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School on a Hill: Frank Fox's enduring legacy

Frank John Fox, superintendent of Morris Schools 1947–1956 wearing his signature bowtie ca. 1960. Fox is a respected and influential administrator whose many contributions are remembered and appreciated today. He died in 2005.

MORRIS, Minn. -- Leadership is important to good education. Thousands of teachers, administrators, students and support staff have worked tirelessly to improve Morris schools. Each of these critical players in students' lives worked each day to foster capable young people.

One such leader was Frank J. Fox, superintendent of Morris schools from 1947—1956. His contributions affect Morris today and many people interviewed for this series on Morris' old elementary school have specifically commented on his kindness and dedication to the students. They suggested speaking to Fox's daughter Jo Solvie and her classmate Darleen Ross to share some stories.

"I thought he was an admirable leader. He had a presence, you know," retired Morris first-grade teacher Ross said of Mr. Fox, "We were all full of awe over our leaders. He was an awesome guy. The teachers knew it, kids knew it. When you heard his keys jingle in the hall, you knew he was on the way."

Fox worked as a staunch advocate for students. When schools became overcrowded with baby boomers in the mid-1950s, Fox led the issuance of two bond measures to improve and add wings to the building in 1950 and 1956. His personal dedication to the wellbeing of not just students but also their families shone through his policies and actions. He engaged directly, and without pretense.

"Every fall he went to each farm in the county with children attending Morris schools," said solvie. "He would talk to the families and decide on the bus routes for the year. He'd also visit nearby colleges to interview teachers to come to Morris. They didn't come to him, he'd seek them out."

Frank John Fox was born on March 9, 1906, in Rural Reels Valley, Wisc. and attended La Crosse State College in La Crosse, Wisc., majoring in history and English. He married Serera O. Lanke on Sept. 2, 1933, and honeymooned at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. She passed away in 1981.

Fox began his teaching career in 1935 as a physical education teacher and coach in Browns Valley, Minn. Over the next decade, he held positions as a teacher and superintendent at several schools. He came to Morris as superintendent in 1947 and served nine years until 1956.

In August 2004 Fox became resident at West Wind Village in Morris and passed away on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005 at the age of 99 years.

"My grandfather valued education too because he donated the land to build the schoolhouse where my dad went to school," Solvie said. "Dad rode his pony to that country school every day. He was an outdoors boy and especially loved fishing right up until the end of his life."

Fox was known as a stern disciplinarian, but not one without compassion and understanding for the students. "Everybody respected him a lot," Solvie said. "He had 'the look' which he'd give if it were time to settle down. Everybody knew that look. He was good with discipline and supporting teachers.

"Dad understood the students because he was a mischievous child, himself," Solvie continued. "One day in country school he wanted to be outside and not go to school. He climbed up on the school's roof and refused to come down. My grandpa had to go get him."

One favorite anecdote about Fox came from members of the class of 1954, which was notorious for being a class of troublemakers.

In those days, Morris had a well-known feud with Benson. During the week of homecoming 1953, the Morris seniors collected wood each day to build a giant bonfire. Every night, though, the Benson kids came to steal the wood. In response, the Morris football boys burned the letter "M" into the football field at Benson, ruining their homecoming game.

"I knew we were in for trouble when dad showed up to the assembly," Solvie recalls. "Frank comes out with 'the look' and he wasn't happy. There must have been insurance and repair costs the boys didn't consider.

"He stood on the edge of the stage and rocked back and forth. I remember him being very disappointed."

Darleen Ross recalled the incident, as well: "The boys had audacity to tell Mr. Fox that it might be a "W" for Willmar. I thought he was about to take off like a jet. He threatened to cancel the whole football season."

Fox didn't start out seeking to become a teacher. The youngest of nine children, he didn't go to college after finishing school and instead spent several years as a hired hand on a "combine crew" traveling up and down the Midwest—from Texas to Wisconsin—harvesting crops.

"He decided after several years of manual labor that getting a college education was the way to go," Solvie said.

Fox studied and taught history, as well as physical education. He loved American Indian history in particular. Sometimes he'd go out and collect arrowheads from the farmers' fields when they turned the soil. He coached dozens of teams and supported a wide-range of music and arts programs.

"Frank always wore bowties. I have boxes and boxes of bowties. It's unbelievable how many he had," Solvie said. "That was a distinguishing feature. Something people remember about him. He dressed well. When he died, the boys on the hockey team wore bowties to honor him. He coached hockey for many years."

In 2005, shortly before his death, Fox participated in a service-learning project by students enrolled in an introductory creative writing class at the University of Minnesota, Morris. The students spent one hour a week at West Wind Village in Morris interviewing residents and listening to their stories.

These stories were then rendered into poems consisting of the residents' exact words. The result is a collection of touching, unexpected and funny stories written in unusual prose. Fox's stories cover topics from the Statue of Liberty to "South Dakota Drivers." The students connected with Frank on a deep level and appreciated his stories.

When Frank died, the class' instructor and project coordinator wrote a letter of condolence to Solvie:

"Frank was really special to me and to all of the students who worked with him," the letter read. "It is so rare for an elder involved in the project to take the time to get to know the students. He was always genuinely interested in the students' career goals, majors and lives. He would remember details from week to week and always asked students follow-up questions. ...

"We spent a lot of time talking about the importance of education and how teaching and learning had changed over time. I never failed to learn something from his insights. ... I tell you this just so you know how big an impact Frank had on even those of us who knew him only for a short time at the end of his life. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know such an amazing man."

Speaking of the old Morris School's recent destruction, Solvie said her dad would say it's time to move on. "He was all for the newest and providing the best education. He was born in 1906 where there was no running water or electricity. Think of the things he saw in his lifetime? To get where we are today, he knew young people needed an education. Providing the best was a value of his. Something he worked for."

Frank Fox labored all his life to provide everything students needed to succeed—from good facilities to compassionate discipline. Fox was a coach and teacher, a father and friend. Without such people, Morris schools wouldn't be what they are today. We hold a great debt of gratitude to the thousands of people who've supported Morris schools for a hundred years. Fortunately, his is a legacy alive and well in the approaches of teachers today—an enduring legacy for an enduring school.