North St. Paul says goodbye to a local icon


In 1995 Ellsworth Erickson revisited photographs taken in Europe during World War II. While serving his country, Erickson developed film to be viewed in 3D. This early version of 3D required photos to be taken from slightly different vantage points. Once developed, the photos were viewed through plastic glasses. (file photo)

Ellsworth Erickson of North St. Paul, who served in the European Theater in World War II, attended the dedication ceremony for the town’s new Veterans Park in November 2015. Since the 1990’s, Erickson dreamed of seeing the park completed. (file photo)

Ellsworth Erickson, 92, was World War II vet, popular teacher, civic leader 

North St. Paul lost one of its few remaining World War II veterans on March 3, 2016, when Ellsworth Erickson succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

He will be remembered by the public as a family man, a veteran, a teacher, an artist and a friend. His family members said they will remember him for his loyalty, honesty and optimism that permeated all aspects of his life.

“It was hard because even though he was 92, he acted young; he thought young,” said his daughter Sheryl Erickson in an interview last week.

 

Treasured his family

 

Since boyhood, Erickson valued family bonds. As children, Erickson and his older brother, Herb, worked together on their family’s apple orchard in North St. Paul, and as teenagers they teamed up to deliver a daily newspaper.

The brothers remained close their entire lives, and both were teachers at Mounds View High School.

They often worked together on school and civic projects, and lived just a block apart while they raised their families. 

Ellsworth Erickson’s children Sheryl and Kurt said they will always remember their father’s love of family. Sheryl believes it was one of her father’s proudest accomplishments to be a good dad and watch his children grow up.

 

Reconnaissance photographer

 

Erickson was a student at North St. Paul High School when he was drafted in 1943. 

It was his goal to get into aviation training, and he made short work of it after arriving at Fort Snelling. He explained to the commanding officer that he wanted to become a pilot, and the next day his parents got a call telling them Erickson was going into the Air Corps.

At 19, Erickson served in the Army Air Corps in Europe. His reconnaissance unit, later called “sky spies,” rode in a P-38 fighter plane equipped with cameras instead of guns. 

Erickson’s job was to fly ahead of the U.S. and its allies’ planes from coastal France through Italy and take aerial photographs. 

He was also responsible for developing those photographs and analyzing them in order to pinpoint bombing targets such as armed strongholds, war manufacturing centers and transportation hubs. After a bombing raid, Erickson also photographed the area to assess the damage.

“I’m not proud of helping to kill Nazis, but I am proud of my work in that it helped to save our soldiers,” Erickson said in a 2013 story published in the Review.

Several years after his military service ended, Erickson visited the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., with his sons Kent and Kurt. While there, he left his victory metals in honor of Richard Neumann, Eldon Kuehn and Richard Notebaart, three North St. Paul residents who didn’t survive the war.

 

  Popular art teacher

 

After World War II, Erickson taught art, photography and journalism at Mounds View High School for about 35 years. Eventually, he became the art director for the entire Mounds View School District. He also taught night classes at several colleges including the University of Minnesota, Macalester, Hamline, Augsburg and St. Thomas.

Robin Nisswandt was a student at Mounds View High School when Erickson and his brother taught there, and she remembered them as popular teachers. 

“They were both well liked and respected by everybody,” she said.

Sheryl recalled that her father never corrected his students’ homework while his children were awake. Even though he enjoyed teaching, his family was very important to him, and he would spend the evening with his children, often helping them with their own homework. It was only after they were asleep that he would begin grading papers.

Erickson continued to teach for the rest of his life, even though he was officially retired. His daughter Sheryl teaches at Next Step in North St. Paul, and Erickson often visited her classroom to share his World War II stories with the students. He also shared his experiences in presentations at the North St. Paul Historical Society Museum and other organizations.

Sheryl said her dad wanted everybody to have the best education they could. It was his personal philosophy that it’s achievable for every individual to reach his or her dreams.

 

Love of art

 

Erickson carried his passion for art and photography with him throughout his entire life. Even after retirement from teaching, Erickson kept a photography business.

It kept him connected not only to Mounds View High School, but many schools throughout the Twin Cities. He was often hired for prom shoots and school portraits. Churches also asked him to photograph confirmation classes and festivals.

Although he is most recognized for his photography, Erickson always had a high regard for all the arts including music, poetry and sculpture. He belonged to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in North St. Paul and was the driving force for the fundraising and design of the award-winning stained glass cross hanging in the church’s sanctuary. He also helped spearhead the creation of the stained glass windows for the chapel.

 “Ellsworth worked on our church directories for years and took photos whenever a special event occurred at church,” said St. Mark’s member Barbara Michel, who worked with him on committees. “The church archives are chock-full of Ellsworth’s photos - a treasure we are fortunate to have.” 

She added, “Ellsworth was a special man, always upbeat, and I will miss him.”

 

While in the service, Erickson rode in the back of a P-38 plane to take aerial photographs of possible military targets. (file photo)

 

“Attitude is everything in life”

 

Sheryl remembered her father as a very strong role model, not only for herself and her siblings, but also for anyone whose life he touched. It was important to him that he was always there when someone needed him. 

“The greatest lesson my father ever taught me [was that] ... your attitude is everything in life. He didn’t just speak that, he lived it,” Kurt said. 

To Kurt it felt like a thousand times that he watched his father stop to have a conversation with a stranger, and they both left feeling better.

“He was a very nice fellow, generous to everyone and easy to get along with,” said longtime friend and former coworker Paul Anderson. “He always seemed to be cheerful and have a good word for everyone.” 

Anderson knew Erickson since they were boys because their families attended St. Mark’s, and Anderson always suspected Erickson and his brother secretly put in a good word for him at Mounds View High School, which contributed to him being hired as a guidance counselor. 

Erickson also befriended former students who continued coming to him for advice even after he had retired. Many of Erickson’s former students remained in contact throughout his life. He would often receive their Christmas cards and birthday phone calls; his birthday happened to fall on Valentine’s Day.

Erickson also enjoyed staying involved with his friends in the greater community.

“He would always try to do anything in the community he could do to help,” Sheryl said.

Erickson was a member of the North St. Paul Lions Club, the North St. Paul VFW and American Legion posts, and Disabled American Veterans. 

He was also one of the original founding members of the North St. Paul Veterans Park. 

Since 1997, he worked to make that dream a reality, and in 2015 he saw the military memorial park completed at the intersection of Margaret Street and Highway 36. In January 2016, he told a Review reporter it was one of his life’s greatest achievements. 

 

Honors and recognitions

 

Erickson was appreciated by his community, and there were multiple times he was formally recognized. In 2000, North High School honored Erickson as a Distinguished Alumni, and he gave an inspirational speech to that year’s graduating class. 

Erickson and his brother, Herb, were named grand marshals for North St. Paul’s Fall Round-Up parade in 2007, and in 2013, the French Consulate General presented Erickson with the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal for his service in World War II. The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon, and remains the highest honor France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for the country.

 

Funeral services

 

Erickson’s entire family was with him in the days before his passing. Both Sheryl and Kurt found their father’s unrelenting positive attitude noteworthy. 

“The guy never complained about anything, even at the end,” Kurt said, and according to Sheryl, Erickson was smiling up until he passed away.

Erickson was preceded in death by his parents Julius and Isabelle, his daughter Cynthia and his brother Herb. 

He is survived by his wife Dian; his children Sheryl, Kent, Valorie, Kurt, Laura, Barret and Erik; his 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. 

Erickson’s visitation is planned for Monday, March 28, from 4 to 8 p.m. in the chapel at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 2499 Helen Street N., North St. Paul. 

The funeral is Tuesday, March 29, at 11 a.m. with visitation in the large sanctuary the hour before the funeral.

 

Aundrea Kinney can be reached at akinney@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7822.

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