This past week Independent School District 728, the district encompassing Elk River, commemorated the 85 anniversary of the opening of the Elk River High School. Rather than honor the building and its years of service, I thought it more important to explore the life of one truly dedicated and interesting educator: Robert Handke.
Hired as superintendent of the Elk River Schools in 1925, Robert Handke served for 30 some years as the leader of Elk River education. Under his watch, Elk River High School, the current Handke Center housing community education, was built. The brick monument of today replaced a smaller school described by the Elk River Star News as “a 50 year old frame building pitifully overcrowded and already waiting for fire and safety inspectors to declare it unsafe.”
Elkhi Stadium, the location for the first organized hockey in Elk River, along with baseball and football were built in the same area.
Handke must have been a very dynamic and charismatic leader. Only five years after he took the helm as superintendent, the new high school was open. After 1931, a pet project for Handke was a school lunch program. With this project, Handke revealed his truly forward thinking and imaginative philosophy in education. In the early 1930s, school lunch programs were in the discussion stage at most school districts around the county. Yet Handke built a kitchen and lunch room and developed gardening projects to provide fresh vegetables to students. As economic need expanded, he opened up the school kitchens for use in community food programs to provide for entire families, not simply students. With the coming of World War Two, the gardening program expanded to become a community wide victory garden.
Born in Kendallville, Iowa, he took a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa. Later he earned a Master’s in Education from the University of Minnesota. He came to Elk River from Brownton, MN in 1925. In addition to his work as superintendent at Elk River, Handke taught physics in the High School.
After 32 years of service in Elk River, Robert Handke retired in 1957. In his time leading the Elk River Schools, he left an indelible mark on the entire community.