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WHS' Sommer remembered as devoted teacher, friend

Andrew Sommer

Hank Freeman remembers Andy Sommer's first year at Woodbury High School.

As temperatures dipped into the 40s by October, Freeman found the California transplant bundled up in warm clothes, his neck wrapped in a muffler.

Though the weather took adjusting, Freeman said it didn't take long for Sommer to warm to the school - and vice versa.

"He was just wonderful," the WHS teacher said of her friend and colleague who died Wednesday, Dec. 19, at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer. "He loved being a Royal."

Sommer, a Spanish teacher at WHS since 1988, was remembered by colleagues and students as a teacher whose dedication to education - and students - was unmatched at the school.

"This was not a job" for Sommer, Freeman said. "This was a commitment, as if you had joined the ministry."

She recalled Sommer as a friend and colleague who had the ability to keep students rapt, or leave them in stitches. She recalled how he drew classroom laughs by impersonating dance moves from the popular "Gangnam Style" music video.

"So young at heart," Freeman said.

Meanwhile, she said, his 6-foot-4 presence was tempered by "the gentlest of voices" that would prompt students to lean forward in their desks, hanging on his word.

WHS Principal Linda Plante issued a statement heralding Sommer's impact at the school.

"As a College in the Schools Spanish instructor, Andy brought rigor to the classroom, and laughter and joy to his students," she said in a release. "He was an outstanding educator and will be sorely missed."

Freeman and WHS students marveled at Sommer's knack for learning students' names and getting to know them - even if they weren't in his class. Freeman said Sommer would show up at the building on the second day of school after having spent the previous night memorizing each of his students' names.

The commitment Sommer - who received his undergraduate degree at Macalester College and his master's at Hamline University - had to education was evident to WHS senior Bailey Lervick, who was among his Spanish students.

She said that when Sommer learned in November that he would have to take time off for cancer surgery, he felt guilty for being away from school.

"If that's what he's worrying about ... it just shows how much he cares," Lervick said.

Social studies teacher Andy Hill developed a special connection with Sommer that has spanned Hill's adult life. A WHS student in the mid-1990s, Hill was convinced by Sommer to take a Spanish class in his senior year "and I absolutely loved it."

Hill called Sommer a friend and mentor.

Sommer possessed an innate ability to reach students, making classes fun and enriching, Hill said.

"I remember liking the vocabulary and the way he taught it," he said, adding that he stayed in touch with Sommer through college and into his own career as a teacher.

When Hill returned to WHS as a teacher after working for years in Virginia, Sommer was among the first to welcome him back.

His death has been crushing for many in the WHS community, Hill said.

"I think it's a huge loss," he said. "And it's not just for the current teachers and students who are here."

His connection to students went well beyond the walls of WHS, Freeman said. A single man, Sommer turned the WHS community into his family, a relationship she said stretched "to infinity and beyond."

"He's a teacher that has been invited to weddings and christenings and college graduations," she said. "Education was his commitment."

Lervick recalled Sommer as the teacher with an affinity for penguins and a lighthearted habit of pointing out "the amoebas" created when he washed his overhead projector.

She said Sommer took great care to learn about his students and had a "genuine desire to see us succeed."

Fellow WHS senior Malory Vague said Sommer's death weighs heavily on the school.

"It is going to be a big deal for a while," she said, adding that Sommer's parents "raised a really awesome person.

"He made a huge impact at the school."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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