The mere mention of his name could stop a sophomore prankster in his tracks.
Repeated acting up in the classroom carried the risk of an up-close and personal visit with the principal.
Failure to follow the dress code or creating a commotion in lunch line promised at minimum a warning by the supervising teacher. Chronic offenders faced more serious consequences.
No one wanted to be sent to the principal’s office, and Mr. Elrod was the principal-in-chief – the enforcer.
Whether he was standing before an all high-school gathering in the armory or having a one-on-one conversation with a recalcitrant student, Mr. Elrod was the authority, the autocrat of the campus. A man of average height and build and thinning black hair, Mr. Elrod nevertheless had a presence that commanded respect. Those who challenged him did so at their peril.
One day after school I noticed him standing toe-to-toe with one of my junior classmates. The boy was attempting to put on a brave face, but his nervousness was evident. I found out later he had left the campus during study hall and gone to his car, parked below the school buildings. A mid-level no-no. Not as serious as swearing in the hallway, but an offense that required a forceful word or two from Mr. Elrod.
For all of his toughness, though, most of my high school friends recognized that Mr. Elrod’s sternness was tempered by his understanding of the teen-age condition. He knew that challenging authority was part of growing up. He saw what happened in high schools in the 1950s: boys wearing long hair combed back into ducktails, and low-slung jeans and T-shirts with a cigarette package rolled up inside a sleeve. And then there was the tidal wave of rock ‘n’ roll music with Elvis and all the rest.
Rebellion, pure and simple. At least for some.
When Mr. Elrod arrived in Chamberlain in 1949, the post-World War II seeds of cultural change were hardly visible. But in the 1950s and 1960s, when I first saw Mr. Elrod, the transition from Brylcreem hair to “long hair” was marching slowly but steadily along, though beer was still the illegal drug of choice, not marijuana.
We didn’t like some of the rules, but Mr. Elrod fairly enforced them. He played no favorites, and because of that, he earned respect if not fondness, and that’s all any principal could reasonably hope for.
But there was another side to Mr. Elrod, and though it was known at the time it is revered today: He was an exceptional classroom teacher.
Over the years I have talked to many students who took math, physics or chemistry from Mr. Elrod, and to a person, they said he was one of the best, if not the best, teacher ever.
I can’t say it for sure, but it’s likely that Mr. Elrod moved into the administrative ranks because of the financial rewards. It’s an old story in education and a sad one, too. Sometimes the best teachers decide to take an administrative post because it pays better, not because they like it better than teaching.
My theory was borne out by his eldest daughter, Deb, who said after her dad was named principal in 1958 the family was able to buy a home.
“They always had to rent before that,” Deb recalls. “And those houses were in pretty bad shape. We moved into a brand new house on south Main Street. I do think it was the money,” she said.
Becoming an educator was a natural career choice for Howard Elrod, who was born in Pierre in 1928. But the family always lived in Midland where his mother taught school and his father was postmaster. He graduated from high school there in 1945.
He attended Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, playing football and graduating with a major in chemistry in 1949. He was senior class president, received the Hilton Ira Jones medal in chemistry and was voted “most brilliant.” He was named to “Who’s Who” among university students and was DWU’s Scotchman as a senior in 1949. Scotchman and Ms. Wesleyan are the highest honors given to students their final year, based on campus leadership, service, community leadership, academics and character.
He accepted a teaching position in Chamberlain in 1949-50 and married Louann Nauman, who graduated from DWU in 1950 with a two-year teaching degree. He then served in the Army at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Aberdeen, Md., from 1951-53. He and Louann returned to Chamberlain in the summer of 1953 with their daughter, Deb, who was born in June, followed by Patti in 1956 and Steve in 1959.
I’ve always thought that being a high school principal in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s would have been one of the most challenging positions in education. Mr. Elrod continued that post until he retired as principal at the end of the 1986 school year, but then taught Middle School math part-time before finally retiring from teaching in 1993.
“I do believe teaching was his passion so he was glad that he got to finish out his career doing what he loved,” said Deb.
How good was Howard Elrod as a teacher?
Leo Woster, Class of 1960 who went on to gain his engineering degree from the School of Mines, put it this way: “He was awesome at math, chemistry and physics. He was responsible for several students making it through the School of Mines – myself, Ray Chaussee, Fred Reuer, Sam McClenahan, Roger Myers, Dennis Cullen and probably a half dozen more who I forget. We all owed him a big debt.”
Mr. Elrod proved the adage that the best teachers are those who demand the best from their students. For example, he required properly formatted research papers for each class, including footnotes, which were good for a ‘B,’ Leo remembers.
“Then I regurgitated each paper for required papers in my college engineering courses and always got an ‘A’ for basically the same papers he thought were only ‘B’ work. I still marvel over that,” Leo said.
Another student, Bill Bailey, Class of 1964, remembers going to the principal’s office but not for discipline. He was struggling with geometry and knew that Mr. Elrod, though not his teacher, was excellent in math.
“I respected him but was not intimidated. I remember when I left his office, things were very clear.”
The last time I saw Mr. Elrod was a number of years ago at the Anchor Grille. I invited him to sit with us because I wanted to buy his lunch. I thanked him for his contributions in education and mumbled something about how I didn’t fully appreciate him when I was in high school. I’m grateful I saw him. He passed away on Nov. 26, 2020.
An open house honoring his memory will be held on Friday, July 9, at the Chamberlain Community Center from 6-10 p.m. in conjunction with the Chamberlain Alumni Reunion.