NORTH CRAWFORD - Mary Kuhn, who has served on the North Crawford School Board for the last 20 years, received some hard earned recognition at the state school board convention in Madison on Thursday, Jan. 24. Kuhn has served as the board president for the last 10 years.
The award Kuhn received is the ‘20 Years of Service’ recognition from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB). WASB is a non-profit organization, which seeks to advance education through supporting the tradition of local school board control of the state’s public schools.
“I have always been passionate about education,” Kuhn said. “If my father had allowed it, I probably would have stayed in school forever. Being on the board this long has allowed me to help to move the school in a positive direction so that all of our community’s kids can be successful in whatever they go on to do in life. You have to stay with it for the long haul, because you can’t make the changes you want to see in just a few years.”
North Crawford School District Administrator Brandon Munson is very appreciative of the contribution Kuhn has made over her years on the board.
“First and foremost, Mary keeps the best interests of the students and staff as her priority when making decisions,” Munson said. “She truly cares about the school district, and wants what's best for all of our staff and students. Mary is a very dedicated board member, who prides herself on staying informed of educational issues happening around the nation, state, and locally.”
Kuhn, whose education was in fashion design, has a love of fabric and a fascination with using it artistically to create beautiful quilts for her friends and family. Her approach to serving as president of the school board employs a similar strategy. Combining the diversity of unique strengths and talents each board member brings to the mix, and piecing it into a high-functioning body.
“Over the years, I’ve seen that it is good to have consistency on the board,” Kuhn observed. “But it is also good when new members join and we get fresh ideas.”
Kuhn observed that the mix that makes up the North Crawford School Board has benefited over the years from the diversity of its members.
“For instance, Terry O’Donnell and I have both been self-employed,” Kuhn said. “Other members have been parents and people who work full time at a job outside of the home. Having all of our different perspectives makes our collective result more well-rounded.”
Like the warmth of a lovingly produced quilt, a public school shows the intent of the community to nurture the best interests of their children. The school is at the center of most rural communities, and provides a safe, warm space for children to learn and grow.
“The public schools are the number one asset our rural communities provide for our children,” Kuhn said. “Rural communities have less assets for our kids than the wealthier urban districts, and we need to give them all that we can to allow them to be able to go out and compete and be successful.”
With high poverty levels in many rural school districts, the schools are providing children not only an education, but also some of the basics in life such as food and emotional support.
“Many kids don’t have the basics in life such as food, shelter and healthcare,” Kuhn observed. “The school fills some of those needs, and when some families are dealing with substance abuse issues, the problems are exacerbated. The school needs to do what we can to help those kids.”
Kuhn worked side-by-side with her husband Leo in rural Crawford County running a dairy farm business and raising their five children. The children are raised, and the couple exited the dairy business in 2014 after more than 40 years. Leo Kuhn is a supportive husband, who appreciates his wife’s drive to serve and give back to their community.
“Mary has always been a leader in the community, and I appreciate the soul and intensity that she brings to her work with the school board,” Leo said. “If serving in this way fulfills her, then I’m all for it.”
Kuhn said she had read through the recently released report of the state’s ‘Blue Ribbon Commission on Education,’ and was particularly cheered to see the recommendation for increased aid to school districts for special education. Providing children with special needs services through the public schools has become increasingly expensive. In the context of shrinking state aid for schools, which has hit rural school districts particularly hard, providing special education services has become more and more difficult.
“Special education is a real challenge for rural school districts,” Kuhn said. “The school has to provide the funding, but state aid hasn’t kept up with the needs of school districts.”
Kuhn was emphatic that schools need to be able to serve children with special needs, and allow them to have the chance to be the most that they can be. She said that kids with special needs can go on to be productive citizens if the school and the community can give them the support they deserve. One of her grandchildren is autistic, so the issue is near and dear to her heart.
“I’m very thankful that the state conducted the Blue Ribbon Commission process, and hopeful that good things will come of it,” Kuhn said. “However, the basic economic challenges are still in place. I remember one state representative who said that any economic proposals that get passed in the state legislature have to benefit 51 percent of the people that they represent. Most state residents live in urban areas, and that is why the rural schools get short changed.”
Raised in Kentucky
Neither Kuhn nor her husband grew up in the area. Kuhn was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Daughter of a general surgeon, she was one of eight children, and attended a catholic school, with four years in an all-girl high school. Leo Kuhn grew up in Iowa, and the two met when they were attending college in Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
“I always enjoyed the rural lifestyle,” Kuhn said. “My dad had a hobby farm where he would go to unplug, and my husband Leo always had a dream of being a dairy farmer.”
The two married, and ran a dairy business in Iowa for five years. In 1977, they moved to Crawford County and continued to dairy here for another 37 years. None of their five children wanted to be a dairy farmer, so the two sold their cows when they decided to retire.
Of course, you could hardly tell the two are retired. Kuhn not only serves on the North Crawford School Board, but is also a Supervisor on the Crawford County Board. In addition, the two also raise Holstein steers on their farm, and the buzz of activity following a recent snowstorm showed that a dairy farmer has a very different notion of “retirement” and slowing down than other citizens. Like many retired farmers, Kuhn says that raising Holstein steers in their version of retirement is “something to do.”
Kuhn said she counsels her friends who are looking at retiring to remember that people are living longer these days, and they need to think about what they will spend the remaining 20 to 30 years of their life doing. In addition to all the other things she does, Kuhn also works as a substitute teacher for the DeSoto School District.
“Being a dairy farmer is a hard job, and it requires commitment,” Kuhn said. “All of our kids worked on the farm and helped to put up hay, and that experience gave them all a tremendous work ethic.”
Kuhn said that loss of the small to mid-size dairy farms in Crawford County has hurt the community both economically, and had an impact on the weft and weave that ties the community together as well.
“We always had a community of dairy farmers that we were enmeshed in,” Kuhn remembers. “We all worked hard, understood each other’s challenges, raised our kids together, and helped each other out.”
Kuhn says that aspect of the county’s rural culture is shrinking, and it is having an impact on the small towns and on the school districts. Fewer families are choosing to stay in the county and raise their families, and most kids don’t have the experience of growing up on a farm and working hard with their families anymore.
“Part of the reason I stayed on the farm after retiring is I still believe that rural Crawford County is the best place to raise a family,” Kuhn said. “I won’t leave, because my children and grandchildren still come home to the farm, and I want the next generation to be able to see what this lifestyle has to offer.”
Kuhn said that some of her children have expressed interest in a career in farming, just not running a dairy farm. Four of Kuhn’s five children are married with families, and she has 13 grandchildren ranging in age from three to 22.
“When my grandkids come to visit, they have the time of their lives,” Kuhn said fondly. “They help me in the garden, play in the creek, and do all the things that my kids used to do when they were growing up here.”
Of her five children, only one continues to live in the Kickapoo Valley. Her youngest son Tim lives in Soldiers Grove with his family, and drives to work in Sparta. Her oldest son Brian, and oldest daughter Lisa live in the Fennimore area with their families. Her son Lee lives in Eau Claire, and her daughter Sarah lives in Deerfield.
Highlights of years
When queried about what she saw as the highlights of the 20 years she has served on the North Crawford School Board, Kuhn cited the number of former students who have returned to the area to raise their families, and even to work as teachers at the school, as her top highlight.
“We must have done something right for the kids who return to teach at our school,” Kuhn said. “Like most rural schools, kids leaving the area to work and raise their families elsewhere is one of the greatest challenges. When they come back, it is one of our greatest achievements.”
Another highlight that Kuhn feels good about is the expanded number of advanced placement classes offered by the district.
“Offering our students more advanced placement classes helps them to be more competitive when they choose to go on to further education after graduation,” Kuhn said. “When students can earn college credits, while still in high school, which gives them a real advantage.”
Kuhn is also proud of the improvements the district has made in their technical education offerings, and sang the praises of the district’s technical education teacher Aaron Keenlance. She also expressed how happy she was to see the district reintroduce the FACE curriculum. FACE stands for ‘Family And Consumer Education.’ Back in the day, this would have been known as ‘home economics.’
Kuhn was also very appreciative of the school’s theater program. Two of her children had participated, and she said that it had been a wonderful and enriching experience for them.
“It never mattered how talented of an actor or a singer the kids were,” Kuhn said. “If they wanted to participate, there was a place for them in the program.”
Kuhn said the experience of serving on the board, and being able to personally hand three of her children their diplomas at graduation was also very gratifying for her.
“And of course, the great staff we have in the district is what makes all of our achievements possible,” Kuhn said. “We’ve made great progress, and our district is doing great things thanks to the dedication of our staff.”