Open School helped lead to careers in pottery and golf

The front door had barely closed behind me when 2 boys about my age (13) greeted me and introduced themselves as Dave and Colin. They were really nice and they showed me where to put my things and offered to show me around the building. Our tour included the basement shop and home ec areas, the 1st floor with the cafeteria, offices and advisor rooms, the 2nd floor gym, music room and theater, and the 3rd floor classrooms, science area (complete with an iguana and small crocodile), the photo lab and darkroom, and the art room. It was there in the back corner that 2 kids were working on potter’s wheels. I had never seen it done and I was immediately fascinated!


My first advisor was Jeannie Spears and there were a dozen or so kids in her group. Jeannie explained that we would all, students, teachers and staff, be on a 1st name basis which made me feel like we were all members of the same team. She said that the school had a printed schedule of classes and that we should each go through it and chose the ones we wanted to fill out our own daily/weekly schedules. She also explained that if we had interests that were not offered at the school that we could use the broader community too; we could take classes at other schools including the colleges and universities. Over the next 5 years I would take classes at Highland Park H.S., the University of Minnesota, Hamline University and Macalester College, and play golf and hockey for St. Paul Central H.S.

I made 3 choices on that 1st schedule that turned out to be really good. One was a math study group with Pete Oppenheim where we cruised through the 8th grade book by Christmas and often followed our work time with lunch and an hour or so of basketball. Being able to go at my own pace and mostly one on one with Pete was great and clearly showed the value of individualized learning.

Another important class was Joe Nathan’s “Contemporary Society” where at age 13 I was by far the youngest student but was nonetheless fully accepted. We talked a lot about education in America and decided early on that a field trip was in order to visit other alternative schools. We did a bunch of fund-raising and planning and in a brand-new school system van took off on a 3 week adventure. Our 1st stop was Chicago, followed by Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, Buffalo, then up through Canada on the way home. It was fantastic! We learned so much about each other and how to get along, about different communities and cultures, different school ideas and learning styles, and we had a great time doing it! What an adventure and what a brave guy Joe was! And he wasn’t much older than the dozen or so of us students!

Then there was the choice to  take an hour or more each day in the art room learning to throw pots. Other students were super helpful, including Larry Buck and Paul Willis, and our art teacher Pat Fitzgerald was great. That first year he helped me a lot right there at the Open School and the following year suggested the St. Paul Art Learning Center where I worked with Jerry Fontaine on better wheels and with a big gas kiln. In my 3rd year my brother Rolf recognized my ongoing interest and told me that I could have the half-built potter’s wheel that he and a friend had lost interest in completing. Typical of the Open School when I asked the shop teacher, Don Fralick if he could teach me to weld and help me finish putting the thing together he said, ” sure, we’ll make a class of it!”


At home, after a short time with the potter’s wheel in my bedroom, we cleaned out a basement room that became my 1st studio. My parents ( ever-supportive!) helped me buy a small kiln and my career was launched. I began selling my work at art fairs and at the Old Mexico Shop owned by the mom of my classmate Priscilla Young.

Some other deeply meaningful Open School experiences include studying Spanish with Jan Fiola and getting some tutoring from Pesty Montgomery, and going to Puebla Mexico as part of the exchange program. The fund-raising, learning a foreign language, being away from home and living with a host family helped me develop independence and confidence.

The jazz band with Jim Tenbensil helped me learn the fun of ensemble music and the joy of improvisation.

Then there was the theater with Vaughn Koenig. I loved the whole theater process; from tryouts to rehearsals and performances. I will always remember the “Zoo Story” with Dave Samuelson’s virtuoso performance, the “Diary of Anne Frank” with its profound history and deeply emotional content, and “Variations in Gray” for which I wrote and performed the original piano score. One of the Open School experiences with deepest meaning for me was during the intermission of “Under the Gaslight” when Vaughn had me approach the audience singing a cappella “Once I Built a Railroad”. When I reached out my hand to beg a dime from Wayne Jennings he had tears streaming down his face and so did my Dad sitting next to him. Two of the strongest, most solid men I know. The power of the arts was clear.

What an education!

After high school I did my professional training in pottery in Sweden where I also learned to blow glass. After returning to the states, my glassblowing partner,Suzanne, and I sailed a 34 foot cutter from California and delivered it to Maui, Hawaii. This was well before GPS but we got there just fine using solar navigation.  When we came back to Minnesota Suzanne returned to Sweden. About a year later my girlfriend became pregnant and my daughter, Kelea, was born in February of 1982. Her mother and I split about a year later and then I met my wife, Meg Luhrs. We were married in 1985 and continue to build our relationship to this day. Meg is a painter of watercolor and pastels, and together we are in the 38th year of our shop on the main street of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Our daughter, Kelea, lives just blocks from us where she is raising her teenage son, Kainoa.

In 2000, I put some time and effort into one of my other interests and became certified as a golf teaching professional. I spent 15 years as head teaching pro at Bristol Ridge in Somerset, Wisconsin, and am now in my 7th year at the Luck Golf Course in Luck, Wisconsin. I love to teach!

So life is good and I am profoundly grateful! To the Open School parents and staff, teachers and volunteers, and to my classmates, I give my deepest gratitude!


Leif Bjornson, Class of 1977