Distinguished ALHS alumni announced

Published 2:03 pm Saturday, August 24, 2013

Following are biographies on two of the four recipients of the Albert Lea Education Foundation’s distinguished alumni. The first two bios were published Aug. 18. The alumni will be recognized at the Pathways to Success banquet Sept. 12 at Wedgewood Cove Golf Club by the Education Foundation of Albert Lea and Albert Lea Area Schools.

The event will begin with a social gathering and cash bar at 6 p.m. followed by dinner and program at 6:30 p.m. Reservations may be made by going to the foundation website at www.efal-us.org/PathwaystoSuccess.htm, filling out the response form and mailing it and a check for $40 per adult ($11 per child age 12 and younger) to the Education Foundation of Albert Lea, P.O. Box 828, Albert Lea. Questions should be directed to Lilah Aas, president of the foundation board of directors at the foundation email at edfound.al@gmail.com.


Elizabeth Wright

Elizabeth Peterson Wright was born on Oct. 28, 1937, to Norris and R. Louise Peterson, the sixth of nine children. Expectations in the Peterson’s family were simple and clear. Wright was focused on education, learning and the well-being of others. She attended Lincoln Elementary School and junior and senior high school in Albert Lea.

Elizabeth Wright

Elizabeth Wright

In high school, Wright followed the path of success of her siblings as she participated in the Spanish Club, GAA, orchestra and band. She was a cheerleader, a member of the National Honor Society, Student Council member and treasurer, and president in her junior year of Luther League at First Lutheran Church. Wright was voted by her classmates as the 1955 Homecoming Queen.

After graduating with the Class of 1956, Wright continued her education at Berea College in Berea, Ky. Berea College is distinctive among institutions of higher learning. Founded in 1855 as the first interracial and co-educational college in the South, Berea charges no tuition and admits only academically promising students. It also requires students to work 10 hours per week while taking a full load of classes. Wright’s collegiate learning experience provided the opportunity to develop and apply her academic and critical thinking skills while also serving the needs of others. In appreciation of her education, Wright has made substantial gifts to Berea College. She is a lifetime member of the President’s Club and a Gold Member of the Second Century Club.

Due to a family tragedy at the end of her junior year at Berea College, Wright transferred to the University of Minnesota to complete her bachelor’s degree majoring in English. After obtaining her degree, Wright returned to Kentucky where she became a children’s services social worker while her husband, Ballard, earned his medical degree from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky.

Wright, along with her family, lived three years in both Texas and California while she raised her three children and volunteered at their schools. They then moved to Uppsala, Sweden, where she volunteered to teach English at a prison in Uppsala.

Upon returning to the United States, Wright completed her master’s degree in psychology at Marshall University in December 1974. Wright worked as a psychologist in the Rational Behavior Therapy Division at the University of Kentucky Medical Center.

Wright entered law school at the University of Kentucky in 1977 and received her Doctor of Jurisprudence. With her degree and the passing of the bar exam, she became a staff attorney for the Department of Insurance in Frankfort, Ky. She then moved to Tampa, Fla., and became assistant to the vice president for medical affairs at the University of South Florida.

Returning to Kentucky, Wright served as deputy commissioner of the Department of Insurance, and was ultimately insurance commissioner. Wright was the first woman to be appointed as the insurance commissioner in Kentucky. Wright’s last change prior to retirement was to private legal and financial services.

During her life of service work, she has engaged in volunteer work with PTAs, Meals on Wheels, child abuse programs, food pantry groups and the League of Women Voters. When asked what Wright is most proud of, she will say her first career was raising two daughters and one son who all followed in the family footsteps of learning and service. Two are physicians and one is a lawyer. Now she is focused on her four grandchildren.

Wright resides with her husband in Lexington, Ky. Liz Peterson Wright is a great model of what one can do for others as a result of focused learning and caring. Cultural expectations for women have changed since the 1950s, but education and caring for family and community never go out of style.


Nancy Wangen

Nancy Register Wangen was born in her grandparents’ house in Alden in the midst of the Depression to Gordon and Ardis (Petersen) Register. Thankfully, Dr. Whitson would walk through knee-deep snow to deliver January babies. The young family moved to Albert Lea before her sisters, JoAnn and Cheri, were born. ancy was an enthusiastic student, and some of her early teachers at Ramsey and Abbott elementary schools became her role models for life. All women, they were well educated and had traveled, some even to Europe.

Nancy Wangen

Nancy Wangen

World War II had a strong impact on Wangen’s childhood. Everyone had a role in the war effort. Everybody had relatives stationed in faraway places.

Wangen read accounts of life on the front in Victory mail she received from her uncles Kenny Petersen and Harold Pagenkopf. Albert Lea kids met the troop trains stopping in town, in the hope of candy and gum handouts, since candy was rarely available. The Fountain Street Grocery was allotted only one box of candy a week because of sugar rationing. Wangen learned to run fast by hightailing it to the store during the Abbott School recess. Kids even sold defense stamps and helped with what we now call recycling. On Monday mornings, the boulevards were covered with scraps of metal, rubber, paper — anything reusable in the war effort. In a perhaps too-patriotic moment Wangen added her sister Joey’s rubber doll to the pile and got featured in the Tribune as a generous, heroic little girl.

While Wangen grew up in a time when few women combined outside work with family life, she had the model of two grandmothers who did both. One managed her own restaurant and fed Alden’s retired men and widowers; the other taught in a country school and in the warm months sold apples and strawberries from her small farm. Wangen often took the 12-mile train ride to help by serving meals. Nickel and dime tips were always an incentive.

Growing up in Albert Lea was a positive experience for Wangen. The Albert Lea schools were a place of opportunity, and Wangen was fortunate to enjoy the rewards that school provided. The roster of extra-curricular activities was a vital part of the education program. Wangen was active in many, including Edna Gercken’s excellent journalism program (both the newspaper and the yearbook), Student Council, National Honor Society, Quill and Scroll, Tigers Roar and drama. Wangen had parts in “Our Miss Brooks,” “Dracula” and the lead in “Elizabeth, the Queen.” Drama coach Hildred Tennehill’s commitment to excellence extended to renting costumes for Elizabeth from New York. Wangen wore the same velvet gowns worn by Bette Davis on Broadway. Later, when she became a teacher, her high school drama and journalism experience helped lead to job offers. Wangen was also selected the D.A.R. Citizen of the Year and the Queen of Hearts as a senior.

Wangen attended Mankato State College (now Minnesota State University-Mankato), graduating in 1957 with a double major in English and Social Sciences. She held a number of sales and office jobs while working her way through college. The Albert Lea Parks Department hired her in the summer as a publicist to do two daily radio shows and write two columns for the Albert Lea Tribune.

Her first teaching job was in English at Wayzata High School. In 1959 she married Albert Lea classmate Roger Wangen and they moved to Battle Creek, Mich. She taught American literature and communication; Roger, social studies. They returned to Minnesota in 1962. Wangen taught English in Hopkins until 1965 and Roger taught in Minnetonka. She was also a graduate fellow in American Studies at Macalester College. She left teaching while raising her daughters, Chris, now a bank officer at the Federal Reserve, and Kerry, now a psychiatrist at a V.A. hospital in California.

Wangen says, “Teachers often learn as much as their students, if not more. Teaching in distinctly different communities taught me much about how institutions function, the importance of socio-economic differences in communities, and how poverty and race can influence opportunities.”

Wangen’s awareness of educational inequalities based on poverty, race and sex became the defining feature of her community activism and her work. She led studies of government issues for the League of Women Voters, and as chairwoman of the Minnetonka DFL brought in speakers on inequality. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the Minnetonka Human Rights Commission was formed and Nancy became its vice chair.

The high point of this period of Wangen’s life was being co-chair of Joan Growe’s successful campaign for the Minnesota State Legislature in 1972, the year the number of female legislators increased from one to six. The campaign was conducted entirely by women who met weekly in a church basement with their preschool children playing around them. Wangen was one of the few who had been active in politics before. Enthusiasm ran high and the campaign became a model for how to involve new people in grass-roots politics. Winning was so empowering that a number of the women on the campaign committee went to graduate school or back to full-time work, some in new vocations. Joan Growe herself was empowered to become the first woman in Minnesota to be elected to a statewide office; she was Secretary of State for 25 years.

Wangen, too, returned to her graduate studies and found a way to get paid for more directly addressing the inequalities she cared about. From 1973 to 1978, she was the affirmative action officer for the Hopkins School District and also served the Wayzata School District for two of those years. The comprehensive affirmative action plan she wrote for Hopkins was published in a national school superintendents’ journal and recognized as a first in the country. In the meantime, Title IX had passed, and schools all around the state hired Wangen to help them design the policies they needed to comply with the law. She conducted many workshops for teachers and administrators, often teaming with Mary Peek, from the Albert Lea High School class of 1941, who had been working on affirmative action in another school district. A consortium of Minnesota colleges also hired Wangen to do weekend workshops that offered credit to administrators.

From 1978 to 1982, while Wangen was pursuing a doctorate in educational policy and administration at the University of Minnesota, she worked as the associate director for the Center for Education Policy Studies. In that position, she wrote a book for the state Planning Agency to inform the legislature about programs needed for developmentally disabled people. She earned her Ph.D. in 1982.

About this time, Wangen was approached by the presidents of the four public systems of higher education in the state, all of whose staffs she had previously worked with. They were looking for a way to make students’ transfers between institutions more smooth, so they wouldn’t lose credits in the process. (These four systems were the University of Minnesota, the community colleges, the state universities and the technical colleges. The private colleges soon joined in, as well.) Wangen’s job title was director of intersystem cooperation. She found that students were not planning their course selection well, and that cost them and the institutions both time and money. She began by helping the institutions clarify what they wanted the students who took their general education courses to know. This meant working with faculty groups, by discipline, to define their desired outcomes, so they could identify which course at one institution was equivalent to a course in another. The result was the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum, which is still in effect 20 years later. Defining content was not enough; mechanisms to make the transfer curriculum work were also needed. To this end, Wangen worked with registrars, counselors and all the staff people who help students get organized. She was impressed with how well people worked together to come up with clear guides and handouts that make it easier for students to navigate the transfer. All public colleges and universities and most private colleges agreed to accept the transfer curriculum credits in their programs for graduation. Because of interest nationally, Wangen wrote journal articles and presented at conferences to review how the programs were designed and implemented. “This thing is a good piece of work,” Wangen said. “It makes so much sense.”

Wangen retired in 1996 from an appointment in the Division of Academic Affairs of MNSCU, the recently merged State University and Community College systems. She has spent the years since traveling, together with husband Rog, to every continent, biking and caring for aging parents. She has also continued her work on inequality by volunteering with WATCH as a court monitor in cases involving violence against women and children. Wangen emphasizes that leadership and service start with small beginnings during one’s growing-up years. Civic engagement can also open the door to a new vocation.