunk says. “My son said, ‘Mom, now you can teach all the kids in Minnesota.’ ”

The teacher joined Ventura on the campaign skeptical of their chances. But the pair benefited from the former wrestler’s name recognition and a three-way race that split the electorate. When they won with 37 percent of the vote, the teacher’s new life began.

As part of her official duties, Schunk will serve on the boards of several statewide associations, speak at state events, and pinch-hit for the governor when he’s unavailable. Unofficially, as Ventura’s “point person” for education, she assumes a much broader role as an advocate for what she feels is best for Minnesota’s children.

“As I talk to groups of people, I can just feel the kids poking at me,” she says. “I just feel them like they’re in my body and in my mind, supporting me for what I’m saying.”

Growing up on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, Schunk aspired to be a teacher. As a child of Croatian immigrants, she remembers starting 1st grade in a one-room schoolhouse, barely able to speak English. Thanks to the school’s intimacy and her parents’ emphasis on education, she learned quickly.

Schunk has worked for most of her career in the St. Paul system. She taught nearly every elementary grade and worked as an assistant principal and curriculum specialist. During her last two years at Phalen Lake, she taught gifted and talented students.

She comes to the lieutenant governor’s office with little background in policy. A former member of Education Minnesota, the state’s combined National Education Association-American Federation of Teachers affiliate, she once worked on a state task force related to the national education goals.

In their first few months in office, Schunk and the governor plan to push for greater parental involvement in education and urge the legislature to nearly triple state aid for K-3 class-size reduction. They will also have to step into the legislature’s ongoing debate over how to change the state’s controversial high school graduation standards, set for implementation this spring. After having worked with her colleagues at Phalen Lake to match the school’s curriculum to the new standards, she’s convinced that they need some adjusting.

“The bottom line is we need some accountability,” she says, sitting in her functional new office in the State Capitol surrounded by empty shelves and unpacked boxes. “Throw out what doesn’t work, keep what does work.”

On the campaign trail, Schunk pledged to visit schools in each of the state’s 348 school districts as a way to bring the varied concerns of teachers and students to the capital.

Today, on a visit to nearby Highland Park Elementary School, the new lieutenant governor still seems far more like a down-to-earth teacher than a polished politician. She is met at the door with a hug from Highland Park’s principal, Judy Tenney, who served as Schunk’s first student-teacher 30 years ago. “Mae, may I call you Mae?” Tenney says, laughing. “You are something else, lady.”

Schunk walks the halls wearing a wide smile and the no-nonsense brown boots she put on to trudge through St. Paul’s slushy sidewalks. She pokes her head into classrooms to talk to teachers and admire children’s schoolwork. During an assembly held in her honor, Schunk offers to answer three questions from the students. All of them eagerly wave their hands to volunteer, but the boy selected first stands dumbstruck. “I saw you on TV,” he sputters.

As the students giggle nervously, the lieutenant governor says, in a gentle tone: “That’s a statement. Now, ask a question.”

She wraps up the visit with a lesson, telling the students why they should never judge people by the way they look. “When my husband first showed me pictures of Jesse Ventura as a wrestler, I thought, Oh my,” Schunk admits matter-of-factly. “But when I met Jesse, he was so sincere and felt so strongly about children and families. I thought, I can be lieutenant governor for this person because he’s a lot like me as a person.”

--Jessica L. Sandham

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Body Double