Nancy Paulson retired this year after teaching in Milbank 27 years. She was cleaning out her room for the last time, throwing away old papers and sports programs, pens, and paper clips when she ran across a treasure. “It was fun remembering things I had forgotten over the years. But, there was one thing I had ever since I started teaching here. It was the Starfish story. My desk was the same desk Mrs. Nigg used before I took over her job in 1993. It has this pull-out table thing and that’s where I taped it. It sums up my motivation for doing what I’ve done for 40 years.
“And when I say 40 years, it makes my head spin! How did that happen?”
How does someone stay motivated to help special needs children for 40 years? Perhaps the answer lies with the starfish.
If you don’t know the story, it goes like this: One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was strewn with thousands of starfish washed ashore by high tide. He came upon a young boy who was throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man asked the boy, “What are you doing?” Without looking up from his task, the boy replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”. The old man chuckled and said, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?” The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water, and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”
In 40 years, Nancy Paulson has helped thousands of starfish.
Nancy began attending Northern State University thinking she would become a P.E. teacher. But she says, “I realized, I really didn’t want to be in a gym my whole life. I had always been comfortable with and enjoyed special needs children and adults so that just drew me in. I talked to my advisor and decided on my major. I assumed someday I would get out and teach in the regular classroom, but throughout my tenure I had just enough changes to always keep things interesting.”
“When I got to MHS, I started coaching, too, I really enjoyed being around high school students. Brad Olson was the head volleyball coach when girls’ volleyball started in Milbank and Nancy Hoeke was the assistant. The number of girls joining volleyball started to increase and they needed to find someone to coach the freshman team. In college, I had played four years of volleyball for the Wolves and loved it. They asked me to give it a try. Twenty four seasons later I was still coaching!”
There were a lot of highlights along the way, too. “When I started as the freshmen coach in 1996, Milbank took second in the state. In 2002, we had two seasons – the winter of 2002 and the fall of 2002 because that’s the year the seasons switched around. Girls’ volleyball changed from a winter sport to a fall sport. That same winter, Olson resigned and Nancy Hoeke took over. So, I moved up to JV coach and stayed there until I resigned last year. It was 24 seasons, but 23 years of coaching for me. It was a lot of fun! We had a lot of great teams.”
“The varsity championship years were unique for me because my daughter, Kelsey, played on those teams. She was a sophomore when we won it in 2004 and then when we took third in 2005. We won it again in 2006 when she was a senior. My nieces — the Nygaard girls — were on those teams too. I found a lot of joy working with family and helping all the girls. The students have always been the best part.”
“I experienced that as a student council adviser, too. When Mr. Bergan was principal, I started helping him because he was doing student council all by himself. It evolved into managing and planning homecoming and extra activities at school. So, he decided it would be part of my job. A few years later, Mrs. Sussex jumped on board with me. Like coaching, I really enjoyed it. We tried to do things to make the school more fun, and it gave me contact with some of the kids I normally didn’t interact with.”
“When Mrs. Sussex left, Abbey Trapp stepped in to help me. So, I’ve been training her and getting her ready to go to take it over. Abbey was also one of my student teachers when she was in school.”
Nancy says every job has challenges, but you just try to find a way to motivate the students. “I have been around a long time. The kids had gotten to know me and we built up mutual respect. So, I didn’t have a lot of issues with the students. It’s all really good memories.”
“But,” she says, “leaving my career amidst COVID – that was not fun! It was rough. The students I work with, I work with for a reason. It was really hard to do that remotely. I had a tough time sitting in my house every day trying to get them to do their stuff. Of course, I would have loved to finish the year in school, especially along with the seniors, and to say proper goodbyes. It was a bad end of the year. The last week of school, I asked some of them to come in to work one-on-one to get them caught up. So I ended up seeing some of them. And I had all their phone numbers, which some of them were probably regretting.” She laughs.
“It would have been a lot more fun to have an end-of-the-year party and wrap things up with everyone that way. But, it is what it is. I can’t do anything about it. I’m way more sorry for the seniors and how they had to end their year.”
“I don’t think it’s going to hit me until the fall, though, when everyone else is going back to school and I don’t have to. I think it will be like, wait a minute, what’s going on here. I’ll also probably run into a few of them.” She laughs again.
She says the one thing she won’t miss is the paperwork. “Special education requires tons of paperwork. I’m not going to miss that! But the students… they keep you going. They keep you young. They keep you energized.”
Young people figure into her retirement, too, of course. “I’ll be spending more time with my grandchildren.” Her sons – Matt (Erica) and Mike (Holly) both live in Watertown. Mike has three kids (two boys and a girl) and Matt has two girls. Her daughter, Kelsey (Andy), has three children and they live in Estelline. Kendall will be a sophomore and two are fifth graders. They are all starting activities, and I want to be able to go and do those things.”
“I probably will also help my daughter and son-in-law. They run a hunting lodge in Estelline which takes a ton of their time and they have a three year old who requires a lot of time, too. Both my parents are still alive and still live in Webster. So, I hope to spend more time with them, too. I don’t think I’m going to be bored!”
“I also hope to do some traveling.” Maybe this winter she will take some time to relax on a warm, sandy beach. She might even find a souvenir starfish.