It says something about a teacher that hundreds of students, decades later, recall the passion he etched into their lives. It says something about a father, too, that his children became artists and educators as well.
Neal Luebke, longtime humanities teacher, was that person — a dad who wrote poems to his kids and a teacher who inspired his students.
"Expecting a lot of someone and then offering them all the tools to achieve is a pretty successful one-two punch for an educator," said Sally Wingert, a former student and an actress who has appeared on stage and screen locally and around the world. "It's astonishing how many of his students just speak of him with a hallowed language."
Luebke, 96, died Feb. 24. Until nearly the end, Wingert said, "he never stopped coming to see my work. He never stopped checking in with me ... He was a farm boy with an artist's soul."
He was born in Parkston, S.D., to Gertrude and Helmuth Luebke and attended Dakota Wesleyan University. There, he met Jean Pearson and they married. The couple moved to Denver, and Luebke earned a master's degree in theater from Denver University. After his teaching career was interrupted by the Korean War, the couple and their new son, Dana, moved to Pierre, S.D., where daughter Erin was born. A John Hays Fellowship moved the family to New York for a year. In 1960, they moved to Minneapolis, and Luebke started teaching humanities in the Robbinsdale schools.
Julia Rask was a student of Luebke's. She is now a film and television producer. His knowledge was "boundless," Rask said, his expectations high. He didn't just lecture students, but required them to attend performances and read dozens of books, she said.
"The one word that would define Neal Luebke is excellence," she said. "There was no teacher in the school who expected more of you than Neal."
As a college freshman, Rask recalled looking at the syllabus for an intro to theater class, only to realize she'd already covered it — in Luebke's class. While the work was unrelenting, she said, Luebke was also warm. His students called him "Uncle Neal."
Virginia McFerran came to teach at Robbinsdale Senior High in 1969, where they worked together for a decade. She taught speech and they worked on one-act plays together. Later, at Cooper High School, their rooms were across from one another.
"He was one of the most organized people I ever knew. But he was also creative. As you know, those don't often go together," McFerran said.
Luebke's daughter, Erin Thompson, remembers her parents taking her and her brother, Dana, to every season of the Guthrie since it opened and to dance, opera and orchestra events at Northrop Auditorium. Brother and sister were cast as dancers in a couple musicals their father directed.
Both would go on to become professional dancers and educators — Thompson at the University of Minnesota. She said she thinks that if her father had not gone into teaching, he might have been a dancer himself.
"I would watch him stage his musical rehearsals," Thompson said. "He would be moving around the stage, dancing."
When asked what made her father so memorable as a teacher, she suggested the same combination of sternness and warmth she saw at home.
"He wrote poems for my dance concerts. He was also very German. We had to follow the rules at home," Thompson said. "With students, he was very firm and strict with them, but there was always a sense of humor about it. He just cared about them so much as a person, and you can tell that."
Jean Luebke died in 1991. In 1992, he married Carol Joyce. She died Nov. 30, 2022. Until the last few years of his life, after the onset of Alzheimer's, Luebke remained curious and involved, Thompson said, serving on committees at his residential community.
Through all the years, Wingert said, her former teacher remained one her biggest fans.
"He saw everything that I was in. It meant the whole world, really," she said.
Luebke is survived by children Dana Luebke and Erin Thompson; his stepsons Scott Brun and Todd Brun; six grandchildren; a great granddaughter and many friends and former students.
A memorial service has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 15, at Robbinsdale Parkway United Church of Christ.