The year was 1990. As a high school senior, I was an “average” individual among many outstanding peers. I was not popular, nor athletic, nor really extraordinary in any fashion.

From my younger days in junior high all through my years at West, I observed the Academic Decathlon team and wondered with excitement if I would ever experience the kind of success the program had become used to. As a junior, I took the trial test but did not make the cut.

As a senior, the topics were more in line with my passions. I made the team and my early wonder and excitement gradually morphed into fear (of failure) and at times a tenuous relationship with sanity. How many students, at age 17, spend up to nine hours a night, six nights a week, studying? At times I thought it was lunacy. At times, I thought there was no way I would succeed.

Over the course of six months I learned that our team’s success was far more important than individual accomplishment. I learned that even “average” kids like me could do extraordinary things; I learned that “my” AD team was filled with talented people who gave every bit as much to the program as I did. I loved every minute of it.

Nine students, each of us very different from one another, came together and charted a common path as a team. Our personalities clashed, we lashed out at each other, we struggled together, we bonded, we cheered each other on, we hated the idea of letting the others (or especially Coach Wilker) down. By the end of our time together, we loved each other. Truly.

Now, 18 years later, we’ve reconnected, and I’m writing this letter because of it. I still love those nine other people in Room 214, eight other students and Mr. Roger Wilker.

Mr. Wilker is a legendary figure in Mankato West Academic Decathlon, no doubt, but more so than that, he is an indisputable icon of Minnesota education to whom I will always owe a debt of gratitude. Wilker was the kind of teacher who got into your brain and figured you out; he knew what you were capable of well before you did, and he guided you to realize your potential. The transformation of nine unique students, along with one very patient and dedicated teacher, into a family of achievers was remarkable. Some members of the team were naturally more “gifted” than others. Some had extremely absorbent minds and consumed knowledge like young children. All of us wanted to be there, every day, and none of us ever gave up.

Education has a simple goal: to prepare children and young adults for the real world. Academic Decathlon was the most stunning realization of that simple goal of my entire educational career.

Funding Academic Decathlon should be a priority for Mankato schools. The alumni of Mankato West’s AD program are working together to challenge the school board in its proposed budget adjustment which would eliminate this life-changing academic and character building initiative. We stand together because we believe the students today deserve the same opportunity to wonder with excitement, to bond with very different peers, and ultimately to discover for themselves what education is really all about.



Brian M. Hofmeister is a software engineer at IBM in Rochester. He is a 1991 graduate of Mankato West High School and a 1996 graduate of Minnesota State University.

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