All it took was one visit, and Dale Wolpers was hooked.
In the early 1970s, Wolpers was a student at Minnesota State Mankato. Like many people his age, he was mulling over potential majors and careers. The idea of teaching and coaching had some appeal for him, so he interned at an elementary school in Mankato. As he recalls, the goal was simply to help out in the classroom and observe teachers in action. But it quickly turned into much more than that.
“I realized probably from the first day that teaching was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I found that I really enjoyed working with the kids. But I also saw how much teamwork was involved in the profession, how all of the teachers worked together to ensure that their students would be successful. That sense of cooperation appealed to me.
“After I was done with the internship, I got a letter from the school principal thanking me for my work and telling me I’d done a good job,” he adds. “But my fate was pretty much already sealed by then.”
Wolpers isn’t exaggerating. That experience shaped what was to become a 35-year career in education and has continued to shape Wolpers’s post-retirement projects, including a role he now plays with the Minnesota Twins baseball team.
Wolpers graduated from Minnesota State Mankato in 1975 with a major in Speech Communications, minors in Theatre and Social Studies and an emphasis in education and coaching. After graduation, he immediately went to work at Hastings Middle School and stayed there for 20 years. He taught communications, speech, radio, TV and theatre and coached the football and baseball teams; he also coached the speech team and directed three theatrical productions each year. He returned to Minnesota State Mankato and earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 1983.
Those efforts helped Wolpers earn the respect of his peers. He was named the Hastings Teacher of the Year in 1991. They also earned him a promotion and a move 10 miles north in 1995, when he was named an assistant principal at Cottage Grove Junior High School.
Wolpers credits his education for providing him with a rock-solid foundation for his career. “Minnesota State Mankato prepared me very well for the rigors of teaching and all aspects of the education world,” he notes. “My professors taught me that to be an educator, you needed to be a dreamer and a doer. You needed to be organized, well prepared, creative, flexible and professional.”
Wolpers brought those qualities to Cottage Grove, launching the school’s in-house television station and developing its Cougar Pride program, which recognizes students for academic achievements and community service work. In 2008, the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce named him the South Washington County School District Secondary Educator of the Year.
A year after receiving that award, Wolpers retired. But he soon discovered that his teaching days weren’t over. During his time at Cottage Grove, he’d established a relationship with the Minnesota Twins: Cougar Pride winners were rewarded in part with game tickets and tours of the team’s facility. Shortly after retiring, he joined the Twins organization as a tour guide for the newly opened Target Field. And that led to a new opportunity.
“I learned that the Twins were looking for someone to help develop an education program,” he says. “My experience in all areas of education and my speech background provided a natural fit. Soon after, our Minnesota Twins Learning Through Baseball program was born.”
The program combines a tour of Target Field with educational instruction. The education component uses baseball and the ballpark as a launching point to explore such topics as architecture, art, environmental sustainability, history, science and sports marketing. The program can be tailored to all ages, from preschool and elementary through college students and even adults.
Wolpers, who has played a key role in the initiative’s development, is thrilled with the results. “The neatest thing about the job is seeing the faces of the kids as they come to learn about baseball and also learn about math, science and more,” he says. “We are not only teaching, we are creating memories. It’s tremendous to see a kid hold a bat for the first time ever, sit in Joe Mauer’s spot in the dugout, or even to have preschoolers come up and give you a hug because you made them laugh. I also like the fact that I get to meet people from all over the world and use my Minnesota State Mankato speech education skills to entertain and inform them on the tours.”
Rick Olson, the Twins’ coordinator of Target Field Tours, says that Wolpers is the ideal person for the role. “I’ve worked with Dale for six years now. On one hand, he understands what teachers and principals are looking for in a productive field trip,” he notes. “He knows how to schedule classes and coordinate educational events. But he’s also been instrumental in teaching our other tour guides and teachers how to handle kids.”
In a sense, his work with the Twins has taken Wolpers full circle. That observation of teamwork in a Mankato elementary school 40 years ago still resonates today. “The Twins have a great team on the field. But the organization also has a wonderful education department that does a great job of working together,” Wolpers says.
“My biggest passion has always been to serve as part of a team. That and seeing children find success. It’s tremendously gratifying for me to be able to combine the two with this program.” —Chris Mikko