by Sarah Squires
Richard “Dick” Kolter was lots of things — a railroad engineer, the owner of a trucking company, a civil defense volunteer, and the overseer of the grounds at Westfield Golf Course for more than half a century. But if you asked Dick what he was, it was simple: he was a teacher.
Kolter spent more than 30 years teaching at Winona Area Public Schools, nurturing young minds at the former Junior High on Broadway and helping even the most reluctant students grasp and understand math. It was his passion. And on Thursday, the community learned that Kolter’s passion for education would also become his legacy, after the announcement that the late WAPS teacher left the district $2.8 million in his will.
It was an announcement that brought tears to eyes at the School Board meeting, when friend and former fellow teacher Jim Miller spoke to the board about Kolter’s life and his dedication to education.
Kolter loved the railroad, and volunteered restoring and fixing trains as a certified railroad engineer for 20 years. Many who knew him didn’t realize that he also owned his own trucking company, often employing his former students who expressed an interest in a career on the road. He often secretly helped pay former students’ tuition, and handed out loans to those in need without marking it down in any ledger book. His generosity, said Miller, became almost his own spirituality.
Although Kolter wore many hats, Miller said he was always most proud to be a public school math teacher, and that was the way he’d introduce himself. He hired Miller years ago to help out maintaining the golf course at Westfield, where coaxing the former swampy area into thick green grass was just one of the things that he helped nurture and watch grow.
“He shunned the spotlight,” said Miller, adding that he was an unassuming and dedicated man who spent little on himself, always looking outward to find those in need of a bit of help or encouragement.
Years ago, Kolter expressed a quiet teaching frustration to Miller: he wanted to figure out how to help his students grasp the real meaning of the words “thousand, million, billion.” They just didn’t really get it.
So Kolter set out a challenge for his Junior High students that year — bring me a million bottle caps before summer. First, his desk drawers were filled. Soon the bottle caps spread to consume the closet, then the coatroom, finally wedged in every nook and cranny available in the classroom. Come summer, Kolter hired Miller to help him clean out the room — which took days of backbreaking effort, shoveling truckloads out the window.
Miller said he was never certain of the final count on those bottle caps, but that while they were cleaning them out, Kolter asked him quietly what he thought. Do you think my students understand the concept of one million, he asked.
Miller recalled that he told Kolter he wasn’t sure at the time. But it’s clear now, he said, that Kolter’s mission to get kids to that moment of learning, that “mathematical click,” most certainly worked. He took ownership of teaching, said Miller, and the payoff for him was seeing that spark in students’ eyes when they really got it.
Miller told the School Board and those in attendance at the meeting Thursday that he hoped they enjoyed every minute of their work empowering students and teachers, creating successes. “It may take more than a million bottle caps to do it, but lead them, inspire them, set them in motion,” he said.
School Board members each expressed much gratitude at the generous donation, which they learned had been specified to be used for building maintenance, building construction funds or to pay off building construction debt.
Kolter passed away last December unexpectedly at the age of 67, and has no living relatives. He retired from his more than 30 years with the school district over a decade ago.