SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Forty-five years is no brief period of time. And when you look at it in the context of history, it can seem even further away. Back in 1977, Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation were still fresh in Americans’ minds. And the Cold War wasn’t history; it was daily life.
Jeff Gordon is now retiring. He has taught various subjects in his 45 continuous years at O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls, but history has especially had his focus and attention.
“I think there’s a pretty strong connection between what you learn about historically and what’s happening in the nation and what’s happening in the world,” Gordon said.
“He’s special because of the legacy that he leaves with his students,” O’Gorman principal Joan Mahoney said. “I can’t say how many of his students will come back and tell us that they either went in, went on to study history or went in to a history-related field because of the impact or influence that Mr. Gordon had on them while they were in his classroom.”
Gordon’s teaching history has coincided with the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a global pandemic and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Gordon estimates that he’s taught roughly 5,000 to 7,000 kids at O’Gorman.
“O’Gorman High School gave me an opportunity to do everything I ever wanted in education, and I’m just so appreciative of that,” Gordon said.
Fellow teacher Ken Lindemann has been Gordon’s colleague for 32 years.
“When I get here in the morning, his car is always here,” Lindemann said. “I’m the second teacher in the building every morning; his car is here first. He’s the first teacher in the building, and I think he’s kind of set a standard for the rest of us that you need to get here and put in some time.”
“I don’t know that there are many students who wouldn’t list him in their top five of favorite teachers coming through O’Gorman,” Mahoney said.
“I feel a loyalty because I think the school and the community has treated me so well and been very, very loyal to me, and so I’ve always wanted to reciprocate that,” Gordon said.
Among his students is current senior John Costello.
“He’s friendly, and he’s approachable, so if you want to express an opinion, you’re free to do that, and he supports that as long as you have evidence,” Costello said.
“He motivates you because you don’t want to disappoint him, as opposed to, some teachers get you scared, I don’t want this teacher mad at me,” Lindemann said. “Whereas with him, he gets you motivated and your motivation is, I don’t want to disappoint this teacher. Which is unique, and it’s a goal that we strive for as teachers.”
The 66-year-old Gordon graduated high school in 1973 and has a degree from Dakota State University, where physical education and history were his majors. History is defined by its people and events, and different people have dramatically different viewpoints and passions about them. So, how does a history teacher navigate all this?”
“At times it’s challenging, and I think it’s a good representation of America as a democracy when you think about teaching and you have to understand that everybody’s background isn’t the same,” Gordon said.
Nor is everyone’s perspective.
“I try to be fair to the material, and I try to make comments such as, ‘Well, if you were this person in this situation, you might look at it this way,’ and ‘If you were this person in this situation, you might look at it this way,’” Gordon said.
Gordon has taught Lindemann.
“What I learned from him is that you put your students first. Some students require more work than others, and that’s part of the job,” Lindemann said. “Put the students first and always look out for the best interest of the student.”
“What do they say about effective history teachers, if they can leave the room and not know your political affiliation, you must be doing alright,” Gordon said.
Dan Santella: Do you think you’ve accomplished that?
“I’m not sure,” Gordon said. “I know that I’ve tried to.”
Like Lindemann, Mahoney has been Gordon’s colleague for more than three decades.
“I guess I could tell you I don’t even know his personal political beliefs after all these years,” Mahoney said. “He’s just a person who has a wealth of knowledge about history, and he wants to share that knowledge, and he really doesn’t want to paint it in one direction or the other.”
Now, Gordon’s direction is that of riding off into the sunset of retirement. A lot of history has happened since 1977.
“I’ve always considered this a career and a calling, and it’s just been a wonderful place for me to be,” Gordon said.
Gordon, Mahoney and Lindemann all taught KELOLAND’s Dan Santella when he attended O’Gorman.