By Lee Egerstrom
Good teacher. Good coach. Good person. Accolades poured forth as people celebrated the life and accomplishments of Dr. Will Antell on July 18 when the city of Stillwater presented its annual Human Rights Award to its humble but highly regarded resident and former educator.
Gov. Tim Walz made it Dr. Will Antell Day throughout Minnesota with a proclamation citing accomplishments.
“I had to pinch myself. Are they talking about me?” That was how Antell responded to the “kind things” people were saying, he jokingly told The Circle. The outpouring occurred at Stillwater City Hall ceremony and at a reception that followed at the Lowell Inn Event Center.
He said being the center of such attention wasn’t easy “for an ordinary kind of guy.”
But what a group of admirers from Stillwater did proves there isn’t much just ordinary about Will Antell, a member of the White Earth Nation, who was raised by a single mother of eight children who instilled a great respect and interest in education.
Antell has a bachelor’s degree from Bemidji State University, class of 1959. A master’s from Minnesota State University, Mankato; and a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota. While living mostly at Stillwater and adjacent Bayport for the past 60 years, he is remembered locally as being a Stillwater Junior High teacher, football coach, athletic director and football referee.
As a case in point, Stillwater city councilmember David Junker said he didn’t play sports with Antell but did play with his sons. His admiration, he said, comes from “community friendship for him and his family. I couldn’t say enough about what Will means to all of us.”
But that attitude stretches far from Stillwater and the banks of the St. Croix River. Antell would later serve on the faculty at the University of Minnesota and Harvard University, he was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and served on it for President Jimmy Carter also.
He was an adviser on Indian education issues for a close friend, former Minnesota Senator and U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale. And he was the founder of the National Indian Education Association that was created in his basement, and then served as its first president in 1970.
Antell served nine years as assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education. He also served a six-year term on the Board of Trustees for Minnesota State College and Universities.
These point to positions he has held rather than the impact he has had on local, state and national Indigenous education.
Dr. John Hoffman, president of Bemidji State University, was among participants at the Stillwater celebration. He stressed Antell’s impact as an authority on Indian education and desegregation, and how he helped write the federal 1972 Indian Education Act that has been a landmark for programs ever since.
“Will Antell has dedicated his life to breaking down barriers and fighting to improve the lives of marginalized people,” Hoffman said.
“It would be impossible to sum up his remarkable life and achievements in a few short words. He has championed the expansion of educational opportunities at all levels, from his career as a middle school coach and athletic director to his work founding doctoral programs in American Indian leadership.”
No question that Antell’s impact has been felt at his alma mater. In honoring his mother (Bernice), who saw to it that all eight of her children got college educations, Antell and his late wife Mary Lou endowed the Bernice Lena Fairbanks Antell American Indian Scholarship at Bemidji State.
That inherited commitment to education is being felt far beyond the North country and Stillwater, a point Gov. Walz made in the state proclamation. It closes:
“WHEREAS: The lifelong dedication and accomplishments of Dr. Antell will have a lasting impact across generations, contributing to the goal of providing every Minnesotan an education that decreases social inequalities, empowers marginalized people, and helps individuals achieve their full potential; and
“WHEREAS: On July 18, 2023, Dr. Antell will receive the Human Rights Award from the Stillwater Human Rights Commission for his distinction in advancing human rights in Minnesota and across the country.
“NOW, THEREFORE, I, TIM WALZ, Governor of Minnesota, do hereby proclaim Tuesday, July 18, 2023, as: DR. WILL ANTELL DAY in the State of Minnesota.”
Patina Park, an attorney and director of Tribal State Relations in the Office of Governor, represented both Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan at the celebration. Flanagan is also a member of the White Earth Nation.
Citing programs in both Minnesota and across the nation, Park said they would not have happened without the advocacy and policy changes led by Antell. “And, of course, his work made it possible for a Native American kid to become the highest-ranking Native American woman in statewide publicly elected office, serving as our Lt. Governor.”
Not every community in Minnesota has a Will Antell to honor, or a mechanism in place to do so. But Stillwater does. Ann Wolff, another former Stillwater educator, was serving on Trinity Lutheran Church’s Racial Justice Ministry Team. That group decided to nominate Antell for the Human Rights Award and it was quickly supported by a member of another Stillwater church and member of the city’s Human Rights Commission.
Wolff and team went to work pulling together public comments in support of the nomination. Not too difficult, Wolff said. “He was respected and loved by all – non-Native as well as Native, because he respected and loved humankind.”
Some nominating comments:
“I knew him when he worked in the Minnesota Department of Education with school administrators. He was well-liked by everyone almost immediately.” said Ken Pedersen, former assistant Stillwater superintendent.
“I don’t remember any of the details, just that I have a warm place in my heart for him. I didn’t know he was a member of White Earth. Small world. Maybe we are distant cousin,” said a former seventh grade student.
“Will led by example. He got along with everyone, which now that I think of it, is the Indian way,” said Dennis Harcey, retired Social Studies teacher and assistant football coach.