Commemorating Elliot Whoolery: Former superintendent remembered for impact on education
Whoolery passed away Oct. 1 at the age of 96.
Husband, father, educator, visionary.
Elliot Whoolery will be remembered for many things.
“He was a wonderful father and husband,” Alison Johnson said of her 96-year-old father who died Thursday, Oct. 1.
Many in the lakes area will remember Whoolery for his tenure as superintendent of Brainerd Public Schools from 1963-1981. A successful referendum resulting in the construction of Brainerd High School in 1968 happened under his watch.
Colleagues Bob Gross, Ron Stolski and Jim Hunt recall his keen intellect and extraordinary vision for the school district.
“I attribute everything I achieved as a school administrator to having had the opportunity to work with him,” Gross said. “He had an unusually keen mind, very bright and also very innovative in his thinking regarding education.”
Whoolery hired Gross as an assistant principal in 1968. He worked his way up through the ranks as principal and assistant superintendent before taking over as superintendent upon Whoolery’s retirement in 1981.
Gross and Hunt, who was principal at Brainerd High School during Whoolery’s tenure, remembered the superintendent for his dedication to vocational programs.
“I thought he was kind of ahead of his time regarding that,” Gross said. “He really, I think, put the Brainerd School District on the map in the state because we developed an excellent reputation, and I attribute so much of that to him.”
Hunt recalls a culinary program Whoolery developed, with a model restaurant serving district staff during the day and training students to work in the food industry.
“He was a very bright man, really in tune with education and things that were in vogue at that time, or in question, or even that people were thinking about and talking about,” Hunt said. “He was a leader in the education world.”
Stolski, former head football coach and athletic director, said he has the fondest memories and respect for the man who hired him.
“He was, in my mind, an academic and a wonderful leader,” Stolski said. “He was the kind of leader that gave you responsibilities, expected you to fulfill them and then let you work. He was always present and willing to give sound advice when one needed it. And at the same time he respected the abilities of the people who worked for and under him.”
In addition to seeing Brainerd High School come into being, Whoolery was largely responsible for the development of the school’s “lower site,” also known as Adamson Field. A memory that sticks out in Stolski’s mind is when Whoolery told him, as a young athletic director, to get an aerial shot of the site’s development.
“I said, ‘Well, Mr. Whoolery, I wouldn’t know how to go about that,’” Stolski said. “And he said, ‘I didn’t ask you. I’m telling you.’”
Stolski contacted Brainerd Dispatch photographer Steve Kohls, and the two managed to secure a helicopter and get the shots they needed. Stolski had never been in a helicopter before and was hanging on with both hands during the ride.
“He had a sense of demanding that you perform,” Stolski said. “And that was just fine because I recall him saying, ‘Listen, I didn’t call you in here to have you tell me you don’t want to do this.’ He said, ‘I want a picture.’ So I quickly figured out how to get that. That’s one of my fondest memories.”
Both Stolski and Hunt recall being impressed with the district’s new high school when they first came to Brainerd — Stolski admiring the library/media center, and Hunt feeling the building had a college-like vibe.
“It was as well done as any in the area or even in the state at that time,” Hunt said. “So I think that’s part of his legacy in terms of that being built.”
Hunt emphasized Whoolery’s bright mind, multitude of fresh new ideas and calming presence throughout the district.
Stolski couldn’t emphasize enough the amount of respect and admiration he had for Whoolery.
Gross feels lucky to have worked with him.
“That probably is the thing that I treasure the most, having had the opportunity to be mentored by an individual like Elliot,” Gross said.
On a familial level, Johnson will remember her father’s wide variety of hobbies outside the school.
He earned many awards for his dahlias and gladiolas at the Minnesota State Fair, was an avid traveler and tremendous gardener, loved to hunt for agates and native wildflowers while on camping trips and had a soft spot for animals.
“He had a very special place in his heart for cats,” Johnson said. “Mom and he had many adopted cats from homeless shelters. And he also contributed to charities that dealt with homeless animals.”
Photography was also a hobby, which Whoolery made into a second career by teaching photography at Central Lakes College after retiring from the school district. He also worked with interested high school students in a more informal setting, passing on his photography knowledge. Now-professional photographer Nels Norquist, who formerly worked as a photographer for the Brainerd Dispatch, was one of the students who benefited from that instruction.
“I think he really helped to build my interest in photography and just teach me so many advanced things, whether it was lighting or dark room things,” Norquist said. “And he certainly was a person who helped grow my interest and led me in the path of photography.”
And Whoolery did all of it, not for a job or money, but because he wanted to.
“I think he loved being around students, and that really showed,” Norquist said. “It wasn’t a job for a paycheck. I don’t know if he was even paid. It was more like volunteer work, and he just did it because he enjoyed it. He’s someone I’ll remember as being really influential in my career decision.”
Born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1924, Whoolery was a World War II combat Army veteran and went to college after the war on the GI Bill. He got a bachelor's degree from Fairmont State University in West Virginia and a master’s in education from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He started his career as a secondary education teacher and coach in Pollock, South Dakota, before ending up in Brainerd.
He was married to Donna for 70 years, and the couple had seven children. Whoolery was an active member of Zion Lutheran Church in Brainerd and lived at Diamond Willow Assisted Living in Baxter before he died.
A visitation is set from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 6, at Halvorson-Taylor Funeral Home in Brainerd. The family requests that guests respect social distancing guidelines and wear a mask.
“Knowing he’s in heaven makes it a lot easier,” Johnson said of her dad’s passing.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .