Time Machine: Iver A. Opstad

Superintendent led I.C. district 32 years

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Iowa City school district Superintendent Iver Opstad faced an unwilling electorate when he proposed a new school for a rapidly expanding, overcrowded school district.

A bond issue that proposed building a new high school with the aid of a Public Works Administration grant and loan was rejected in August 1935 and again in May 1936.

In the fall of 1936, the school board made a third attempt to convince voters of the necessity of a new high school, which would the junior high students to move into the old building. Despite severe opposition and the depths of the Great Depression, the $600,000 bond issue was approved in the November general election.

“Things were tough here, especially when we tried to build the high school,” Optstad said in 1959. “People objected to going out that far — about 1-1/2 miles outside of town. The school board was hauled into court, and the action went all the way to the Supreme Court.”

The school district prevailed and bought land for the school in 1937 on the eastern outskirts of the city.

Construction of City High, 1900 Morningside Dr., was completed in 1939 in time for fall classes.

Opstad considered the building his crowning achievement.

Iowa City soon overtook the “country” school, surrounding it by the 1950s.

Iver Albert Opstad, a native of Michigan City, N.D., originally had no intention of becoming a teacher. His plans were to take a yearlong course that would qualify him to be a clerical worker.

He listened a student teacher and a friend at his high school academy in Washington state, both of whom told him he would be a good teacher.

Opstad graduated from Luther College and took his first job in Reinbeck in 1911. His duties included being a teacher, principal and coach. Opstad, who played the violin and trombone and sang baritone and bass, also organized an orchestra at the school.

It was because of music that he met the woman who was to become his wife. Edith Shoemaker of Reinbeck was pianist for the orchestra. They married in 1915.

Opstad moved to Michigan City, N.D., to become school superintendent and then to New Providence, Iowa. When he arrived at University High School in Iowa City in 1918 as principal, he also taught the high school orchestra.

After getting his master’s degree at the University of Iowa in 1919, he served for a year as school superintendent in Canton, S.D.

His short-term jobs ended in 1920, when he returned to Iowa City to take the superintendent’s job — a job he would keep for the next 32 years.

In his first year on the job, Longfellow school was on the edge of town.

Each of the five Opstad children — Jean, Elwood, Iver Alan, Paul and Signe — went through the Iowa City school system during their father’s tenure.

The school system grew under Opstad.

“In 1920, there were 1,400 students in six schools, and expenditures amounted to $180,830,” The Gazette reported in 1952. “This year, there are 2,500 pupils in eight Iowa City public schools and in 1950-51 a total of $621,812 was spent, exclusive of building additions.”

Opstad had headed Iowa City’s schools for almost half his life when he retired in July 1952 at age 65.

“I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been my life. At times, the work is hard and pressing, but it was worthwhile,” he said.

It was a complete surprise to Opstad when, in honor of his service to the district, the school board voted to name the City High auditorium after him. The board authorized mounting a plaque with the new name.

Opstad couldn’t stay retired. He was a life insurance salesman for about three months when he accepted a position as professor of education at Luther College in Decorah in 1953. After five years there, he retired again, only to join the Cornell College faculty in Mount Vernon in 1959. He taught education and psychology at both colleges.

He especially enjoyed his time as a teacher.

“The life of a teacher is more congenial and easier than that of an administrator,” he said. “A teacher doesn’t have the responsibility of an administrator. As a teacher, I work just as hard, but I enjoyed being superintendent — even with the battles.”

A year after he retired a third time, his wife died.

In June 1961, he was selected to fill in as foreign student adviser at the University of Iowa while W. Wallace Maner lectured in India and Pakistan on a Fulbright grant.

Iver Opstad died in Iowa City in September 1979. He was 92.

The auditorium that was named for him underwent a $1.3 million remodeling beginning in 1997. When it reopened in June 1999, school board members, faculty and alumni attended a reception with members of Opstad’s family.

As the family reunited in Iowa City for the first time since Opstad’s death, grandson David Opstad said, “It’s very encouraging to see community support to build something this classy for the high school, and to have it in my grandfather’s name is quite an honor. There are no more Opstads in Iowa City anymore, so to have this here is quite fitting.”

The auditorium was back in use for about three months when a suspicious fire caused $300,000 in damage. While no cause was found for the fire, the facility was back in use in less than eight weeks.

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