Bruce Ramsdell, who retired from Winona Area Public Schools this spring, served as the district’s choral director for 33 years. Now, he works as Winona State University’s k-12 liaison out of his new office in the renovated Cathedral School.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
For more than three decades, students at Winona Senior High School (WSHS) walked down the hallways to the tune of choral music. Walking through the large set of double doors, they were greeted by Bruce Ramsdell, waiting to get the students right to work at improving their craft.
“Hard work is something everybody can do, and we sweated a lot in that room,” Ramsdell said. “I don’t care how you walk into the room or where your talent is, everyone is capable of hard work.”
In 1986, Ramsdell joined WSHS as the school’s choral director, and continued to teach at the school until the 2010-2011 school year, when he began working part-time at Winona State University (WSU) as the school’s k-12 liaison. This spring, he officially retired, but he continues to work at WSU, training bright-eyed students to become teachers of their own.
“The nice thing about that is that Winona is a fine arts community –– it’s a music town,” Ramsdell said. “Reminding my students they were part of Winona concert choir was important, and they knew there was a lot of history.”
Having been born and raised in Winona, Ramsdell always considered the city his home. He graduated from WSU with a double major in instrumental and choral music, and went on to receive a degree in education. However, that wasn’t always his goal.
“The truth is, I didn’t want to go into education. I come from a long line of educators –– I’m a fourth-generation educator and a third-generation graduate of Winona State University –– but I wanted to do something different,” Ramsdell said. But his parents insisted.
In 1977, he student taught in the district, before teaching in Iowa for a couple years, which was what he agreed to do with his parents. After that, he left to go to the University of Iowa to receive a Master’s degree in performance. In the second semester, he noticed a change.
“I found myself getting sick, thinking about the students getting back, and hoping they were preparing for their future,” Ramsdell said. “I just discovered that whether I liked it or not, I was called to be an educator and a teacher. I kind of tossed all the other stuff aside.”
His father was a longstanding band director in Winona when Ramsdell was growing up, and was a pillar in the music scene, playing at bars and clubs all around town.
“Part of the reason my dad was here is he could play in bands every night of the week. Winona has always had venues that supported big entertainment, and local bands and local groups have always been a part of the culture for decades,” Ramsdell explained.
It’s that same community that has had such a huge impact on his students, as well. Since long before he began his career as a choral director, Winona has had a long-standing tradition of supporting the arts. He challenged anyone, he explained, to find a community of the same size that supports art in the same way.
“So many of my students were in bands and performing, and Winona is very unique in that,” Ramsdell said. “You can’t go very far and not find somebody who is either in a group, an ensemble, or just a musician or connected to a musician.”
It wasn’t just music, for Ramsdell. His entire family comes from an educational background. His father, on top of being a band director, was also a superintendent for 32 years. His mother? A special education teacher. Even his wife Carol is an educator at heart, and worked side-by-side with him at WAPS.
Ramrsdell met Carol while the two were studying at WSU, and eventually moved to Virginia as Carol worked to obtain her Master’s degree at the Shenandoa Music Conservatory.
“We got some phone calls from people in Winona encouraging me to take a look at coming here to be the concert choir director,” Ramsdell said. “Two days after [Carol and I] got married, I got on a plane and flew to Winona.”
There, he met with a committee who offered him a job on the spot. He asked to think about it for a while, and they agreed, but the thinking didn’t take long.
“While I was waiting at the airport for her to pick me up, I figured, ‘Yep, we’re moving to Winona,’” he added.
After they moved to Winona, Carol got a job teaching music in La Crescent because, at the time, WAPS had a moratorium on hiring two individuals from the same family. After a few years, a spot opened up and the rule was lifted, and Carol made her way to WAPS, teaching elementary music. The two would rarely cross paths, aside from department meetings, but their work would often follow them home.
“It’s funny, we would talk about music education stuff. I would talk about what I was noticing with students I would have, and she would be talking about what they do at the elementary level,” Ramsdell recalled.“It was actually really pretty cool. We both had the same goals, and we spoke the same language. It was great. It’s a good thing when you’re in a field like music to have a spouse that understands what it is you’re working toward, or working with.”
Melanie Sheridan, co-chair of the music department at Winona Area Public Schools, explained that Ramsdell was a staunch advocate for the benefits of music education, and was a valued colleague as she was beginning her time in the district. She often came to him with questions about how she could improve or advocate for the arts in new ways, and he always had an answer.
“He has great wisdom and experience, and so much knowledge of music education and advocacy for the research and benefits of music education on students,” Sheridan said. “He always has an annotation, sending me to this article or this essay. He’s a great wealth of knowledge.”
Over the years, Ramsdell saw thousands of students come through his doors. While they changed hairstyles, fashions, and lingo, they were always the same to him –– they were there and ready to learn.
The biggest change was not from an era or technology, Ramsdell said, but from an event –– the Columbine Shooting on April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down 12 students and a teacher in a high school in Colorado.
“The event in 1999, with Columbine, really did change things and changed how we thought of schools. I just remembered a different feeling after that. Schools, in my mind, were always a safe place, and that was a challenge. How do you maintain that safe environment for students to learn?” he explained.
Eventually, he was invited by WSU to be the university’s new k-12 liaison, as part of a larger ,grant-funded initiative to connect the college with local school districts and communities. He explained that he jumped at the chance, and saw it as a way to expand his work in education –– no longer only teaching students about music, but teaching the next generation.
His primary role in this position was helping students get their feet wet in the realm of education, through working with local students and districts for student-teaching programs and clinical experiences.
“If you want to know the truth, it’s been a privilege. Because when you think about it, after so many decades of teaching, that’s always going to come to an end. You know that. And what a neat thing to work with and have an impact on teachers who would inevitably take your place.”
In both his time as a director and professor, Ramsdell has always had the same focus –– assisting students with doing their best and expanding their capabilities, using the school as a stepping stone toward their future. Some students, he admitted, would likely have called him strict, but it was always to help them improve through hard work and dedication.
“I think that’s why that whole school-safety thing impacted me. For many of them, school is their answer for a multitude of needs. It’s a safe place –– a place where they can achieve and get the skills they need to move forward, find a path to move forward for themselves and their future,” Ramsdell said. “It’s promising on many different levels, as long as we’re working with them on their journey.”
“When you hear about their successes as a first- or second-year teacher, it’s even more gratifying,” he added.
Earlier this year, Ramsdell retired from WAPS, while his wife retired last year. She continued to work at the district teaching fifth-grade music lessons until her position was cut as part of this spring’s $2.2-million budget reduction.
“She still misses the students and still likes to teach, and we are going to see if there are any opportunities,” Ramsdell explained.
Despite retiring, to focus on his work at WSU, but his time at WSHS will always be dear to him. Off the top of his head, he can list off students who have gone on to Broadway and played in nationally touring bands, going well beyond where he had ever thought that they would go.
“He’s an amazing person, and a unique individual. I feel very lucky to have worked with him, and even though he is retiring, he is still a wonderful colleague and advocate,” Sheridan said. “He has impacted so many in Winona and all over the country.”
It was those that he impacted that he holds most closely, he explained. His fondest memory, and most gratifying experience, was seeing students come back to Winona to perform for the community, even singing songs that they once did in high school. But despite them growing up, to Ramsdell, they will always be his students.
“When I saw students who might be in their 40s, they looked like they were maybe just out of high school. I could see them performing just as they did 20 years before,” Ramsdell said.