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A closing school discovers a piece of its history

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Sandburg meets with students
Poet Carl Sandburg meets with students at the dedication of Sandburg Middle School in Golden Valley in 1960.
Robbinsdale School District Archives

It's a bittersweet occasion as Sandburg Middle School in Golden Valley marks its 50th anniversary -- because the school is slso closing. 

Leading up to the closure, the staff rediscovered audiotapes of celebrated poet and author Carl Sandburg, for whom the school is named, speaking at the school's dedication ceremony in 1960.

The old reel-to-reel tapes have been in storage in the Robbinsdale school district for decades. The archival tapes are even more precious now that after a half century, declining enrollment has forced Sandburg Middle School to shut its doors for good.

The area was in the midst of a postwar growth spurt when Robbinsdale school officials voted to name the new school after Carl Sandburg. He was at the height of his fame when he came to town in 1960. 

Sandburg was the son of Swedish immigrants, born in Illinois in the late 1800s.  The family was poor and he quit school as a boy to work odd jobs. He shined shoes, laid bricks and delivered milk, worked on farms in the Midwest and fought in the Spanish American War. Later, he began to write and sing the folk songs he learned while traveling the country as a hobo. 

He first became famous during World War I, and decades later his renowned work on Abraham Lincoln won him the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes. 

Carl Sandburg Junior High, which later became a middle school, opened in the Fall of 1959. Sandburg spoke twice during the dedication- once for the public and once just for the students. 

Sandburg speech
Poet Carl Sandburg addresses a crowd at the dedication of Sandburg Middle School in Golden Valley in 1960.
Robbinsdale School District Archives

"And I'm going to offer here a little dedicatory address that I've written that I hope will be around as long as the school exists," Sandburg told the audience.

At times during the dedication, Sandburg struck a sombre note, urging the audience to remember the lessons of past wars, particularly the horrors of World War II.

"Hand in hand with freedom goes responsibility," he said. "The freedom you have today in this country as compared with certain other countries over the Earth, the freedom you have came at a costly price." 

He also warned about the dangers of the new modern age. 

"Later I said to the kids that it was quite an experience to stand in the presence of genius"

"Our lovable Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln. Not one of them ever heard a radio or saw a TV cast or a movie. They had books," Sandburg said. 

But it wasn't all serious. For the students, Sandburg sang songs and told jokes.  

"And the man so tall he had to climb a ladder to shave himself. And the boy of whom they said if he had a little more sense he'd be a halfwit," he joked. 

At the end, the students presented Sandburg with gifts and he donated a copy of one of his books to the school library. Before heading to his plane, Sandburg told the students, "you've made me the happiest man in the Twin Cities and Robbinsdale." 

Themeo Ellis was a principal when the school opened. He remembers how thrilled everyone was to see Sandburg in person. 

"Just that he spoke, I think that was the thing that stood out most in my mind and later I said to the kids that it was quite an experience to stand in the presence of genius," he said. 

Ellis says he was sad to hear the school was closing, but hopes the memory of Sandburg's visit will live on, even after students and staff transfer to new schools. 

Current principal Tom Henderlite thinks that's already happening.    "I always tell people who've worked there, just take a little bit of the Sandburg spirit with you wherever you go and it will grow in your new spot," he said, "because it's the people that make buildings really dynamic, it isn't the building, it's the people that are inside of it and I'm confident the same thing will happen here at Robbinsdale."