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Gene Dillon, ‘Voice for the students,’ stepping down

Gene Dillon is retiring after serving more than 20 years on the Bemidji school board. Bethany Wesley | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Gene Dillon, after serving more than 20 years on the Bemidji school board, will step down Monday evening.

Dillon, who served from 1982-1994 and 2001-2012, will be honored at a public reception beginning at 3:45 p.m. at Bemidji High School, prior to his last regular meeting beginning at 4:30 p.m.

“He’s just been such a stalwart member of the board, such a voice for the students and for the staff and the school district,” said Ann Long Voelkner, school board chairwoman. “Any time you lose a voice with that kind of history, that kind of drive, we will miss him.”

Dillon, after retiring from a 20-year career with the U.S Navy, moved to Bemidji in 1973. His wife, Darlene, was from here, though she herself wanted to stay in Nevada.

“He just fell in love with Bemidji the first time he came here” in 1956, Darlene said.

Dillon, a Missouri native, chuckled, recalling Bemidji’s 30-below temperatures and 20 inches of snow, “It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.”

Dillon first was elected to the school board in 1982. He stepped down in 1994, but ran again in 2000.

In 2001, he cast the lone vote against closing Deer Lake Elementary, which he viewed as a mistake because he believed the school district would need that space again.

“Now we’re in a situation where we need more classroom instruction space,” he said, referencing the district’s ever-growing enrollment, steadily rising since 2006.

Today, though, he does not support reopening Deer Lake, citing the costs needed to again make it operational, the relatively low number of students it can hold (170), and the personal costs for families.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” he told the Pioneer in 2011. “You take a kid who lives a mile away from Northern (Elementary) and put him in Deer Lake, it makes it tough for parents.”

In 2001, the school board requested from voters authorization for $13 million in bonding to build a new elementary school near Bemidji High School. That effort was handily rejected by voters.

Dillon said he knows some residents voted against it because they think there is extra room at the high school. He pointed out that the district’s younger-grade population is ballooning. He questioned what the district would do if it filled the high school now and the younger kids become high-schoolers.

“This school district has got to build a new school,” he said.

Looking back, Dillon said he is proud that the district in the 1980s began busing students to and from stops within the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Prior to that decision, they were picked up and dropped off at state Highway 32, sometimes without a parent or guardian there to meet them.

“Parents up there were really happy with that,” said Dillon, who for 18 years owned a Redby convenience store that became a sit-down restaurant. “A lot of (those families) didn’t have transportation.”

Gene and Darlene Dillon raised three children and took in nine foster children. Among the highlights of his school board career was personally handing his five local grandchildren their high school diplomas.

“I think education is a wonderful thing, but it has to be a smart education,” he said.

Dillon said he no longer enjoys the school board quite like he used to, so it is time to step down. He said the district is in good hands with the current school board and administrators.

“We’ve got the best teachers,” he said. “And administrators. We’ve have real good administrative staff.”