Duluth Denfeld’s namesake died 88 years agoProfile of Robert Denfeld, superintendent of the Duluth Public Schools from 1885 to 1916.
By: Joe Vukelich, Duluth Budgeteer News
Robert Denfeld was superintendent of the Duluth Public Schools from 1885 to 1916. Upon retirement, a new school was named for him in West Duluth.
Denfeld attained a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Amherst University in 1876 and 1878, respectively. He became a principal at two Massachusetts high schools, but resigned to travel abroad.
Returning, he attended Boston University Law School and passed the bar exam in 1881.
He married Helen Boyd and they started a family. He became superintendent of Minneapolis and then came to Duluth in 1885.
He helped manage the smart growth of the Duluth Public School system and guided it from seven schools at his arrival to 34 by his retirement. His legacy is that he opened the first night school in the area and provided free textbooks to students, becoming the first superintendent in the state to do so.
He served as secretary of the National Education Association for one year and became its president in 1893. In 1907, Minnesota Gov. John Johnson appointed him to the state’s school board, where he was eventually elected its president.
After retiring in 1916, he stepped in and took a superintendent’s position while that man went to serve in World War I, relinquishing it upon the gentleman’s return. Denfeld traveled around the country speaking on educational issues and as a Masonic Lodge representative. He was a 33rd degree Mason of the Scottish rite.
Denfeld caught a cold on the way home from a Montana speaking engagement and died shortly thereafter at his home on Dec. 22, 1921.
The obituaries stated he died from complications from pneumonia and was conscious to the end.
One Duluth paper wrote: “His death coming at a time when he was active in lecturing and other work is a shock and surprise to the thousands in Minnesota who knew him.” Minnesota Teacher magazine wrote: “As a lecturer on educational topics ... there were few speakers whose services were in greater demand.”
Twenty years later, he was still listed in“Men Who Led America.”
His descendants keep in touch with the school and visit on occasion.
~ Written by Joe Vukelich, Denfeld economics teacher, alumnus and president of the Denfeld Alumni Association