Keith Ronkowski is a true leader

When school begins this August at Red River High School, it'll be the first time in a long time that school is in session without Keith Ronkowski in the classroom.

Keith Ronkowski stands for a portrait in his classroom at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D. on July 20, 2016. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)
Keith Ronkowski stands for a portrait in his classroom at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D. on July 20, 2016. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)

When school begins this August at Red River High School, it'll be the first time in a long time that school is in session without Keith Ronkowski in the classroom.

After four decades of teaching marketing, management and entrepreneurship courses to high-schoolers, Ronkowski said it's finally time to retire - to go out on top, still enjoying the job.

The longtime teacher says he's looking forward to spending more time with his wife, time to himself and time traveling.

"I'd already taught for 41-plus years, and I was extremely happy with teaching," he said. "I always loved teaching. I always thought I would be fortunate to be able to leave when I still love what I do."

And with his teaching career in the history books, he leaves behind a long list of students, parents and fellow teachers who call him a beloved mentor and colleague. Many say they leaned on him for advice through the years and he shaped their lives in significant ways.


Rachel Trenne, for example. Her mother, Karen Trenne, said the recent Red River graduate will attend the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania this fall - an opportunity she likely wouldn't have had without the experiences she shared with Ronkowski.

"Always a smile, always a warm hello and a handshake and a twinkle in his eyes," Karen Trenne said. "He always found time to have a conversation."

The beginning

Ronkowski is a man who's worn many hats across his educational career, and it all goes back to his own time at Minto (N.D.) High School, where he earned his diploma in 1969.

He speaks fondly of his experiences there, on the baseball team, the basketball team, in the school play and in the band-he played baritone. He said his band director, Gus Sellheim, stands out as his role model. Sellheim consistently gave his students the chance to march in parades and perform outside of school functions, Ronkowski said.

"Outside of his curricular area, he would play basketball with us. We would play pingpong with him on off times. He made himself available for those activities," Ronkowski recalled. "He was just a jovial, nice guy who just liked to have fun."

Ronkowski attended UND and graduated with a degree in marketing education. He earned another degree in business administration in 1974, and two years later, a master's degree in marketing education. His first teaching gig was at Devils Lake High School and at the nearby college-where he also coached baseball.

He made the move to Red River in the mid-1970s and has been there ever since until he closed out his 41st year this spring.


Throughout his teaching career, Ronkowski made plenty of time for extracurricular activities. He coached tennis, track and girls' basketball - the latter for nine years. He also turned his longtime work as a driving instructor into his own business, Forks Drive-Right. He spent three and a half decades as a basketball official, working at high school and collegiate games alike.

But the work some of his students remember him best for are with DECA. That's an acronym for Distributive Educational Clubs of America, and you could compare it to debate for business students - participants will prep a business plan, build an advertising campaign or even respond to an irate customer, with tournaments held as high as the national level.

The Red River High School DECA chapter has been named Chapter of the Year-essentially the state champion-for the past four years. Ronkowski has been an adviser for the club as long as he's been at the school.

Shawn Peterson, a 2013 graduate of Red River and now a marketing and human relations student at UND, recalls his time in the club. He remembers how dedicated Ronkowski could be, always insisting his students show up early to DECA events-early enough so the competition looked late by comparison.

"Keith would do anything to get a little competitive advantage," Peterson said with a laugh.

Feeling special

Beyond that competitive edge, he also gave students reason to feel good about themselves, Peterson said. He recalled traveling to Anaheim, Calif., with classmates for a national DECA conference, where he and a classmate won scholarships. Afterward, the pair went out to eat with Ronkowski and his wife, Becky. It was a real treat, he said.

"Those are the good memories," Peterson said. "Just sitting down and hanging out. You felt special. He was really good at that - not singling you out, but making you feel good."


And it's not just the students who have warm stories to tell. Cassie Vetter, who taught business and accounting classes at Red River from 2009 to 2013, said she recalls a great rapport with Ronkowski. She explained his diehard dedication to the Packers and said he always teased her about her Vikings.

"Every Monday, he wears something Packers (themed)," she said. "When they play the Vikings, I still get texts from him-right before the game, right after the game, right during the game."

Wife Becky knows better than anyone what kind of good her husband can do. In 2000, she was in need of a new kidney, but no one was a perfect match-not family, not friends, and not her husband. Thanks to a new Mayo Clinic program, however, Keith still was able to donate his kidney.

"It's just really hard to put into words what kind of person he is. He has taught our own children just a lot of lessons by being silent in what he does," she said. "He didn't think twice, of course, when we found out about this new program."

For her and dozens of students such as Peterson, Ronkowski's love and dedication has had a lasting effect.

"He made us feel like you can conquer anything," Peterson said.

This post has been updated to accurately reflect the title of Keith Ronkowski's driver education business.


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