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A teacher's inspiration

On a cold February day 18 years ago, Phil Kiltie received a letter he never expected. "I still remember walking out to the mailbox that day and opening the letter," said Kiltie, a retired Alexandria School District teacher who now lives in Parker...

Phil Kiltie rereads a letter he received in 1999 from a former fourth grade student, Scott Lempka. The two were recently reunited at Kiltie's home in Parkers Prairie. (Celeste Edenloff | Echo Press)
Phil Kiltie rereads a letter he received in 1999 from a former fourth grade student, Scott Lempka. The two were recently reunited at Kiltie's home in Parkers Prairie. (Celeste Edenloff | Echo Press)
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On a cold February day 18 years ago, Phil Kiltie received a letter he never expected.

"I still remember walking out to the mailbox that day and opening the letter," said Kiltie, a retired Alexandria School District teacher who now lives in Parkers Prairie. "As I read it walking back to the house, I thought to myself, 'Wow! This is something special.' "

The letter was from Scott Lempka, a former student of Kiltie's. Lempka was in Kiltie's fourth grade class at Washington Elementary School during the 1985-86 school year.

"I don't know if you remember me from the hundreds of students you have had over the years, but I must say that I remember you," Lempka began his letter.

Lempka explained that he had become a teacher and swim coach and was living in Steubenville, Ohio.

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"Despite the many wonderful rewards teaching offers, I think any educator would agree that the profession can, at times, be thankless," Lempka wrote. "It is for this reason, I wanted to let you know what kind of impact you have had on me and certainly, countless others."

Fast-forward to Monday, June 5, 2017, more than 30 years after Kiltie taught Lempka in fourth grade, and the two reunited in Parkers Prairie thanks to Kiltie's daughter, Gail Kiltie.

Kiltie taught school for 33 years, including 24 years in Alexandria. He retired in 1991. He and his wife, Jeannine, will soon move from Parkers Prairie to the Twin Cities, closer to their daughter, Gail. Gail found the letter and decided to contact Lempka.

She found Lempka on Facebook and sent him a message asking if his fourth-grade teacher had been Mr. Kiltie and if he was the one who wrote the letter back in 1999. She said her father kept the letter in a special place and would take it out and read it from time to time.

"It has always been very special to him," she wrote in her message to Lempka.

Lempka confirmed he wrote the letter.

"It warms my heart that your dad has kept the letter and that it meant so much to him," he told her.

He also let Gail know that he is the principal at Parker Elementary School in Elk River. A graduate of Jefferson High School in Alexandria, he lives there with his wife, Kari, and three children.

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During the reunion between Lempka and Kiltie, Lempka explained that last year, his school was selected as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. On the day of the celebration, in his speech congratulating his staff, Lempka said he told them about Kiltie, stressing the influence teachers can have and how he never forgot Kiltie's impact on him.

As Lempka and Kiltie sat at Kiltie's kitchen table, smiles spread across their faces and at times, happy tears formed in their eyes as they reminisced about the 1984-85 school year.

Lemkpa talked about bowling with dice and how Kiltie used to play football with his students at recess. Once, Kiltie selected him for a school project team.

"I remembered wondering why he chose me," Lempke said, thinking that the job was supposed to go to what he described as the "better" students. "Looking back, I think he saw it as an opportunity to teach me respect, responsibility and self-confidence. His confidence in me challenged me to believe in myself."

Lempka believed he was just an average to below-average student and that because he was in a lower reading group, he didn't see himself as a successful learner. He didn't believe in himself, he said.

Kiltie, however, said he never thought that way of his students. He believed each one of them had potential.

"When you would see the light bulbs come on for those students who were maybe struggling, you hoped you were making an impact on their lives," said Kiltie.

As the "Do you remember this or that?" flew back and forth between Kiltie and Lempka, school conferences came up.

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Lempka looked at Kiltie with a boyish grin and said, "I remember sitting down with my parents (Tom and Margaret) and you asked me, 'How do you think you are doing?' I answered you by jokingly saying, 'I'm at the top of my class!' "

Kiltie said he remembered that and that he also remembered what he replied.

"I told you, 'You can be when you want to be,' " he said to Lempka.

Lempka said he remembered that moment vividly, telling Kiltie, "It was a pivotal moment because it made me realize I had a chance."

As the two continued to reflect back on their teacher-student relationship, Kiltie had the letter Lempka wrote sitting in front of him. Lempka finally asked if he could read it as he couldn't remember what he wrote.

In the letter, Lempka told Kiltie he had found a career that would make him happy for the rest of his life and that Kiltie's beliefs in him helped guide him.

"Without your belief in my abilities, I am not sure that I would have realized this happiness," Lempka told Kiltie in the letter. "In a time when it seemed some teachers failed to understand the responsibility of their position, I felt you knew you had the power to turn lives around. Whenever my job gets frustrating, which is seldom, I am able to remember this fact and get right back on that horse."

Celeste Edenloff is the special projects lead and a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. She has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in 2016 to once again report on the community she calls home.
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