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They called him Mister

Longtime Traver teacher who helped bring computers into classrooms retires

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June 23, 2010 | 09:01 AM
This past year at Traver School, every seventh- and eighth-grader had a laptop. There's a proposal to supply laptops to every sixth- through eighth-grader next year.

There also are SMART boards, in which computer images aren't only projected onto a screen, but students and teachers can manipulate computer objects with their hands.

But 33 years ago, it was cutting-edge technology to have personal computers which you could hook up to a television set. Data was stored on audio cassettes. If you wanted your computer to do something, you had to write the program, which could take weeks to complete.

Mark McGinn, who turns 60 next month, has been married to Carol for 38 years. They have two daughters, Brie, 29, and Lauren, 25, both of whom have graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
When Mark McGinn began his internship at Traver, it was during the dawn of the heyday for personal computers. Recently, McGinn, 59, retired.

But there's a different name by which he's known to some students of this self-proclaimed "last of the longtimers" who tied the record first set by John Holmes as the teacher who stayed at Traver the longest.

"For about 20 years, they've always called me Mister," McGinn said. "It's not Mr. McGinn, just Mister. There was a small group of kids — they've all graduated from college by now — they've always called me Mister. Even the staff called me Mister. I never took it as disgraceful or anything like that. I think it was probably just easier for the kids than saying Mr. McGinn."

Like Holmes, Traver was the one and only elementary school where McGinn taught. Originally from Wauwatosa, McGinn gradually moved closer to the area, living in Elkhorn the last 25 years. He obtained his degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Although his bachelor's degree was in sociology, McGinn eventually pursued teaching.

"I guess that maybe was my mother's influence," McGinn said. "She was a teacher at Lone Rock, somewhere on the west end of Wisconsin along the Mississippi for a couple of years in the 1940s, (but) for both of my parents, education was really important."

Yet in a family of nine — seven boys, two girls, all of whom eventually would obtain college degrees — McGinn is the only elementary school teacher.

"I think it's because of my love of kids," he said about why he became a teacher. "I'm sure it has to do with being from a big family."

A place in history

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By coming to Traver with a proposal that may have seemed unique at the time, McGinn cemented a spot in history most fledgling teachers strive for.

"My proposal for my internship there was to bring a computer into the classroom," he said. "At that point in time, there were no computers in the classrooms. I used an Apple IIe hooked up to a TV monitor, which was an actual TV."

But McGinn didn't settle on just showing a computer to his students.

His plan was to use the computer to administer a quiz on a science chapter.

That required learning a computer language called BASIC, among other things.

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"I did all my work at Whitewater in terms of printouts," McGinn said.

"They had the old IBM card system there (and) I was able to use it for a program for my science class."

Today, it would take minutes with a SMART board to do the same thing. But back then, McGinn said it took "days and weeks," not to mention the time to travel back and forth from Whitewater.

"But I was quite proud that it was the first computer in the classroom at that school," he said. "Traver has come a long, long way."

In the process, the computer stands on the verge of replace the marker board, which itself replaced the chalk board.

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McGinn said Traver now has two computer labs and the almost the entire building has wireless Internet access.

These aren't frivolous amenities.

"It's not that technology is the end-all, but it has just been an amazing tool for the kids," McGinn said.

According to McGinn, technology allows for quick and easy access to the various learning opportunities which arise in class. Where one child may ask about a topic, another may ask, "Why don't you look it up?"

"The students are the greatest teachers in the classroom, both toward one another and me, too," McGinn said.

Perhaps that's why one of his retirement gifts was an iPad.

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