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From auto technician to award-winning teacher: Denfeld's Rannila wins Goldfine award

Phil Rannila (center) of Denfeld High School reacts Wednesday after being awarded the 2014 Goldfine Gold Star Teacher Award. (Clint Austin /

People who know him describe Denfeld High School teacher Phil Rannila as “unassuming.” The word comes up repeatedly. He agrees.  

“I am unassuming,” he said.

But on Wednesday, at the 2014 Goldfine Gold Star Teacher Award ceremony at the Inn on Lake Superior, the Automotive Systems and Tech teacher was chosen to assume center stage.

When his name was announced as winner of the honor that goes to the outstanding teacher in the Duluth public school system, Rannila jolted in his chair. Everyone else in the room rose to an ovation.

“It might feel real tomorrow,” he told friends afterward, “but it doesn’t feel real today.”

Rannila was one of six nominees for the award. As winner he will receive $5,000 to be used as he pleases. The honor went to a secondary school teacher this year after going to Lester Park Elementary’s Carol Hubert last year.

Rannila joined the Duluth school district in 1998, after spending the first half of his professional life working as a master auto technician while also heading the local union from his job at Duluth Dodge.

“I was at a changing point,” he said. “You could say I was bouncing off the bottom.”

Opportunity struck while he was undergoing what he called “the grind of a divorce.”

The school district presented him a chance to be part of a national program that had auto workers mentoring students. The student was Jason King, who now operates the city of Superior’s vehicle maintenance program. Like Rannila does with so many students, he still keeps in touch with King.

Their mentorship arrangement sparked mutual interest between the district and Rannila in his becoming a teacher. He’s been one ever since. Like so many of the nominees this year, it’s not just how he teaches that separates him. Rather, it’s who he reaches.

Until now, “Phil has gone unnoticed,” Sconiers said. “I’m so pleased people recognize how important he is to so many kids.”

Unassuming in the hallways maybe, Rannila distinguishes himself behind the heavy doors of the shop or his own garage, where he invites current and former students in need of help. He can articulate complex auto systems in simple ways. During his nomination process one anecdote resonated: a student was having trouble understanding a concept, so Rannila stopped explaining it and used his finger to draw it out in a dusty workshop window. The student got it instantly.

Sconiers was impressed the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation recognized someone outside the core classes — someone like Rannila who bridges academia with industry and sends both male and female students into the automotive work force. Almost all of the nominees this year came from disciplines that accentuate their ability to relate to students as well as to teach them.

The event is sponsored by the Community Foundation, which manages a collective of 350 local charitable funds, many of which are scholarships devoted to the school district.