One morning last November, Mae Schunk called Phalen Lake Elementary School to say she would be reporting to school 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.
Ms. Schunk arrived at 9 a.m. to find the school principal, the district superintendent, and other top administrators 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, Ms. Schunk, who worked with gifted and talented students at the St. Paul school, was directed to the gymnasium. There, Phalen Lake’s 750 students were waiting to greet her.
“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,” Ms. 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?’ ”
Less than one month into her term as second-in-command to Minnesota’s unconventional new governor, Jesse Ventura, it’s clear that Ms. Schunk’s career in the classroom is still unshakably in her heart and in her head. And that’s exactly where she and the former-professional-wrestler-turned-governor want to keep it.
Knowing little about education policy and schools, by his own admission, Mr. Ventura purposely sought a teacher for his running mate after he was nominated as the Reform Party’s long-shot candidate for governor during a convention last spring.
Based on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance, he and Ms. Schunk met for the first time last June over salad and lemonade and talked for more than two hours about how they would improve the state’s schools, if given the chance. After just one more meeting, the candidate known by his wrestling nickname, “The Body,” offered Ms. Schunk the No. 2 spot on the ticket.
Education Running Mate
For a teacher nearing retirement with a self-described “passion” for education but no real partisan leanings or political experience, the opportunity was too good to turn down.
“What he thought was wrong with education fit into what I thought was wrong,” Ms. Schunk said in an interview. “My son said, ‘Mom, now you can teach all the kids in Minnesota.’ ”
A former member of Education Minnesota, the state’s combined National Education Association-American Federation of Teachers affiliate, Lt. Gov. Schunk has taught nearly every elementary grade and worked on a state task force related to the National Education Goals Panel. She said she feels well-qualified to fulfill her new responsibilities, which include serving on the boards of several statewide associations, speaking at state events, and pinch-hitting for the governor when he’s unavailable. Unofficially, as Mr. Ventura’s designated “point person” for education, her duties are much broader. She is, in short, an advocate for what she feels is best for Minnesota’s children.
In their first few months in office, Ms. Schunk and the governor plan to make a priority of pushing for greater parental involvement in education and urging the legislature to increase state aid for class-size reduction in grades K-3, from $87 million this year to a proposed $237 million.
Ms. Schunk traces her interest in such issues not only to her years in the classroom, but also to her days growing up on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. As a child of Croatian immigrants, Ms. Schunk--whose maiden name was Gasparac--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.
These days, in tackling education policy issues, including the legislature’s current debate over how to change the state’s controversial Profile of Learning high school graduation standards, set for implementation this spring, Ms. Schunk is sorting through piles of mail from teachers and looking back on her experiences.
Even as she spent long hours on the campaign trail last summer, Ms. Schunk worked with fellow educators at Phalen Lake Elementary to match the state’s standards to the school’s curriculum.
“I think the standards need some adjusting,” she said one day recently, sitting in her functional new office in the State Capitol surrounded by empty shelves and unpacked boxes. “The bottom line is we need some accountability. Throw out what doesn’t work, keep what does work.”
Having aspired all her life to be a teacher, Ms. Schunk said leaving the classroom was hard. When she describes her duties at Phalen Lake, she still talks in the present tense. And while she welcomed the victory, she acknowledged she “truly did not expect that we would win.” Gov. Ventura scored his upset win with 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Still, Ms. Schunk said, she knows educators are excited to have a representative at the highest level of state government. “As I talk to groups of people, I can just feel the kids poking at me,” she said. “I just feel them like they’re in my body and in my mind. Supporting me for what I’m saying.”
Back to School
On the campaign trail, Ms. 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 back here to the capital.
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 Ms. Schunk’s very first student-teacher 30 years ago.
“Mae, may I call you Mae?” Ms. Tenney says, laughing. “You are something else, lady.”
Ms. Schunk walks the halls wearing a wide smile and the no-nonsense brown boots she put on to trudge across 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, Ms. Schunk offers to answer three questions from the students. All of them eagerly wave their hands to volunteer.
Once selected, one boy stands dumbstruck. “I saw you on TV,” he sputters.
As the students giggle nervously, the lieutenant governor says, in her gentlest 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,’ ” Ms. 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.’ ”
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Minn. Teacher Behind ‘The Body’