BY JOSEPH PALMERSHEIM – SUN NEWSPAPERS
The life of a former Robbinsdale Cooper High School principal will be celebrated 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Cooper High School auditorium.
Nels Elmer Kemppainen, who served as the school’s principal for 13 years before retiring in 1985, died Aug. 29 at age 87 at the St. Michael’s Health and Rehabilitation Center in Virginia, Minn.
His death came one day after his 87th birthday. According to his biography published by Bauman Funeral Home, his retirement marked the end of a 31-year career in the district, where he filled the roles of coach, teacher and administrator.
His funeral was Sept. 15 in Virginia, but former coworkers and friends have organized the upcoming event at Robbinsdale Cooper High School for those who were not able to attend. According to organizers, Kemppainen’s family will also attend the Cooper Community gathering for parents, students staff and friend to pay tribute to Elmer Kemppainen.”
Kemppainen is remembered fondly by those who worked with or knew him during his time at Cooper, including Arlene Brame, whose son, Doug, was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in the fall of 1981.
“Elmer was so good to Doug about getting his assignments, making sure he got everything,” Brame recalled. “Doug missed a lot of school, but Elmer would even get him tickets to plays. I thought that was really sweet. He was a sweet man, and we’ve never had another principal like him.”
Doug graduated from Cooper before attending the University of Minnesota. He passed away in 1984. Sheryl Brame, Doug’s sister, ended up teaching at Cooper High School, and has been there for 19 years, Arlene Brame said.
“Doug was a guy who liked everybody, and of course he liked Elmer,” Brame said. “Who didn’t? Anything we needed, he told us to let him know. He was a good Finnish man.”
Lucille Black, a former special education teacher in District 281, remembered that Kemppainen would honor St. Urho’s Day, a March 16 holiday honoring the patron saint of Finland, who allegedly drove the grasshoppers from the country much in the same way that St. Patrick supposedly banished snakes from Ireland.
“On St. Urho Day, he brought in breakfast for the whole staff,” Black said. “He’d bring in eggs, the whole bit. He was just great to work for. He had a special way with those kids. A special connection.”
Black recalled that Kemppainen would show up unannounced in classrooms to observe students. His ability to communicate, she said, was what made him a great principal.
“He was marvelous,” she said. “He was very tactful, with a great sense of humor. As his obituary said, he was truly a character.”
Former assistant superintendent Willis Boynton came to the district in 1956, the same year Kemppanian did. When Boynton retired in 1984, Kemppanian was the master of ceremonies at the retirement party. Now, Boynton will be speaking at the Sept. 29 event honoring Kemppanian.
“He was very professional and hard-working, and fought hard for his teachers and kids to see that he get the best he could arrange for them,” Boynton called. “He was also a very jovial Finlander who wore his nationality on his sleeve. I’ll remember a lot of things about him – we had a lot in common coming to the district at the same time. He could be serious on one hand, and enjoy life on the other side.”
Kemppainen is survived by Virginia, his wife of 58 years, and sons, Chip (Debbie), Kerry, and Kurt; and grandchildren, Kristine, Erik, Ryan, Nicholas and Anders. He was preceded in death by his parents, brother, Wayne, and sister, Marion Dale.