Mike Haverkamp

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Everything Has Already Been Invented

Mike Haverkamp’s grandfather was part of the first generation of auto mechanics. He graduated from the Lincoln School of Auto Mechanics in Omaha in 1912, putting himself at the forefront of a new industry. Haverkamp used to imagine such a moment for himself: a moment in which he could help usher in a new era. You can see his admiration for his grandfather in his eyes and hear it in his voice. The past is important to him, even as his career has kept him looking toward the future.

“I always thought it would be so cool to be a pioneer and be in at the beginning of something,” Haverkamp says over lunch at Hilltop Tavern in Iowa City. He smiles and adds, “But I would think, That’s never going to happen to me because everything has already been invented.”

Well, not everything. In fact, Haverkamp—a man who winningly pulls off a classic look including a bowtie and specs, who possesses a keen interest in the history of Iowa City and surrounding communities, and who is a performer of old-timey music on a traditional instrument—helped provide one of the most important inventions of the last half century to students in the Iowa City Community School District.

That invention? The internet.

An Ongoing Adventure

Haverkamp himself was educated in Iowa City, attending both public schools and Regina High School. He attended the University of Northern Iowa “because it was a better teacher’s school” and returned to his hometown to teach—three years in the Catholic system before joining the Iowa City Community Schools as an Extended Learning Program instructor in the mid-1980s. Over the next ten years, he taught kids in five schools.

In conversation, Haverkamp reveals the characteristics that no doubt make him an exceptional teacher. He’s quick witted, quick to smile, quick to make connections between one story and the next. Whatever the topic, his enthusiasm and his erudition are evident. He’s clearly the kind of educator who students remember with affection and admiration well after they’ve left his classroom—a great teacher who makes learning an ongoing adventure.

His return to Iowa City–where he and his wife, Lisa, have raised two daughters, Rowan and Laurel—after college was about more than teaching, however.

“A major factor in moving back to Iowa City to teach was that I had picked my elementary school violin back up in college and was learning to play fiddle tunes,” he says. “Iowa City had an amazing folk, old time, bluegrass scene in the early ’80s. I wanted to be in a place that I could learn to play and have the opportunity to hear really talented musicians. Picking up a musical instrument as an adult led me to be a lifetime learner before there was a term for it. Playing music has certainly shaped my outlook on education and life in general.”

The Banjo from the Garbage Bag

But it wasn’t the fiddle that held his attention. A new passion arrived in an unlikely manner.

“I met Bill Cagley, a clawhammer banjo player, right when I moved back to town to teach. He needed gas money to play a gig in Cedar Falls, and had the parts of a banjo in a garbage bag that he sold me for $25. I put the banjo together, and then started learning how to play. I went to the Iowa City Public Library, to the 784 section, and found a how-to-play-banjo book.”

That banjo from the garbage bag was infused with a bit of Iowa City history.

“The banjo had been hanging on the wall at The Mill when there was a fire. Keith Dempster (founder of The Mill) sold it to Guy Drollinger (beloved local musician), who sold it to Bill. I still have it.”

Haverkamp enjoyed learning the new instrument and joined the local music scene in earnest as a member of the folk band Acoustic Mayhem—a play on the name of Muppet band Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem. Not everyone picks up on the name, but Haverkamp is always delighted when someone does.

More frequently than folks suss out his band’s connection to the Muppets, they ask him if the banjo was hard to pick up.

“When people ask if banjo is harder than guitar, I often say that it is easier to become mediocre on guitar. Learning banjo is a slower start, but you make progress more steadily for a longer time before you plateau.”

Nothing Made Me Qualified

Things had progressed steadily in Mike’s teaching career as well, but in 1993 a new opportunity in the district arose: a part-time gig in staff development with a tech emphasis.

And what made Haverkamp qualified for this new position?

“Nothing. Nothing made me qualified,” he says with a laugh. He knew his way around an Apple 2E and had some experience with word processing and the like, but he wasn’t an expert.

And then—six weeks after he’d been hired for the position for which he wasn’t particularly qualified—ACT announced a $500,000 donation to the school district to get the schools hooked up to the new-fangled web that was just starting to change the world. Suddenly Haverkamp, like his grandfather before him, found himself thrust into something monumental.

How to even get started? After all, there was no existing network in the district. In fact, Haverkamp and his co-worker Troy Wentzien basically wired the schools themselves.

“We were walking around West High, for example: two guys in ties with a jackhammer.”

The first year, the district had 200 computers, but growth was swift. “Within three years, we had the whole district connected. We were the first district in the state to have a wide area network to every site.”

Bringing the school district into the information age wasn’t easy—and still isn’t easy, as Haverkamp’s peers always seem to resist new software and upgrades of old software.

“I just tell them it’s job security for me.”

But sometimes, that job security is also a challenge for Haverkamp personally.

“The first year we went to a district-wide student information system, 2006, right before spring break we discovered we hadn’t created classes and enrolled elementary students in them, which was a requirement to do end of year reports. The elementary-only system previous to this didn’t require it,” he remembers. “So I spent spring break that year, roughly nine hours each day, creating and enrolling students. I had to have it finished by the time break was over so that teachers could begin entering marks.”

Life in Harmony

The technical and musical aspects of Haverkamp’s life are in harmony, as it were. The collision of old-timey music and new-fangled technology feels just about right to him.

“I am firm believer in the balance of yin and yang in your life,” he says. “I find great comfort in having a foot in both innovation and tradition.”

He also finds comfort living and working in the community that has been his home for the vast majority of his life.

“After starting my career in Iowa City and becoming a small part of the folk music scene as well as a patron of the much larger arts and entertainment opportunities here, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”

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Story by Rob Cline, photos by Faraz Shah