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MN2020 Journal: Vento, Tellefsen and the Science Teacher's Legacy

September 20, 2010 By John Van Hecke
By John Van Hecke
Minnesota 2020 Fellow
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August 28, 2009

Burt Tellefsen was a 21st century man living in the 20th century. He embraced a sustainable lifestyle at odds with the post-WWII, plant fence row to fence row, farming ethos. He was an ecologist, conservationist, field biologist, arborist, physicist, chemist and horticulturalist. He was my high school science teacher and one of two profoundly influential scientists in my life.

The other was the late Congressman Bruce Vento. Both men had a lot in common.

I think of Burt, gone now for 11 years, from time to time just as I encounter Bruce: unexpectedly. Bruce's public, elected service is more formally recognized. We have the Bruce F. Vento trail, the Bruce F. Vento wildlife sanctuary, the Bruce F. Vento Elementary school and, if you're a college student and a prospective secondary science teacher, the Bruce F. Vento science teaching scholarship.

Burt's legacy requires more digging. But, like Burt, suddenly, it's right there in front of you.

I was startled to receive a newspaper clip from my parents, snipped from the Redwood Gazette, examining Burt Tellefsen's life's impact. Staff writer Erik Posz's article, "A Conservationist Before His Time," does Burt justice. It's a marvelous piece. You should read it.

Burt lived north of Walnut Grove on his family's farm. He served in the Marine Corps during the Second World War. I asked him once, why the Marines? He looked up, paused ever so slightly, and said, "Vanity, I suppose," then moved on to the day's lesson.

That, in a nut shell, was Burt. He moved forward even when the world didn't understand why or what he was doing.

In 1970, as a first grader, I participated in the first Earth Day, planting a tree in nearby Plum Creek County Park . Burt organized the entire affair, a point lost on me at that age, to raise public awareness of conservation and ecology issues. I only remember muddy hands patting the wet ground around a sapling yet here I am, almost 40 years later, acting on Burt's lessons.

He'd be happy. He'd probably pause for a minute then move forward to the next wind break or run-off buffer that needed planting.

Some twenty-five years after graduating from Walnut Grove High School and leaving Burt's daily tutelage, I entered Bruce Vento's as his last District Director.

Bruce was a gifted leader, an insightful legislator and his district's determined champion. I knew his political reputation but I was amazed by his intellect's depth and breadth. He was, at day's end, a science teacher acting on his discipline's rigorous expectation of inquiry and observation. People viewed him, correctly, as a great environmentalist. Few, I think, genuinely understood that his was a scientist's activism.

Under different circumstances, Bruce would've made a top drawer, university field biologist. He possessed that kind of intellectual fire-power. Instead, he worked tirelessly to bring our nation's benefits to working families. As the Parks and Public Land's subcommittee chair, during the Reagan-Bush era, he expanded the federal park system, preserving a wilderness/open areas legacy for future generations.

Bruce Vento and Burt Tellefsen shared the scientist's profound commitment to observation. Both men then acted accordingly, conserving resources and creating opportunity. Both left the world a better, richer place than the one they found.

It's a simple lesson -diligent, persistent improvement- that I learned twice at the feet of two different masters. Burt's and Bruce's teaching guides my professional and personal lives. Here, at Minnesota 2020, we endeavor to constantly move forward, observing our state and advocating public policy changes that leave Minnesota better than we found it. As a parent, I teach my children to live our family's values, citing Bruce's and Burt's work.

We do best and we honor Burt Tellefsen and Bruce Vento best, by following their lead: Work hard at the important tasks before us without distraction. It's a clear, sustainable blueprint for Minnesota's future success.

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