Annually the Veterans of Foreign Wars is proud to recognize outstanding teachers nationwide annually. The program is designed to honor teachers who promote citizenship knowledge and skills through their course curriculum and serve as role models to students, fellow teachers and parents in their daily actions.
In 2017, Westby VFW Post 8021 was pleased to recognize three teachers from the Westby Area School District, Michelle Brudos Engh, Monte Dunnum and John Armbruster.
Westby Elementary School
Michelle Brudos-Engh, who resides near Coon Valley, is a kindergarten teacher at the Westby Elementary School. She was recognized for being a role model teaching her students the basic rules and virtues of citizenship and perseverance.
For many students, kindergarten is their first experience with groups of their peers in an organized social setting. As Robert Fulghum’s popular book by the same name intones, “All I really need to know to succeed I learned in kindergarten.”
Brudos-Engh led an effort to help a fellow staff member in need of assistance with medical expenses by organizing a benefit at the elementary school. The benefit included a chili dinner and concert. Her efforts raised thousands of dollars to help the family.
Brudos-Engh is not just a caring person, she is an organizer and doer.
Westby Elementary School Principal Bruce Peterson said Brudos-Engh showed volunteer leadership when new playground equipment was installed at the school. Peterson said she was front and center on hot summer days getting the job done.
In 2010, after a devastating earthquake in Haiti, Brudos-Engh – then a fourth grade teacher in Coon Valley – talked with her students about the disaster. She then began a humanitarian project making and selling beaded bracelets to raise money to help the people in Haiti. Together, students, staff and family members raised more than $600, which was donated to the American Red Cross to help the earthquake victims.
When Brudos-Engh has down time she enjoys nurturing her sunflower gardens, spending time with family, and catching up on everyday life with her husband, Rod Engh.
Brudos-Engh was chosen as the 2017 Elementary Teacher of the Year by the Westby VFW, and won second place in District competition.
Westby Area Middle School
Since 2014, John Armbruster has taught Social Studies at Westby Middle School. He began his teaching career in Marshfield, where he also enjoyed coaching. After his family moved to rural Westby, he became an educator in the North Crawford School District, prior to being hired in Westby.
Armbruster has a passion for history which he attributes to watching veterans march in parades when he was very young. That passion shines through in the hands-on activities that he has incorporated into his lesson plans for students.
While in North Crawford, he invited a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation to visit his class and together with his students they constructed a native dwelling on school property, which Armbruster then used as a classroom the rest of the year.
On another occasion his class recreated a Civil War camp. With the help of Civil War re-enactors, Armbruster and students constructed tents and shelters; prepared and ate food from the era; learned military drills; were educated about time era weapons; prepared a Civil War fortification, with trenches; and slept overnight in the camp enjoying music performed by a local band dressed in Civil War clothing. The culmination of the weeklong class was an attack simulating the battle of Antietam and “burying” casualties in a military cemetery.
Armbruster enjoys teaching his students about Ben Logan’s famous book “The Land Remembers” and even took his North Crawford students to meet the author at his home on the farm Logan wrote about in the book.
Two days a week, Armbruster relocates his Westby students to the old Seas Branch one room schoolhouse, near Westby Elementary School, so they get a better understanding of what rural education was like for older generations.
Then in 2016, to teach students about the election process, he held a mock school-wide election. His classroom was set up as a polling station, student votes were registered, and classroom election workers tabulated the ballots.
Westby Middle School Principal Mike Weninger said Armbruster’s passion for history is passed on to his students by teaching the curriculum through “living history.”
Armbruster is currently writing a book about the amazing story of a WWII airman whose B-17 bomber was shot down over Germany and survived. The soldier was a tail gunner and when the back portion of the plane was separated he could not bail out. Thankfully the tail section lodged in the top of a tree allowing him to escape, but he was soon captured. The soldier lived in Crawford County, and became a close friend of Armbruster, who interviewed him more than 30 times to gather the documentation he needed to write the book. Armbruster now uses this unique story to teach his students in Westby.
In 2005, Armbruster was one of 45 teachers selected out of 50,000 nominees nationwide as a Walt Disney Teacher Award recipient.
In 2017, Armbruster was the named the Middle School Teacher of the Year, for the local Westby VFW Post and the Wisconsin VFW 11th District. He then placed second in the State competition.
Westby Area High School
Monte Dunnum began his teaching career in 1984 at Viroqua, where he was the Instrumental Music Director for grades 6 – 12. In 1994, he returned to his alma mater in Westby in the same position and where he has excelled in building talented music groups covering a wide range of venues from ensembles to marching bands.
The bands and individual musicians have won state and regional honors for decades, and an incredibly high percentage of the student population is consistently involved in the music programs every year.
Dozens of other former students have pursued music after graduation as a full or part-time profession. Westby Area High School Principal Karl Stoker said Dunnum has had a major influence on hundreds of students during his teaching career in Westby.
Several of Dunnum’s former students have gone on to become professional musicians.
- Alum, Jesse Brault, a composer and accomplished trombone artist, is currently a student at the Julliard School of Music in New York where he is training to be a conductor. Brault has already had guest appearances conducting several major Symphony Orchestras and is on track to become the conductor of one or more major symphony orchestras around the world.
- Alum, Kory Dahlen, the Westby Middle School Band Director, gives much credit for his love of music and pursuit of a musical career to Dunnum. The two work together, along with vocal music director Peter Engh and elementary school music teacher Laura Macey, on most of the major musical and theater programs held in the Westby school district.
- Alum, Elizabeth Ofte, a talented trumpet player and vocal artist, is now performing with her own band and showcases her talents regularly in Las Vegas.
Dunnum’s portfolio of career accomplishments is extensive. He has been the Wisconsin State FFA Honors Band Director since 1998, with annual performances at the Wisconsin State FFA Convention and the Wisconsin State Fair. Since 2011, he has traveled to New York City to be the emcee of the Band of Pride Tribute held in Times Square.
Dunnum has also been recognized professionally by military music organizations. Dunnum was instrumental in bringing the New Sousa Band to perform in the Westby Fieldhouse on May 10, 2017. The band typically performs in high profile locations, but held a special performance in Westby, thanks in large part to Dunnum’s extensive connections.
For Dunnum, teaching his students the meaning and importance of good citizenship has always been an important objective and is integral to his selection of music. Dunnum leads by example – his students and fellow educators know and respect him for his pride in country and appreciation of those who have or are serving their country and community.
Dunnum also founded the Western Wisconsin Honors Band in 1991. In 2005 he co-founded the Viroqua Community Band and has also directs the Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church Senior Choir. Then in 2016, The Westby Area High School band was selected to welcome home Freedom Honor Flight veterans, which drew rave reviews from everyone in attendance.
Dunnum was selected as the Westby VFW’s High School Teacher of the Year in 2017 and placed second at the Wisconsin VFW 11th District level. He previously received the 2010 American Legion Educator Award for Commendation from the Vernon County American Legion.
Congratulations to all three Westby Area School District educators.
Editor’s note: A special thank-you to Tom Sharratt for submitting the article information.