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.

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 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 to 10 a.m. at the church. A private burial will be held at Maple Grove Cemetery in Cedar Bluffs.

World-Herald staff writer Bob Glissmann contributed to this report.

Notable Omaha-area deaths of 2018

A look back at some of those from the Omaha area who died in 2018.

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