Jon Pogatchnik, or "Pogo" as his students called him, had a knack for connecting with people. Whether he was talking to an insecure teenager in his AP U.S. History class or a fellow hiker on a steep trail in Slovenia, he effortlessly found enough common ground to spark a wide-ranging conversation.
"No one was a stranger to him," said Sheila Fitzgerald, a retired Eden Prairie High School teacher who taught alongside Pogatchnik until they both retired in 2020.
Pogatchnik died of a heart-related condition on Dec. 4 at his Waconia home. He was 62.
He was born in Le Sueur, Minn., and grew up in Burnsville as a kid who always had a passion for the outdoors. He received his teaching degree at Winona State University in 1987 and began his career in St. Louis Park as a special education teacher.
He went on to teach in Eden Prairie, first with special needs students at the middle school, where he also coached cross country and track and field. In 2006, he transferred to the high school and began teaching U.S. history. He also coached the Nordic ski team and advised the high school's trap shooting club. Among other accolades, he was named the district's Teacher of the Year in 2015 and named to the high school's Hall of Fame for Influential Educators.
"He was in the right profession," Fitzgerald said. "He never wavered. He was so genuine and vulnerable with kids. He didn't need to be their friend, but if you needed something, he was there for you."
In his last few years of teaching, Pogatchnik's vulnerability came in the form of sharing his own grief. In 2015, his 18-year-old son Jack died after going into cardiac arrest while jogging at a Waconia community center.
"He was in a very, very dark place," said Pat Sexton, a retired Eden Prairie Middle School counselor and close friend. Still, Sexton said, Pogatchnik focused on his wife and two daughters and, after some time, on other parents who were grieving their children.
"He would hear about parents who'd lost a child and Jon would just go to them," Sexton said. "He knew that when you're with someone who has had something similar to you, just being with them is powerful."
That quiet presence was Pogatchnik's way, Sexton said. Whether he was teaching an AP U.S. history lesson about muckraking journalists or helping someone carve a canoe paddle, he remained patient and humble.
"He was not the sage on the stage saying, 'Listen to me, I have all this wisdom,'" Sexton said. "He was the guide on the side saying, 'Let's learn about this and let's figure this out.'"
In the weeks since Pogatchnik's death, several former students have shared reminiscences of the teacher on his memorial page. One former student, Maggie Jay, also wrote a guest article for the Eden Prairie paper about how "Pogo" inspired her to become a history teacher herself.
"I will spend the rest of my career trying to be half of what Pogo was to me," Jay wrote.
Pogatchnik also enjoyed traveling (he took his family to all 50 states and traveled to several countries) and just about every outdoor activity, including fly fishing, skiing, hunting and gardening. Even when he wasn't outside, he typically donned his favorite flannel shirts and jeans — always ready for an adventure.
Pogatchnik is survived by wife Marci and daughters Meryl, of Minneapolis, and Anna, of Seoul, South Korea. Services have been held.