Gifted at connecting with students, Mark Fodness brought history to life
The longtime Bemidji tennis coach and teacher, revered for his influence in both settings, died Wednesday at the age of 61.
BEMIDJI -- Much like the colorfully delivered powder keg lecture used to kickstart his Civil War unit, Mark Fodness made a lasting impact that reached far beyond his classroom walls.
Last week, Fodness died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 61. Among many other things, Fodness was a beloved history teacher at Bemidji Middle School for more than 35 years.
According to those he taught and worked alongside, Fodness connected with students like no other. He brought history to life and cared deeply for each child on an unmatched level.
“There is no one better at connecting with students. He was just outstanding. His focus was unrelenting in so many good ways, but his ability to connect with any child, especially at that age of 12-18 was unrivaled, absolutely unrivaled,” Bemidji Middle School Principal Drew Hildenbrand said of Fodness. “No one could do what he does. His gift was that connection with kids.”
Longtime fellow teacher Pete Sullivan said Fodness initially didn’t even want to be a middle school teacher, though he eventually was named Minnesota’s Middle School Teacher of the Year. When Fodness applied for his first teaching job within the district, there were two social studies job openings: one at the middle school and one at the high school, his strong preference being the latter.
“It was his second choice, but he ended up teaching his entire career in middle school history. He even became the president of the state middle school association. It shows you how sometimes your first choice isn’t really what’s good for you,” Sullivan said. “He was the best teacher by far at engaging the students and making class interesting and fun for the kids. He tricked them into learning unbelievable amounts of history.”
The community and interdisciplinary aspect of the middle school suited Fodness well.
Bringing history to life
Students of Fodness recall the way he colorfully regaled them with tales of United States history, and many remember fearing the fabled infamous Civil War test. Known for other recurring events like “Friday Jokes” and “Films with Fodness,” he took every opportunity to help the students engage with content material in fun and relatable ways.
“Anyone who was in his class can attest to being almost on the edge of their seat as he told the story of the battle of Gettysburg, or tapping your foot to the beat of some of the best music from various eras of U.S. history,” Fodness’s teaching colleague Corey Boen said. “He believed in making education fun as well as informative, wearing his Civil War sweatshirt on the day of the test and telling the students if they looked closely they might be able to get some answers.”
His coworkers described his teaching style as witty, engaging and passionate.
“His lectures were so riveting, I observed several of them, and I still remember one where he was talking about the Civil War and he used a powder keg as an analogy. He was blowing up the powder keg to start the Civil War in his actions, in his emotions, jumping around as he gave the lecture to the kids. It was just riveting, like an actor. The kids were spellbound,” Principal Hildenbrand said.
Giving back, creating community
Fodness also had a knack for drawing in the community around him and giving back. He left a lasting impression on the middle school through the programs he helped to build, support and even sometimes spare from budget cuts. He became known for his work with STEP, Upward Bound and the speech team.
“Mark was passionate about (the STEP) program, and he fought hard and relentlessly to acquire the funding and keep that funding even in times when the money didn't seem to be in the budget,” Boen said. “He found a way, because he knew how important this program was to these kids.”
“If Mark thought it was going to benefit kids, he was going to fight for that cause,” former colleague Pat McNallan added.
McNallan said Fodness’s kindness and generosity was not just reserved for students but extended to other staff members and the community as a whole.
“There was a teacher struggling financially and Mark gave him money, and he didn’t want anyone to ever know about it,” McNallan said. “He had this ability to just step up and help people and make them better at what they do.”
Former colleague Marilyn Hood spoke fondly of annual volunteer leaf-raking days spearheaded by Fodness.
“There are hundreds of heartwarming stories from the leaf-raking days,” she said. Sullivan backed this up by mentioning a time Fodness and his students brought a birthday cake to a 100-year-old woman whose yard they were raking.
Hood and Fodness led their students in a collaborative project in the mid-90s, titled “Link-ages,” where elders from the community came into the middle school to be interviewed by seventh graders, who then crafted their oral histories.
“I think he really reached the whole student, not just the academic part, but the social and emotional part,” Hood said of Fodness, whom she taught with for a decade.
Physical evidence of Fodness’s desire to give back made the news in 2015 when he encouraged students to collect soda can tabs over the course of five years -- 1.5 million tabs to be exact -- which earned $500 for the Ronald McDonald House in the Twin Cities.
After news broke of Fodness’ passing, memory upon memory from former students came flooding in.
“He meant the world to many students and was the reason we tried. He wanted our best, gave us his, and provided us a learning experience never matched in our educational journey,” former student Jeremiah Graves said. “He was the only teacher that wrote me a 'congratulations' letter when I graduated college.”
Fodness was recognized for his “above and beyond” mentality when it came to trying to reach students. “The average teacher hopes to reach a kid or two each year, and Mark probably did ten times what the average teacher did,” Sullivan said.
“Mark was successful as an educator due to his ability to reach those struggling students as well as to push those who excelled to an even higher level,” Boen added.
Former student Hazen Fairbanks, who is now an educator herself, said Fodness was the first person who made her feel like she was smart.
“I hated school. I was bad at it. It was a daily struggle. But in his seventh-grade social studies class, things started to shift for me,” she wrote in an emotional tribute post on her Facebook page. “He provided me with the environment that allowed me to thrive and prove that I am smart, too. Now as an educator and assistant principal, I can step back and truly appreciate his craft.”
These stories are just a fraction of those that have been shared thus far. Mark’s son, Kyle Fodness, has asked that anyone with stories and memories of his father, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org -- an email created specifically for the collection.