Historically speaking

Matt Vanni was one of a kind in Negaunee

Matt Vanni

NEGAUNEE — With the start of a new school year, we pay tribute to a man who spent 42 years educating, mostly young boys at that time,in the manual training building, of Negaunee High School, in the field of industrial arts.

Matt Vanni was born in 1909, to Matt and Josephine Vanni, who came to the United States from Finland. Matt’s father originally went to Maine and his mother was a maid in New York.

They met in Negaunee and were married there. They raised five children. Matt was a lifelong resident of Negaunee. When Matt started kindergarten, he could not speak English. He had never seen a piano, and he tried to play it with his feet, and the teacher gave him a spanking. Matt was left-handed and his teacher immediately tried to remedy that, which was a practice many educators did in the early part of the century.

Matt continued to throw with his left hand and kick with his left foot, but learned to write with his right hand. Matt attended Park Street School which was located in the East end of the city.

Not all of Matt’s experiences with education were pleasant. One junior high teacher would pull on his hair when he misbehaved. Several remarks by teachers stuck with Matt throughout his life. He was once called, “an insignificant piece of humanity,” he did not take this remark lying down, he and his friends chewed garlic one day and went to class. It created an awful odor and made the teacher miserable.

Another time he was told he was too dumb to go to college. This remark is probably what had an effect on Matt’s choice of a career in education. Matt graduated from high school in 1927. He did not have the money to go to college, so he got a job in Big Bay as a lumber-jack at a sawmill.

He worked 10 hours a day for little more than $3 and one of them had to go for food and a place to sleep. The time he worked there he saved money for college and along with a $75.00 athletic scholarship, he was able to leave for Bradley University in Peoria Illinois.

Someone that he knew had a new Chevy coupe with a rumble seat and he was looking for a passenger to make a trip to Chicago and he offered to drive Matt to Illinois.

He dropped Matt and his large trunk off at the street corner. Someone came up to him and said, “You look lost.” He replied, “I sure am.” He was given a ride to the fraternity house where he would spend the next four years. At Bradley, Matt studied industrial arts, where classes were taught by craftsmen in their respective fields.

At Bradley, Matt was the student council president. When Matt returned to Negaunee he worked in the mine to pay off a $1,500 debt he incurred while attending college. He did substitute teaching before he got a full time position as an industrial arts teacher at Negaunee High School.

There were some that were not pleased with his teaching methods because he let the students call him Matt, but he thought there were more important things to worry about. He also did not send kids to the office when they misbehaved, instead he put them in a room by themselves, because they couldn’t stand the isolation,because now they didn’t have an audience.

Matt Vanni was also involved in his church and was on the city council for seven years, serving as mayor in 1966. It was during his tenure that the Eastwood and Erickson plats came into being, and natural gas was brought into the area.

Matt was a craftsman, he made furniture for his home and for the homes of his children. He made “keys for the city” that were given to dignitaries, and a wooden creche for the city to use at Christmas time.

Matt and his first wife, Fern, had five children, Edward, Joellyn, Gail, Ben and Laurel. Fern died in 1976 and Matt married Irene Skewis in 1980, who also was a teacher for Negaunee Public Schools. Matt Vanni taught at Negaunee for 42 years, often having taught several generations from the same family. A quote from Matt, “You know you’re getting old when a student comes up to you and says, “My grandpa had you for a teacher.”


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