Counting down: Urdahl plans retirement | Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools
May 29, 2023

Counting down: Urdahl plans retirement

BHS math instructor taught for 60 years

Teacher instructs students

After 60 years of teaching one might be expected to crawl to the finish line of retirement in exhaustion. But like a distance runner who hit his stride long ago, Carlton Urdahl barely seems winded as he breaks the tape marking the end of his career this month.

“It’s kind of funny. If I didn’t know my age right now, I’d think I’m ready for another year,” Urdahl said. “You just keep on going. I’ve been very fortunate health-wise, but I guess I have to quit sometime.”

Urdahl grew up in Litchfield and double-majored in German and math at Concordia College in Moorhead, then taught in Granite Falls for 10 years before joining Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools as a junior high math and German teacher in 1973. Three years into his new role he became a math teacher exclusively, and after a decade in junior high he moved to the high school, where he has remained for the past 40 years.

Buffalo High School Principal Mark Mischke said Urdahl is “one of the kindest people I have ever met,” and an “eternal optimist” in regard to student potential.

“He believes every child has the capabilities to succeed in not only math, but life.  They simply need support to get them there,” Mischke said. 

As evidence of Urdahl’s effectiveness, Mischke pointed out that he teaches one of the most challenging courses at BHS in Calculus, and that over 81% of Urdahl’s nearly 800 students to take the AP Calculus exam have performed well enough to earn college credit.

Urdahl explained that he particularly enjoys teaching the advanced math classes where students expand the limits of their intellectual boundaries.

“I love teaching calculus. It’s my biggest thrill,” he said. “It’s a challenge and there’s something about it that kind of gets to me – I think I can get them to understand it.”

The results support that belief, but Urdahl’s impact goes well beyond statistics.

 “He has been a mentor to me during my 15 years here at BHS, and quite honestly, BHS will probably never see another Carlton Urdahl,” Mischke said. “I think the quote is, ‘Don’t be sad it’s over; be thankful it happened.’ I’m thankful that BHS has had the honor to have had Carlton Urdahl serve our students, staff and community over the last 50 years.”

Always growing
Urdahl decided he wanted to become a teacher in fourth grade, the point when he realized that the occupation was open to men as well as women. He remembered working through math flash cards in the hallway of his 23-student country school, and coming to the realization that numbers could be the focus of his life’s work.

Later, while attending a math conference as a teacher, Urdahl recalled another formative moment.

“The instructor said, ‘If you were teaching literature you’d be reading a lot of books because you teach literature and you like literature,’” Urdahl remembered. “Then he said, ‘You people are math teachers; you should be doing a lot of math.’” 

Urdahl took the challenge to heart, and has made a tradition of working through calculus problems over breakfast each day.

“It’s just fun to do,” he said. “You have to re-think these problems. I forget how to do some of them. I just think you need to keep at it, especially in calc. I’ll see a problem and say, ‘I wonder if the kids could do that?’ So I’ll put it on the board. Sometimes they completely ignore it; sometimes a kid will get really involved in it. I just think you have to enjoy your topic.”

His fellow teachers have recognized that enjoyment in Urdahl, and have appreciated his leadership.

“He loves teaching and is a life-long learner,” said BHS math teacher J. Peterson. “You will find a variety of calculus books piled up in the back seat of his car, and he works on his 800 calc problem book at Perkins most mornings. He is always challenging himself while finding new examples to bring into the classroom. He cares deeply about the math department and has been a valuable mentor to many of us in this school. He will be missed.”

Over his 50 years in Buffalo, Urdahl said one of the biggest highlights was the mid-year move to the new high school in 1996-97. A half-dozen semi-trucks ran continuously between the old and new high schools the day before winter break, with groups of staff members at both sites to load and unload.

“We were just going constantly. It was just fun to get involved with that and see how much we could get done,” he said. “That was really neat.”

Aside from that, Urdahl said his career highlights came on the personal side of things.

“This sounds kind of hokey, but the kids are the highlights,” he said. “You get a kid that just really gets excited about something, and to me that is fun to watch.”

 As for changes over a half century of teaching, Urdahl said technology use by staff and students is the main difference, but the essentials have remained the same.

“I still have trouble with the computer,” he said with a laugh.

Farming, friends and the future
Aside from college, Granite Falls and 13 years residing  in Buffalo, Urdahl has lived on the same family cattle farm where he was born and grew up. He purchased the buildings and 50 acres in 1986 and continued to operate the farm, along with other family members, while teaching. At one point he owned 120 head of cattle and woke up around 3:30 every morning to do chores and help his brother before his 45-mile drive to school.

And he still had the energy for a full day of teaching?

“Oh, it just keeps you going,” he said of his extra work. “That was my life. I still wake up at 4 a.m.”

Despite the distance, Urdahl said he never considered other options closer to home.

“I’ve never even looked at different openings. I just liked it here,” he said. “Driving from Litchfield to Buffalo, it’s about 45 miles, but it’s an easy 45. I’ve really loved teaching at Buffalo. There’s no other place I really wanted to go.”

That will change in his retirement. Urdahl isn’t ready to give up teaching entirely, and is keeping his notes in preparation for substitute opportunities.

“But not here,” he said. “I’d like to go to Wilmar, Hutchinson, Dassel-Cokato and Litchfield, just to see what other schools are like. I think that would be really fun.”

Aside from that, he doesn’t have any grand changes planned. He’ll continue to tend to three “pet” cows, meet friends regularly for breakfast, and appreciate the small things in life.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “Everything has just sort of worked out perfectly."

  • This is the third in a series of feature articles highlighting BHM staff members who are retiring this spring after serving the district for 30 or more years.
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