In Memory

Owen A. Knutzen VIEW PROFILE

8/13/1924 - 11/16/2018

Dr. Owen A. Knutzen, 94, passed away peacefully on Friday, November 16, 2018 in Sun Lakes, Arizona, his part-time home since 1996 and full-time home since 2012.

Owen was born on the farm in Colon, Nebraska and graduated high school at age 16 then began attending the University of Nebraska (UNL) that fall.

After 3 semesters, Owen left school to enlist in the Army Air Force.  During his service in 1943-1945, he piloted a B-17 and logged 34 combat missions for the 303rd Bomb Group as pilot, flight leader, then squadron leader. While Owen was awarded many honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism, he felt the most pride from being able to say he brought his B-17 flight crew of 9 home safe from every mission.

Upon returning from the war in August 1945, he married his childhood sweetheart LuAnn (Clapham) Williams on October 14, 1945 and returned to UNL to complete his bachelor's degree in education. After graduating, Owen taught and coached at Fairmont, NE High School. Realizing his passion was to support all children in the school, he left to attend Columbia University in New York City for advanced degrees.

Owen received his doctorate of education in 1950 and moved his young family to Omaha, NE taking a job with the Omaha Public Schools (OPS) as intern to then Superintendent Harry S Burke. After numerous promotions in OPS administration, he was hired as Superintendent of OPS in 1967. Through annual school district growth and the Supreme Court ruling on school integration and mandatory busing, Owen led OPS to be one of the top ranked public school districts of the 50 largest districts across the country. He would always tell you the success of OPS was due to all the dedicated teachers, support staff and administrators. Owen’s gift of leadership was in placing the right people and empowering them to utilize their God given strengths, while fostering an educational environment that always made children the first priority.  During his 32 years at OPS, he was very involved in many associations and civic improvement organizations both as a member and in leadership roles locally and nationally.

After 52 years in Omaha, he and LuAnn moved to their family farmhouse in Cedar Bluffs, NE. Owen continued to enjoy golfing, home improvement, playing cards with friends, traveling with LuAnn to new places, and visiting their three grown children and their families.

Owen is survived by two children Mary (Alan) Barton, Andrew (Karen) Knutzen, daughter-in-law Lisa Knutzen, 10 grandchildren, 6 great-grandchildren, sister-in-law Merle Knutzen, and many nephews and nieces. He was preceded in death by his wife of 67 years LuAnn, son Dr. Jeffrey O. Knutzen, mother Alfrieda Scheer, father Albert Knutzen, sister Pearl (Henry) Mahrt, and brother Randy Knutzen.

Funeral services will be at 10 am Saturday, November 24 at Presbyterian Church of the Cross, 1517 S 114th Street, Omaha, NE, with a public visitation at the church that morning from 9:30-10 am.

A private burial will be held at Maple Grove Cemetery, Cedar Bluffs, NE.

Memorials may be given to the Presbyterian Church of the Cross or Omaha Public Schools Foundation, 3861 Farnam St., Omaha, NE 68131.

Former Superintendent Owen Knutzen led OPS during turbulent era of desegregation in the 1970s

By Nancy Gaarder / World-Herald staff writer


Owen Knutzen, a former Omaha Public Schools superintendent, is being remembered for his pivotal leadership and the way that he guided Omaha through peaceful desegregation in the 1970s.

Knutzen, 94, was with the district from 1950 to 1982 and served as superintendent for the last 15 of those years.

His career spanned a time of immense change and turbulence in public education, first as districts struggled to accommodate the explosive growth of baby boomer enrollment and then as social upheaval and civil violence rocked the nation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Knutzen died Friday in Sun Lakes, Arizona, where he and his wife had lived first part time and then full time since 1996.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Omaha district to desegregate its schools, and Knutzen brought in Norbert Schuerman to lead the effort.

Schuerman said one of the keys to Omaha’s success was Knutzen’s commitment to coming up with a plan so that the courts didn’t force one on the community.

“That made a difference at a time when there was a lot of violence across the country,” said Schuerman, who also went on to become an OPS superintendent. “We were able to administer a desegregation plan peacefully, and the community cooperated reasonably well with us.”

Schuerman remembers Knutzen as a “committed and professional educator who was very sensitive to the needs of the urban scene.”

In an official statement, OPS noted that Knutzen “faithfully served the Omaha Public Schools for 32 years.

“We are eternally grateful for his service, dedication and guidance through the years of desegregation and continued growth for the district,” the district’s statement reads. “Because of his leadership, the Omaha Public Schools continued to thrive, achieve and remain focused on its mission to provide a high-quality education to students.”

The district undertook a massive busing project in the mid-1970s, taking 10,000 to 13,000 students each year from their neighborhood schools to integrated schools. An estimated 2,400 white students left the district in 1976 due to white flight, according to World-Herald archives.

Before the whole Omaha district was integrated, some schools had "sister schools." Students from predominantly black schools met and did activities with students from predominantly white schools.

Ken Bird, retired superintendent of the Westside Community Schools, said Knutzen hailed from an era when school superintendents were a major presence in their communities.

“He held the schools together,” Bird said, nodding also to the influential role that Schuerman played. “What I remember about him was that he never met a stranger. He was gracious and could greet you in a way that made you feel good about yourself.”

North High Principal Gene Haynes said Tuesday that Knutzen offered him his first job in 1967, along with two other black male teachers.

“I thought he was a great leader. He came through some really turbulent times,” Haynes said. “He had to make a decision of what’s best for the students and the city of Omaha” regarding integration.

Haynes said Knutzen also was the architect of a desegregation-era plan to move some black teachers out of north Omaha schools to schools in other parts of the district to make sure “there was someone that students could identify with and looked like them at the new school.”

When Knutzen retired in 1982, he acknowledged the criticism he had received over the years, but brushed it off. Foremost on his mind, in a World-Herald account of his retirement, was a worry that the computer age would narrow the focus of education to math and science.

“The most fundamental thing we do is develop language in every human,” he said. “Language is the tool for thinking.”

Knutzen was born on a farm near Colon, Nebraska, graduated at age 16 from high school in Cedar Bluffs, Nebraska, and left the University of Nebraska early to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Force.

He was a decorated pilot, logging 34 combat missions in his B-17. He flew for the 303rd Bombardment Group, becoming a flight leader and squadron leader. A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism, he never lost a man. A 1991 story in The World-Herald carried an account of one of his crew’s harrowing returns to England from a bombing raid over Germany.

After the war, he returned to the university and earned his bachelor’s degree. He later earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University.

He and his childhood sweetheart, LuAnn Clapham, were married for 67 years. She preceded him in death, as did one of their sons, Jeffrey O. Knutzen.

He is survived by a daughter, Mary Barton, and son, Andrew Knutzen; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Presbyterian Church of the Cross, 1517 S. 114th St. Visitation will be from 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the church. A private burial will be held at Maple Grove Cemetery in Cedar Bluffs.

Editor's note: This column was originally published in The World-Herald on July 27, 1991.

A day in World War II: The American B-17 bomber was on its way back to home base in England after a raid over Germany.

Badly shot up by flak from German anti-aircraft batteries, the pilot ducked into a cloud bank.

Suddenly the plane's altimeter and compass began fluctuating wildly, telling the pilot he was in a spin. Unable to see through the fog, he had no way of knowing the bomber's heading or relation to the earth.

The pilot ordered others of the crew to bail out, but centrifugal force made that impossible. They were trapped in the plane, perhaps about to plow into the German-occupied lowlands of northern Europe.

Then, fortunately, came a slight break in the clouds. The pilot could make out the horizon and thus was able to gradually ease the plane into a level flight line parallel to the earth.

The crew cheered, blissfully grateful to be spared.

How close were they to death? Close enough for the ball turret under the belly of the plane to clip off the top of a tree.

The fliers were not out of trouble, however. They made it across the English Channel but were met with "friendly fire" from British coastal artillery.

The pilot explained later: "The last of the surviving planes on the raid had long since returned home, so the British thought this American plane was probably being flown by Germans who were about to bomb them. That had happened before."

Standard operating procedure called for the Americans to identify themselves by use of a "flare code." They fired in sequence two green flares followed by a red — the designated "colors of the day" known only to themselves and anti-aircraft batteries.

Fire from the ground ceased and the crippled plane continued to a safe landing at its base. 

After the war, the pilot, Owen Knutzen, went home to his native Nebraska, intent on getting into a less-hazardous line of work: education.

He completed undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, earned graduate degrees, including a doctorate from Columbia University, became a classroom teacher, went into administration and for 32 years worked for Omaha public schools, 15 years as superintendent.

Knutzen said he found many satisfactions in his career as an educator, but he discovered it, too, had its hazards. In fact, pressures of the job prompted him to retire early.

"I was 58," he said. "I was exhausted. It was more mental fatigue than anything. Some of the stress was self-initiated, coming from trying to do the best job I could, trying to maintain a quality school system.

"The stress in society is reflected in the school system. Riots. Difficult money situations. High periods of inflation.

"Mandated programs and services that are imposed on the school system by others. Busing. The whole field of special education. Health services. Custodial care.

"I agree these needs must be taken care of, but I felt they were not the function of the school system. No instruction was involved." 

Knutzen, now 66, said he was not sure he could afford financially to retire completely after he resigned: "I was looking for a less-demanding thing to do. I interviewed with different people."

He was hired as a part-time consultant for Mutual of Omaha on insurance needs relating to schools. "I was with Mutual several years," he said. "It was a great transition for me."

Today the former school superintendent is "more or less on permanent vacation, " he said.

One of his chief responsibilities is to oversee operations of farm tracts he and wife Lu Ann own at Cedar Bluffs, Nebraska, their hometown.

"Lu Ann and I have known each other since we were in fifth grade," Knutzen said. "We were also together at the University of Nebraska." Both prepared for teaching careers.

"I thought about going into medicine," Knutzen had. "But that involved more money than I had. You could be a teacher after four years. I was influenced on education by several outstanding teachers I admired when I was in school."

He lettered in basketball at Nebraska. At 6 feet, 2½ inches tall, he played forward and center. Basketball players in those days were short compared with the behemoths of today.

"A 6-4 player was considered tall in the Big 8, " he said. "The average center was about 6-3." 

Knutzen was a classroom teacher for two years at Fairmont, Nebraska, before going on to graduate school to prepare for a career in administration.

He was 25 when he went to work for OPS as an administrative intern. His mentor was Supterintendent Harry A. Burke, an able, innovative, tough, irascible administrator who was alternately feared and loved, but always respected, by staff members.

For 13 years Knutzen was Burke's shadow, attending meetings and school functions with him and accompanying him on tours of school buildings. Knutzen's office in Joslyn Castle, then the schools' administration building, placed him within shouting distance of the boss.

The double sliding doors of the superintendent's office never were closed, indicating his open-door policy toward associates; but the openness also allowed him to see anyone who came through the front door.

Burke taught his protégé to work 70-75 hours a week and like it. "We worked six days at the Castle," Knutzen recalled. "Every Saturday afternoon we would go to some school function. Sometimes I would go with him on tours of deserted school buildings on Sundays.

"Dr. Burke almost always left his calling card so the principal would know he had been there. For example, if the principal's desk was messy, Burke would use his arm to sweep everything onto the floor.

"My family accepted my long hours as part of the situation. I did, too. I never gave it a second thought. It was challenging and stimulating. We got along very, very well.

"I have to credit Dr. Burke with influencing me more than any other person. He knew how to manage money. He was just as knowledgeable on curriculum and instruction. He knew school buildings; he knew all about building construction.

"He abhorred the idea or the notion that anybody in the community could make money off the schools that wasn't deserved. He was fair. He believed contractors were entitled to what the contract called for; but not one penny more, whether it be for supplies or construction.

"He wouldn't take second best, even in the quality of a brick. If mortar was not uniform, he made 'em clear it out. If terrazzo had bumps in it, he wouldn't accept it."

After Burke's death, Knutzen served four years as associate superintendent before succeeding Paul Miller as superintendent. 

Asked to grade his performance as the city's school head, Knutzen took a modest approach to the task. He said:

"Among the 50 members of the Association of Superintendents of Large School Districts, the average tenure for a superintendent is 2½ years. I lasted 15 years, so I think that deserves at least a 'C.' "

He said city school superintendents are in "a vulnerable position" to be blamed for any of a number of happenings that result from volatile situations over which they have minimal or no control.

He said he managed to avoid stomach ulcers, hypertension and other symptoms sometimes associated with stressful jobs, "but I think I would have been affected that way if I hadn't gotten out when I did," he said.

His "permanent vacation" appears to agree with him. "I play golf two or three times a week, " he said. "I never played golf before I retired. I do a lot of reading. Novels. Magazines. I subscribe to a whole bunch. Business magazines. Newsweek. Sports Illustrated. Bon Appetit ..."

"I'm not a gourmet cook, but I make a very decent vegetable beef soup," he said. "The recipe varies according to what I find in the refrigerator. But I do like to have rutabagas and turnips in it."

The family's four farm tracts in the Cedar Bluffs area — a 45-mile drive from the Knutzen home — claim much of his attention. He frequently cuts grass with a large power mower. Otherwise he may supervise the work of fence builders, confer with lessees or take a hike along the Platte River. Enjoys Travel

"Lu Ann and I enjoy traveling," he said. "We've been to Australia, New Zealand, Europe. We also make a lot of visits to Colorado Springs; Joplin, Missouri, and Dana Point, California." Those are the home cities of their daughter and two sons and eight grandchildren.

"After I retired, " Knutzen said, "we bought a house at Colorado Springs, thinking we would spend a very substantial time there. But when that time got down to 5 percent, we sold it."

One of Knutzen's few contacts with schools nowadays comes at meetings of the Association of Superintendents of Large School Districts, to which he still is invited.

"Education now is not all that much different than it was when I was a superintendent," he said. "The schools are still, as always, vulnerable to controversy and excessive criticism."

He thinks the schools get a bum rap from their critics: "Years ago a limited portion of the population went to school.

"In spite of what you hear about school dropouts, the holding power of schools is much superior than it was 40 or 50 years ago. The schools have done their jobs well in aiding and abetting the new changes in technology. Printed material is much more prevalent.

"The schools are much better than they are given credit for."

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