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'Very persistent' Prescott teacher has lured U.S. senators to school since the '90s

Prescott High School social studies teacher Jeff Ryan greets U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson April 11 at the school. Johnson’s visit was his second to Prescott High School. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Jeff Ryan, a Prescott High School social studies teacher, snaps a photo during an April 11 question-and-answer session between students and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

PRESCOTT — The U.S. Senate has been called the most exclusive club in the world.

On consecutive days last week, Prescott High School was visited by two members of that body — Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin.

The lawmakers didn't arrive in Prescott by happenstance. Their presence April 11-12 was the result of an ongoing effort by Prescott teacher Jeff Ryan to introduce students to Wisconsin's elected officials.

Generating seven separate visits from Wisconsin senators over the years is a source of pride for the 54-year-old social studies teacher. But the fact that Johnson, a Republican, and Baldwin, a Democrat, were at Prescott High School within the same 24-hour period?

"There aren't too many (educators) that can say they've had them back-to-back in the same week," he said. "I'm proud of that. It's a great opportunity for kids."

That effort goes back to 1993 when Ryan successfully lobbied former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold to speak at the school.

What's followed has been a visit from every sitting U.S. senator from Wisconsin, some more than once.

"Persistence has paid off," Ryan said.

Prescott Principal David Vortherms said that's no exaggeration.

"He just doesn't call once and quit," he said.

Invitations galore

Since launching the effort in 1992 after Feingold was first elected, Ryan has made it a practice to send two invitations a year to Wisconsin's senators — one in August before students arrive and a second letter in January. For the record: He also sends out invitations to state lawmakers, governors, U.S. House representatives and the president.

So far, Ryan hasn't struck paydirt with governors or the president, but that hasn't diminished his ambition in the least.

"I'm kind of a dreamer," he said. "I always have been."

So he's holding out hope that one of those visits just might occur someday.

After all, that persistence paid off with former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. Ryan said he sent Kohl's office 16 invitations to no avail. It was a routine seemingly ripped from a scene in "The Shawshank Redemption," where years' worth of letters to the state from the story's protagonist eventually resulted in funding for a library.

On the next invite, Ryan took it to a new level. He said he emphasized the No. 17 in the request, blowing the reference up to 72-point font so it couldn't be ignored by whoever read the letter.

He got a call from Kohl's office two weeks later saying the senator would be coming to visit the school in two days.

Ryan said he distinctly remembers a remark from the Kohl staffer who granted the visit: "You are a very persistent person."

The visit required Ryan to shuttle Kohl to and from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport — a task he said he was more than happy to perform after the years of requests.

'You can get it first-hand'

Ryan said it's important to him to present the lawmakers in a format that is less sterile and controlled than in the textbooks students read.

"It's another thing to have them in your classroom to shake their hand, to have a dialogue," Ryan said. "These are real people whose job it is to represent us."

Prescott senior Alysse Lewis attended both sessions last week. She couldn't ask questions of Johnson because she was busy shuttling the microphone among students, but she was able to run a question past Baldwin the next day.

She said she appreciated the chance to hear the senators talk without their words being edited down into television sound bites.

"It really is more eye-opening because you're hearing it out of their mouth," said Lewis, who serves as a student member of the Prescott School Board.

That sentiment also struck Vortherms, who said the media can filter the message.

"When you can get it first-hand from the people who can talk about it, that helps," he said.

Ryan said he encourages the students to ask challenging questions of the lawmakers, but to do so in a respectful way.

"There's a way to disagree without being disagreeable," he said.

Ryan said the students who spoke up during last week's sessions with Johnson and Baldwin managed to thread that needle deftly.

"I was proud to be a Prescott High School teacher the last two days," he said.

Twelfth-grader Ian Lapcinski, who posed a question for Johnson, called the event "fascinating." Being able to directly address both of Wisconsin's U.S. senators on any topic under the sun over the course of two days, he said, "was remarkable, to say the least."

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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