Stop me if you've heard this before. A farm couple builds a sports complex in the belief that people will come. And they do. In Hendricks, MN., however, it's not baseball and corn. It's a farm shed and gymnastics that's gotten people to sit up and take notice.
The town in western Minnesota -- population 713 -- didn't have high school gymnastics a few years ago, partly because it didn't have a high school. It shared school space with nearby Ivanhoe. The elementary-school-age kids went to school in Hendricks. The high school kids went to Ivanhoe, until that community decided it wanted schools for both, and pulled out of the arrangement.
Hendricks was left to start its own high school, only to get unnerved a year ago when a state representative filed legislation to dissolve Hendricks schools and force all the students to go to Ivanhoe. The legislation failed, but it shook the people's confidence in the school's future, especially with open enrollment. As many communities in Minnesota have learned, if you don't have a school, you don't have much of a future.
That's when a couple with a little creativity, some gymnastics equipment, and a plan for a farm shed stepped in.
"We wanted to make the school unique and help market it," Sherri Johnson told me this week. A veteran gymnastics coach, she had volunteered to coach the Hendricks girls -- there's no budget for gymnastics -- but the school building wasn't suitable for a gymnastics program. Their three daughters had been riding 40 minutes each way to the big city -- Brookings, S.D. -- for proper gym facilities.
Her husband, Gary, had planned to build a new "shed" to house the occasional combine and other equipment on their spread.
"I had some older gymnastics equipment sitting in the garage -- some bars and a vault -- and I just wanted a little corner (in the new building) for some space for the girls," she said.
Instead, she got this.
The only evidence that the building is on a farm are the two pallets of seed corn waiting for winter to flee. But, it's what you don't see here that is the story: You don't see what it apparently did for the town.
The Johnsons hired local construction workers, electricians, and plumbers, and used local businesses as suppliers. It was, to an outsider at least, a statement to the community. "We just want the town to thrive and grow," Gary said, acknowledging that it might've been cheaper to buy from the chains.
| The Barn Bash. (Photo courtesy of Steve Hemmingsen) |
"When I told them that the meet would be in our barn, they said, 'Oh, my word,'" Sherri said. But it was built with gymnasts -- and combines -- in mind, including the floor radiant heat for the benefit of the girls who perform in bare feet.
It was a hit with the other team and the rest of the town, and not just because the town's mayor -- Jay Nelson -- led the pep squad with the classic sports-cheer instrument -- the accordion.
Local construction workers cheered from the "VIP section," some space above the bathrooms, easily accessed via a hydraulic scaffold and a ladder.
Hendricks didn't have any medals to give out to the winners -- gymnasts just throw them in a drawer anyway -- but Gary Johnson, for reasons not fully explained, had purchased 1,000 anatomically correct hereford figurines which, it turns out, make swell gymnastic medals.
"It was so much fun," Sherri said. "The girls from the other team came up and thanked us after." So did others in the community.
"Against all odds, in a village looking to find its feet, our girls dominated," Mayor Jay Nelson said. The squad is a fraction of the size of teams in the region -- Pipestone, Marshall, and Luverne, for example.
|Hendricks High gymnast Hailey Teske with coach Sherri Johnson. Photo courtesy of Sherri Johnson via the Hendricks Pioneer.|
"She wouldn't have even been at the school if not for gymnastics," Sherri Johnson said. "She'd be going to school in Brookings."
When the team returned to Hendricks, they were met by a fire truck, making a parade through town on the way to the ice cream parlor.
"Hendricks, like most small towns, has been on defense for decades," Mayor Nelson said. "It takes some keystone moment to get people to believe in the future and go on offense. This was our keystone moment. In five weeks, Sherri took kids, some of whom had never competed, and matched schools with one-hundred times our enrollment."
The shed -- or maybe it's a gym -- has become a community center. "Go Grizzlies" signs dot a few shops in the center of town.
"People want something to cheer for," Gary Johnson said. "There's a community pride that hasn't been here."
There's also a big bill for building the place, but times have been good in farm country lately. "We're keeping up with it," he said.
"Hendricks is now beginning to rehabilitate a theater closed since 1972 and we're in talks with a national cable TV station to have two shows filmed there. Our school is starting a drum line, rifle team and Nordic skiing team. The city is offering beachfront land for a resort, should an investor come forward." Nelson points out. "And none of this happens without Gary and Sherri turning a machine shed into a gymnastics facility."
"Gymnastics gives kids coordination , confidence, and strength," Sherri said.
It can do wonders for a town, too.
Related: Want to learn more about the people of Hendricks? Watch this Eric Perkins segment from the community.(33 Comments)
For many people, Clinton, Minnesota is the two-block long town on U.S. 75 that signals you're only 15 minutes away from the happenings in Ortonville.
But Clinton has an idea percolating, thanks to Brent Olson, a long-time Big Stone County farmer, syndicated agriculture columnist, and county commissioner, who recently reopened the town cafe for breakfast, as part of a mission to build a community kitchen to answer four "food challenges" facing his rural town.
"First, small-town grocery stores have a horrible time competing. They can't buy a truckload of lettuce. If they buy a case, they throw half of it out," he says. "Older people who aren't mobile have a hard time getting a good diet, with fresh stuff. There's a lack of interesting food, and if you want to get started farming around here and you don't want to farm 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, it's difficult to make a living. You'll never make a living with a farmer's market in Clinton. Only 400 people live here and half of them have gardens."
For any individual, starting up a kitchen to produce food to sell commercially is a daunting and expensive risk that becomes almost impossible in a small town. Under his plan, these people would use the cafe's kitchen -- he's already gone through all the regulations, paperwork, inspections, and investment -- to pursue their business and/or cooking dreams.
"I use the example of salsa," he says. "Salsa comes from a thousand miles away and every ingredient for the best salsa in the world is right here; it drives me crazy. The barriers to that are so enormous. The paperwork and setting up a licensed facility is just daunting. If you've never done it, it seems impossible."
If Olson's plans work, local farmers would find a cooking customer, the local grocery store across the street gets innovative products to sell, people get more interesting food, and a local person has a thriving business.
So far, nobody has signed up to be the salsa king of Clinton. But Olson says two young men are already planning to create a hard cider business.
THE PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE
"The most common thing I've heard is, 'What are you thinking? Do you really want to run a restaurant?', and I don't want to run a restaurant. But I want to see if this will work," he says.
He submitted a long-shot grant application, and got a $75,000 grant from the Bush Foundation to pursue the idea.
"Now I've got an equipment budget and if someone wants to learn how to make cheese, I can send them to cheese-making class," he says.
In the meantime, he's getting the cafe running again.
"I'm still learning eggs over easy," he says. "I had an omelet failure today that I'm a little heartsick about, but life is brutal sometimes."
"The first day, I had two people come in. Second day, I had four people. If I get 10,15 people a morning, that does what I want. It serves people who aren't being served elsewhere, it doesn't step on anyone's business, and it pays the utility bills."
"This isn't a big idea," he says. "But if it works and I develop a model you can replicate, there's a thousand small towns with a school kitchen or a cafe kitchen or a church kitchen and a thousand struggling grocery stores and a thousand people where people can't get fresh bread. It's a little idea in Clinton, but it could turn into a big idea."
Even if it ends up as just a little idea, it could give Olson's hometown a boost.
"People drive an hour or more to shop at WalMart in Watertown (South Dakota), It's disheartening for Bonnie who owns the grocery store. She must be baffled some mornings as to why exactly (she's) doing this."
ALL THE WAYS HE CAN
Olson acknowledges that even if he hadn't received the Bush Foundation money, he'd be investing in the idea anyway.
"I'm a Methodist," he says, "so I take that whole John Wesley thing really seriously ('Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can'). Every town needs folks who do things. Some towns it's the Knights of Columbus, the Elks. In Clinton, it was the Masons for 40 years. They got the clinic built, they got the nursing home built. You go to a different town and it's a different group of people, but you need that group of people."
In 1926, the Masons built the cafe's building for $12,000. That's the same amount Olson spent a few months ago for a new range hood. But he seems unfazed by the risk.
"The only thing in my life I've ever done for money," he says, "I lost a quarter million dollars, getting into the BBQ pork business, which my banker encouraged me to do. It was a catastrophe. We couldn't do it on a scale where it was legal. We had to try to get into the Twin Cities markets and they just ate our lunch. There were things our competitors did that I never saw coming. It took 10 years to pay it."
Olson comes from a farm family and up until fairly recently made his living on the farm, until he decided it wasn't fun anymore because farming is little more than soybeans and corn now. Fifteen years ago he started writing and now is a nationally syndicated agriculture columnist. He also writes a daily Facebook page, Independently Speaking.
It's our thirty eighth wedding anniversary today. It's 10:30, and I haven't actually seen the love of my life yet, although we did speak briefly on the phone. I left for The Inadvertent Cafe at a little after 5:00, started baking bread, made an Italian Sausage Egg Bake for a special and tested a new batch of yogurt. Then I sat around and visited with the two or three early risers that a small town offers, but then around 9:00 I looked up and realized that I had twenty people waiting for breakfast. I'm pretty sure they all got food, but I'm not sure if they got the food they ordered. Plus, of course, a couple of the guests hopped up and made a new pot of coffee on their own - not the sort of cafe. behavior you see in the swankier joints. Used up nearly two quarts of homemade yogurt, but as soon as I start a new batch, I'm headed home for a weekend with a majority of my children and all my grandchildren. Plus, of course, my wife. Forty years ago tonight we went on our first date. She wore a long grey coat and walked down the sidewalk to greet me because I was scared of her mother. When I first saw her I thought, "She is really cute..." and I haven't wavered from that opinion in the four decades since.
Olson describes himself as a "competent farmer" and a "competent cook" and notes that timing has not been a strong suit. "The first year we farmed -- 1976 -- worst drought in 100 years, we started the year with nothing and ended with less than that," he said. "In 1980, I bought my first land, and three years later it was worth half what I paid for it. Everyone else was turning their land back, and I couldn't without starving my in-laws. We paid all that off. That took a decade."
But he insists very little keeps him awake at night, except, perhaps, for the notion of a lot of people showing up at once at the cafe.
"Last Saturday, six people came in and I was panic stricken," he says. "They didn't all know each other, but everyone knew someone else there. They had breakfast and it was Saturday and they just sat and chatted and they kept getting coffee and I just went home thinking, 'OK, that felt really good to give them this space to sit at. That's why there's a round table here. And it worked."
Too many people in Minnesota's rural communities don't think they need that, he says. But Big Stone County "is going to be six farmers and a bunch of old people" soon if they don't.
Maybe his idea will take hold and spread to other small communities. Maybe it won't. But it's worth a shot.
"It's important to do something that scares you every now and then," he says, before returning to work, checking the temperature of tomorrow's yogurt.
If you spend Monday through Friday working in an office cubicle, spending an hour with Daniel Alvarez, 31, of Tallahassee is a good way of increasing the odds you won't go back on Monday. He's living a life that can make people go chase their dreams.
These days, Alvarez spends his days on a kayak, paddling his way from Minnesota's Northwest Angle to Key West, Florida. He started in June at Lake of the Woods, paddled the Boundary Waters, the highway of the fur traders to Voyageurs National Park to Lake Superior, Isle Royale, the Apostle Islands and this week arrived in the Twin Cities.
This isn't his first wilderness adventure. He's hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. This is his first water excursion, however.
"I was just feeling antsy" after those experiences, he said this afternoon about the reasons for the trip. He'd considered an adventure in New Zealand but settled on a "northernmost to southernmost" route across this country, instead.
He had been to the Boundary Waters once before, invited by a local friend. "I think she just wanted me to carry her canoe," he said at the time.
This morning, Tom stopped again, not to attach mud flaps for a dirt road or to give me a ride to the northern tip of Minnesota, but just to share a jelly donut, say hello, and introduce me to his three grandkids before they all headed up to go hiking near Grand Portage.
"He's going to paddle that kayak all the way to Florida," Tom told them. "Think you guys would ever try something like that?"
The kids stared at me like I was crazy and shook there heads. I smiled back at them.
"You guys could do it," I said.
I believe it too. I think that is what Tom wanted them to see, he wanted them to know that any spark in their imagination is possible, that if I could do a trip like this, they could do it too.
I hope one day they do, but when they're sitting around a campfire at the start of the Appalachian Trail, setting off to canoe to Hudson Bay, or riding a bike across America and someone asks why, I don't think they will say it was because they stopped in Duluth for jelly donuts and met some crazy person with a kayak.
No, I think they'll say it's because their grandpa took them hiking every summer when they were kids. (Duluth - September 1)
Alvarez already knows more about the portages of Minnesota than some of the locals. Some people in Floodwood, he said, insisted that he couldn't portage to the Mississippi from the St. Louis River by the route he intended in Savanna Portage State Park. But he tried anyway, ran into swamps, hiked through hip-high mud for miles, and finally made it, partly because he didn't want to give Floodwood the satisfaction.
After five miles of walking, after gravel turned to pavement and back to gravel again, one last man stopped. He knew where I was going. He'd lived at the end of the road for forty years and seen it before. He'd watched men come and go and always come back beaten.
"No one makes it through," he said. "It's impossible."
"There has to be a way somehow," I said. "It's an old voyageur route."
He laughed at me, laughed at the idea that men who lived two-hundred years ago made anything possible today. (Floodwood - September 8th)
He acknowledges that he thought he'd reach the Twin Cities earlier than now. When he headed north from the Twin Cities, he told his friends, "see you in a month." That was three months ago. But time is still on his side. The frost has taken out the mosquitoes, providing some relief until he reaches their survival zones, probably soon. Still, he says, "you have to have some momentum."
Alvarez understands well that he's living the life of which others dream, but he says he doesn't have a lot of sympathy for the cubicle-bound. "People just have to be willing to sacrifice something," he says. He's not married, he doesn't have kids, and he doesn't have a job he needs to get to. He was laid off from his job as an attorney in financial services last year.
He's learned, too, that a kayak can introduce you to some splendid people. "It's easier to meet people with a kayak," he says. "When you're hiking, people think you're homeless and they don't want to talk to you because they think you'll ask for money. No one thinks you're homeless in a kayak."
But, technically, he is. He figures he'll head back to the river on Sunday, stay at some campsites along the river in Minnesota, and then on some of the river's sandbars downstream. He's anxious to find out where exactly the geographic point is where the Minnesota accent gives way to a southern drawl.
Can I hold a paddle and a fish in one hand? Which is more important if I can't? Weren't those rocks far away a moment ago? Is that fish head looking at me? Try not to stab yourself with that knife, please. Eew, what is that oozing? That's gross. This looks so much cleaner in a tuna packet. Wow, those rocks are close. That wasn't lightning, was it? How the hell am I going to cook this thing? Cook it? How am I going to get to shore? Probably should have thought this through a bit better. Where'd my paddle go? I can't believe I caught a fish! This is awesome! There's the paddle. So about those rocks? (New Baptism River, MN - August 15)
He became an adventurer when he was 11, he figures. That's when he agreed to hike from the Grand Canyon's North Rim to the South Rim at his mother's behest. But then he saw the Grand Canyon and decided it was too much for him.
"My mom handed me the keys to the car and $100," he writes on his blog. 'I'm going,' she said. 'If you don't want to come with me, here's some money for food. Sleep in the car. I'll be back in a few days.'"
"I looked at a map and saw how far three months has brought me from the Angle and how far I've got to go to Key West. It looks like I've barely moved, like I've been lost and drawing some great circle around Minnesota.
I laughed at winter once, but not any more. It hangs in the cool night. I see it coming in the trees. Every day feels shorter." (Duluth - September 2nd)
The hardest part of the trip is probably over, allowing him to think that arriving in Key West on New Year's Eve is a possibility if he's able to paddle just fast enough to stay ahead of winter.
(All images courtesy of Daniel Alvarez)
When a young man asked me a couple of weeks ago if I'd be interested in interviewing his grandfather, he gave me a piece of paper with a one-paragraph biography. It started, "Gary Bipes, born July 28th, 1942, was a Vietnam combat photographer from 1966 to 1967..."
That's when I stopped reading, handed the paper back to him and said, "I'd love to." Anyone who went into combat armed mostly with a camera probably has had an interesting life. I wasn't wrong.
"Our weapon was our camera and you were in the middle of the fighting," Bipes, 70, of Hector, Minnesota told me. It wasn't a job for just anyone, though. "Most wanted to get wounded right away and get out."
Combat photographers for the Army, he says, weren't particularly well liked by other soldiers. "They knew if there was a photographer along, there was going to be some bad stuff. We were like a bad omen. 'Don't film me when I'm being shot,' they'd say. "
"We got artillery dropped on us by accident once," he said. "I took pictures of a guy who was hit by white phosphorous and he jumped into water and I took a picture of him. They said, 'if you do that again, you're going to be a KIA.' If you're out there and it's your buddy, you don't want me getting glory out of the film."
He was nominated for a Bronze Star for helping soldiers cross a creek during some fighting. "Some of the guys couldn't swim and they were scared to death. I told the captain, 'I'm an old swimmer and I'll help them across,'" he said.
Through all the combat, he escaped serious injury. "I lost a camera once and I was crying and someone said, "did you get hurt?' and I said, 'no, but I lost the lieutenant's camera.'"
"I was well known in Army Times, New York Times, Stars and Stripes... I was very proud," he says, well known enough that he was offered a chance to shoot combat photographs for Life magazine. But he wanted more; he wanted to go home.
The day he was drafted, he says, he wasn't allowed to say goodbye to his wife. And while he was in Vietnam, his daughter was born.
OFF TO THE CIA
When he returned to the States, he worked for the CIA, shooting pictures of something he can't talk about, and worrying that he'd take pictures of something he shouldn't be taking pictures of.
When he returned to Minnesota, having learned how to fly when he was 15 and having learned how to fly helicopters thanks to the GI Bill, he was coaxed into flying a helicopter for a crop-spraying firm.
How he got the job remains to this day, a lesson on the value of the willingness to work.
"They had two candidates for the job," he said. "Me and this one guy who was a Huey helicopter pilot in the Army and I thought, ' I'll never get the position.' They asked me, 'what if we need to you drive a truck?' I said, 'I'll drive a truck.' They asked, 'what if we need you to flag for us?' I said, 'I'll flag.' The other pilot said, 'I'm a pilot;I don't do ground work.'"
Bipes got the job and crashed the helicopter on his first day. "They said, 'you gotta get lower.'" He was flying a foot off the ground when the boom hit a knoll and crashed. He escaped and when his partner saw him crying, he told Bipes, "'get back in there and go,' and so I did." For 24 years.
THE MOSQUITOES VS. GARY BIPES
Vietnam didn't get Bipes. The CIA didn't get Bipes. And a knoll in a farmer's field in Glencoe didn't get Bipes. Mosquitoes almost did.
His wife and daughter helped run his Hector hardware store while he flew helicopter spraying missions for Metropolitan Mosquito Control whenever it rained more than two inches.
On June 10, 1994, it almost killed him while spraying a swamp near the Medina Ballroom.
"You go into a swamp (spray), climb over wires, and go over to the next one," he said.
"I remember the guys loading the bags, and I remember taking off, and I have no memory of it," he told me, breaking into tears, something he says he still does with some regularity when thinking about the accident. "The lady that saw me said I went up over the power lines and I dived right into them. It was a big blue ball of fire. 'We thought you exploded,' she said."
He was in the hospital for 30 days. A doctor was going to amputate a leg until he found out he was a pilot. He says he easily could be paralyzed today.
"It was on TV at home before Mosquito Control found out," he said. "My daughter was turning the channel so grandmother could watch the soap operas. They saw the helicopter wreckage, and they knew I was flying the orange helicopter. She said, 'oh my God, that's dad.'"
THE FIRST LOVE
He insists that airplanes are his first love and says his wife understands, though he tears up when talking about the wedding anniversary -- the 50th -- they celebrated at the big Oshkosh air show two weeks ago.
"When we were dating," he says, "we went to Flying Cloud (airport) and sat at the end of the runway and watched planes."
He still flies almost every day, he says and is still traumatized by the crash.
"You don't know what went wrong," he said. "You're living with 'what did I do wrong?' You live with that all the time. I'm getting better after 18 years. It's really a challenge."
Listen to the two-part interview with Gary Bipes, originally broadcast on EAA Radio on July 29, 2012)
Do you know of someone we all should meet? Who's the most interesting person you know? Submit their name and tell me why.(9 Comments)
When he was a young man growing up in Frederic, Wisconsin, Jeff Ryan (shown above left presenting a T-shirt to Lac du Flambeau Tribal Chairman Tom Maulson) hid in the back seat when his dad drove through the St. Croix Chippewa Reservation. "Boy, has the worm turned," he told me last week.
"If I'm going to have car trouble, there are only two places I'd want to break down," he says. "One is in my hometown. The other is the Lac du Flambeau reservation."
Ryan, a 23-year veteran history teacher at Prescott High School, has become one of the band's best friends. He was nominated for NewsCut's The People You Should Meet series by former student Joseph Pruden of Minneapolis
In the late '90s, he took up the challenge of meeting state requirements about teaching Native American history by creating a one-semester course dedicated to the topic -- called "Native America Since 1790". This class has made a lasting impact on students and into the community. Since 2000, he has been taking students up to the Lac du Flambeau reservation to learn firsthand about Native culture (past and present). In 2003, he began offering this same experience to anyone in the Prescott community. Through his work in Native American education, Jeff has developed strong ties with many leaders in Wisconsin tribes. Over the past couple years, a group of his students have taken up the issue of race-based mascots, and their voice has been highly influential. These students were invited to speak before committee at the Wisconsin Senate regarding a bill about race-based mascots, which was ultimately passed and signed into law. He has appeared on Wisconsin Public Television discussing these issues, and his students were featured in a documentary about their efforts to encourage legislation limiting its use.
On top of this, Jeff is also a baseball coach, and a pretty terrific one at that. He has led the Prescott Cardinals to many conference championships and (I believe) one state runner-up. He was even invited to speak at a national coaches' conference in Oklahoma a couple years back.
Ryan's passion for Native American issues comes from the confrontations between white fishermen and Native Americans on the shorelines of northern Minnesota over spearfishing and treaty rights. The "Walleye War" started in 1983 when a federal appeals court upheld the bands' off-reservation rights.
Ryan headed to the northwoods to research the issues in the dispute.
"I graduated in December and I was interested that this was going on," he said. "I went to a couple of landings on a fact-finding mission. I began there as a person to see what was going on, then I got labeled as an 'Indian lover.' It motivated me to find out more and motivated me more to become a treaty rights supporter. Going to the landings and seeing some of the awful stuff, it was terrible."
Not long after, Wisconsin passed a law requiring schools to include the history of local tribes and treaties in school curricula. Still new in Prescott, Ryan developed the class in 1998 -- First Nations issues with the Lac de Flambeau.
It is one of the most popular classes in the school.
"We've had over 250 people from this town go up and have an extended stay up there," he says. "It's been for me the best thing that I've ever done as a teacher. It's phenomenal. What that has done for me professionally, educationally, personally... what it's done for a lot of students is immeasurable."
To go on the trip and participate in a service project while on the reservation, students (the 2011 students are shown in the above photo) have to write an essay on why they want to go on the four-day journey. Teachers judge the essays and select the winners, but have no idea who wrote them.
"In the final list, there are special ed kids, there are 'problem kids.' You get a great cross section. There's a kid who's gone back there 14 times," Ryan says.
His class began discussing race-based logos and mascots in 2008, and in 2010 some of Ryan's students took it upon themselves to research the issue and then lobby state politicians on behalf of a proposed law allowing school district residents to lodge complaints against race-based names (documentary video here).
"The one thing about those students is the work they did and how much work they did," Ryan says. "I get testy when it's intimated I'm telling them what to do."
The Prescott Eleven, as they became known, testified in support of the bill in Madison. It passed and was signed into law by then Gov. Jim Doyle. The Prescott students were invited to the bill signing ceremony.
"The whole key is we talk about the issue in the classroom," according to Ryan. "There's dialogue here. They don't talk about it the way it should be talked about in these other communities."
He says his school's administration has shown a lot of trust in his ability to present controversial issues objectively. "It's a challenge to talk about (Gov.) Scott Walker in the classroom," he acknowledges. "It takes an ability to be empathetic and understand why that person in Hudson thinks Scott Walker is phenomenal. To avoid controversial issues is irresponsible."
In his 23 years of teaching, Ryan says he's given only one in-class detention. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was embarrassed by it... that I couldn't handle it. I apologized to my principal."
He also acknowledges, "I'm pretty intimidating. I kind of like the military approach to discipline. Students want order, they want to learn, they want to accomplish something. Anyone who says they like classes where nothing happens, that's not true," says Ryan, who calls parents on Wednesday evenings to talk about their child's performance.
Mr. Ryan is also the school's baseball coach, which he insists is a harder job than teacher. "There's no comparison," he says. "Teaching is the easy job."
That might partly be because in a small town of 4,000, the baseball team is expected to win because it has consistently been among the best teams in the state. But it also takes a toll on a coach's life. "I'm kind of isolated," he says.
""I don't spend a lot of time out and about during the baseball season. Sometimes being seen with parents at restaurants or other public places in a small town can be problematic," he says.
In his tenure, 48 players on his teams have gone on to play college baseball.
In many ways, baseball is linked to his interest in Native American issues and his career. His brothers played for a club team from the Sand Creek community. "We'd go to the games and watch, and the Ryans would be the only non-Indians at the game. It was great," he says.
His brother, Stewart, born with Down Syndrome, added inspiration to his interest in education. "My experiences with him were crucial to our growing up. There's an old quote -- 'every person I meet is in some way my superior,' -- and we used that with my brother. it was a sad day when he passed away, but we see all the things now he was able to do."
"Whenever we needed a homerun off the barn, it was my brother Stewart," he says.
In his twenty-third year of teaching, Ryan has seen an increasing vilification of his profession. "It goes hand in hand with the word, 'union,'" he says. "But speaking as a taxpayer and a teacher, you can't be afraid of being held accountable. All people are expected to do their job. In this day and age, we've got to be able to demonstrate as a school teacher that people are getting their money's worth."
He pauses for a moment and then adds, "People in the public sector are easy targets."
Photos courtesy of Jeff Ryan
Do you know of someone we all should meet? Who's the most interesting person you know? Submit their name and tell me why.
If Dick Bancroft hadn't come down from Saint Paul's Summit Hill District as a young man, he might never have known the "invisible minority" he champions so fiercely.
Bancroft, of Sunfish Lake, is a self-taught photographer who says his art informs "the washed" about the victims who are left behind. He was nominated for NewsCut's You Should Meet series, by his daughter, Ann, who wrote:
"He's a guy who has always opened his home to others. Troubled kids, folks from overseas needing a pillow for a night or a few weeks - whomever. When I was in high school, a medicine man lived with us for a time. Every morning there would be a pile of wood shavings neatly on the living room floor in front of the fireplace where he had carved in preparation for services the next day. My dad is all about community. An old neighborhood guy, he will speak at funerals when no one else dares and he'll visit you in prison even if he agrees with why you are there. When I heard your piece, I thought of him because he does this not to be noticed or written about. It's just him. It inspires me every day to try and do the same. "
Bancroft is the son of an insurance underwriter and might well have lived the life of many old-timers in Saint Paul. "I'm uneducated by international standards," he told me last week when we visited. "I didn't make it through the university. I didn't know what dyslexia was; I didn't know why I was failing exams. I'm just a punk kid from Saint Paul."
By the time he joined the Marines in 1945, World War II was about over. His dad, an insurance underwriter for The Saint Paul Companies, convinced him to enter the insurance business. That gave him the first opportunity to understand that there are two worlds.
"In my selling of insurance, I reviewed the insurance programs of two settlement houses: Neighborhood House and Hallie Q. Brown. I ended up being educated by the people who ran those two organizations about what was going on beyond the Hill District," he said. "Linwood was all white. The black kids lived in the Marshall area. There were no people of color in my classroom. The only exposure to people of color is when we took my father to Union Depot and a Red Cap (porter) would come out. "
"My last annual salary before I left (insurance) was $10,000 a year, and I was supporting a family of four kids, owned my own home, and had a car," he said. But by the '60s, the world was calling him to go in a different direction.
"I was exposed to the life of black people by the people who ran these places and I ended up on the board of Neighborhood House. I got hooked by these people who were dealing with other people who were different," he said.
"I wanted to go to Selma for the march and these two ministers were trying to get me to go. Debby and I had our third child by then. 'You can't leave me here,' she said. I should have gone. I would have loved to have been a Freedom Rider. That's where I was part-time in my head, and I was still trying to sell insurance. It was a struggle, then you go home at night and here are these marvelous kids popping out and we have a marvelous family life. The leadership at Halley finally convinced me I've got to stop talking and start doing something. They said, 'you need to live and experience another country.'"
So he did. In 1967, he and his wife and four kids -- the oldest was 12, the youngest was four -- moved to Kenya to work with the Presbyterian Church. "If they'd been teenagers it wouldn't have worked. These kids didn't have that social life yet."
There, they experienced a view of the world -- and of the United States -- not available to the middle class of Saint Paul. He saw the war in Vietnam from a different angle. He learned more about what it means to be African.
He left the country as a Republican. He returned as a Democrat. But he returned to an unchanged Saint Paul. "(My father) never got over the fact that my boss in Kenya was Negro," he said. "All he could think of was red caps and Pullman porters. I never could convince him; he was getting old and it was all locked in. That's the way it is for a lot of people; they're locked in to their attitudes and experiences in their younger years, and it's a threat to them to change. That's their security blanket."
He wasn't a photographer by training, but he started showing his pictures from Kenya to people in the Twin Cities. By then, he decided he wanted to become a photographer. He started photographing the peace movement, and started by photographing Minnesotans at a Washington rally for the Saint Paul Dispatch newspaper.
"I gave the editor my pictures and he said, 'We'll do a whole page of these,' and I got $7 apiece for the pictures and I decided right then and there, 'I can't make a living doing this,'" Bancroft said.
But the peace movement was well underway and he wanted to be part of it.
The times were changing Bancroft and his family. But it wasn't until 1970 that he found his true calling. He was serving on a United Way subcommittee in Saint Paul when two fledgling organizations -- the American Indian Movement and the American Indian Center -- submitted funding applications.
"I didn't know any Indians," he said. "So I went to see those people. For about a year we struggled to find, out 'who are these people?' They were the invisible minority." Minneapolis has the largest urban Native American population in the country, and yet they were invisible.
The application was approved and Bancroft asked an official of one organization, "How can I help?"
"What do you do?" a woman said.
"I take pictures," Bancroft said.
"Well, you better start taking pictures."
That's how a 40-year association chronicling the lives of American Indians started. "And I became an advocate," he said.
"Indians have an oral tradition. And writing and photographing was not part of their culture. The oral tradition was when you sat down with an elder and you get the elder to tell you what happened. They were your teachers, but there was nothing written down. So taking pictures of all of this was sort of a modern concept. I was the only one who could afford a camera who was hanging around with these people. I started doing it and I never went back to a desk. The camera took me all over the place.
"In 1972, there was a motor caravan called the Trail of Broken Treaties. It was a protest to Washington. I took my car and headed for DC with four Indians in the car. It took us a week to get there and we occupied a building for 10 days. I photographed it in depth."
He's visited Ireland, Nicaragua, Libya, South Africa and dozens of other countries. The theme throughout each one, he said, is the suffering of an indigenous people. "They sparked me to deal with victims in the broadest sense. These are people who are left out and don't get a chance," he said.
"None of this would've happened to me if it wasn't for the Indian experience."
In the 40 years of photographing Native Americans, Bancroft has never sold a picture. "They're very sensitive to the white man ripping them off," he said. "I was very fortunate that I did not have to provide for my family monetarily, which gave me a lot of leeway in what I was doing. "
He's still photographing, but these days, he says, he's mentoring young photographers, although he insists they're mentoring him. "One of my mentors is a Hmong kid, who's 25 years old, who's already done a book on photography. He has stimulated me and I call him my mentor because he's way ahead of me," Bancroft says.
"Because I'm dyslexic, I can't remember what I've read. I was lousy in school. I just zeroed out. But I learned that I learn by experience and with Jesse (Hardman) and Danny, and many others like them, they're my teachers because I'm learning from them and they think they're learning from me."
Do you know of someone we all should meet? Who's the most interesting person you know? Submit their name and tell me why.
Mary Steiner made her early trips to Uganda and Kenya to meet poverty. Then she met people.
Steiner founded Give Us Wings, a Twin Cities-based organization of volunteers who travel to Uganda and Kenya to help people eradicate poverty and become more self sufficient.
She was nominated for NewsCut's The People You Should Meet series by Clare Brumback of Eden Prairie:
Mary Steiner was raised in St. Paul, now lives in Minneapolis. Raised a lovely family. Twelve years ago she traveled to Africa as a volunteer for a organization. She realized there the needs of the rural villages were immense, not just because of basic resources, but because the world had not heard the stories of the people. The world could not come to these villages in Kenya and Uganda if she did not start to share their stories. After 12 years of sharing these stories, Mary has developed a unique model of international development and formed a non-profit called Give Us Wings. This unique organization is based on collaborative leadership, respect and listening deeply for understanding. Rare in the international aid world of "we know what's best, we will help you and move on".Mary is a published writer,a educator, a advocate for those who need a voice, a friend. The fabric of her life is very interwoven with others and while she is the consumate listener and will tell stories about others, I wish her story could be told.She is amazing and while a tireless advocate for Give Us Wings and the people of Uganda and Kenya, the Mary Steiner story is work telling.
Steiner was the managing editor at Red Leaf Press in 1997, when she asked for a leave of absence to visit Uganda and Kenya. "We were going to go for nine months. Red Leaf said 'no,' and I said, 'then I quit,'" she told me this week.
She loved the job, she says, but a long-time advocacy for social justice and an interest in civil rights and the role of women called her to go.
"I'd never been to a developing country before," she said. "We were staying in a village in Uganda. There was all this wailing, which meant someone had died. It was the last man in the village. They were all dying of AIDS. Women and children were left. The intensity of the poverty was something."
She also found the organization she had signed on with for the trip was corrupt, but she and her daughter stayed in the countries.
"We went from Kenya to Uganda and met a dynamite atheist, socialist, Ugandan development guy who took us out for 18 hours a day to meet these women and these groups," she said. "There were no cellphones. We didn't have computers, and a lot of people had never seen Westerners before. We were on the back of a pickup truck singing and I said, 'this is it. I don't know why this is it, but this is it.' I loved it."
She returned to Minnesota, intending to put together a book of stories written by the people she met, but realized she needed to learn more about the cultures. So she went back to learn more stories and the meanings behind them.
"Their stories were the same as our stories. And the feelings of people are the same. If a mother loses seven babies out of eight, she grieves for every one of those babies the same way as I would grieve for my baby," she said.
"We met this group in Nyagoga, Kenya," she recalled. "We sat in a dark room and they wouldn't look us in the eye. They hung their heads and talked. They said, 'Women die here every day. In every hut you see there is a sick woman. We need health care. We need a clinic here.' We went 'gulp.' It was their awareness of what needed to come first. The wisdom of the people. It was the beginning of learning that the wisdom has to come from the people. We really needed to listen to people."
Here are some of those women, standing on the foundation of what would soon be their medical clinic.
Steiner specialized in listening and transformed from a full-time author and editor, to full-time humanitarian, raising money to form a grassroots organization -- Give Us Wings -- which got its name because she was listening when someone said "it's nice if you give us money once in awhile, but we need access to information and education. We need wings."
"Could we have gone and said, 'Worldvision come in?' I don't know, but that's not how we responded," she said. "We brought these stories home and we called our friends and we had a silent auction in our living room. We made $6,000 and we cried all day. We went back to Africa with this $6,000 and just started to figure out what to do, and we kept learning and learning and learning."
Steiner is a native Minnesotan. She grew up in Saint Paul's Midway neighborhood and seems apologetic when acknowledging her family's own poverty, as measured by American standards.
"Is it more likely that people who have had poverty in their life 'get it?' I don't know, but I could understand more when I heard those stories because I've been closer to what that feels like."
Her mother's mantra was "you can learn from everybody and every person has value." Her own children obviously learned it, too. Her daughter became a nurse to help out in Africa, her son also traveled there and works for social justice in the Twin Cities. Another daughter teaches autistic children in New York.
Steiner is retiring from Give Us Wings, and considering new challenges. "You have to move on. It's not good for founding people to stay around too long. It takes a lot of energy. I become the focus. I'm the one who comes back every time and there are hundreds and thousands here who make it happen. I've become the symbol of the whole thing. It gets a little too entrenched," she said.
Has she made her last trip to Kenya and Uganda? "I don't think so," she said quickly.
But she thought she had when she journeyed back to Tororo, Uganda in January 2011. And so did a woman there named Rose.
"We met two groups. She was one of them, mostly women who moved from northern Uganda because of war and famine. Four or five of them started wandering, their husbands had been killed. They were looking for food and found other women who were wandering. They end up at this nasty slum, trying to make it. Homebrew everywhere. They'd sell their bodies sometime. They do what they've got to do.
"We're fairly organized . We had $100. We bought rice and flour and they'd say, 'My husband won't beat me tonight; I'm bringing home rice.'
"We couldn't come and say, 'Oh, I think you need a school here; let's build one.' It was 'We got a little bit of money, we need to hear what would make a difference for you.' We'd hear they needed houses or a clinic. This group's dream was housing . They just wanted some land.
"It took us seven years. We did buy the land. Thirty-two women built their own houses. They got organic farming training first, had some land for farming.
"Rose is married to a man who headed another group we started working with. He was corrupt. He was stealing from disabled people. She had seven children and this man was a tyrant and beat her all the time. He threatened to kill us because the deal was the women were going to own these houses. They had to write a will that willed these houses to the next woman in line.
"Rose was very tentative because she was afraid. We had many walks, she and I. 'I don't think I can do it, Mary.' So she didn't right away. She didn't move into the house.
"I said, 'You don't deserve to be beaten up. I love you and I don't want to put you in a position that gets you beaten up.'
"Eventually, he had a stroke and he went back to his village and she left to take care of him. She was gone several years. I came back in January and it was allegedly my last trip, and Rose was there. She was just standing there. She was very quiet. I couldn't even cry. I said, 'Rose, you're here.'
"She said, 'I came last week because people told me this was your last time and I needed to come, and leave him and be safe, because if you could keep coming, I needed to be stronger and I needed to let my daughters know that they could have another life. And I needed you to know that.' So she's there now. She left him."
"That was the day, I just cried and said, 'I cannot thank you enough for what you've done for me.' It was such a gift, such an honor."
(All images courtesy of Mary Steiner)(10 Comments)
Spend a few hours with Marnita Schroedl, and you'll start thinking that if we could get five million people into her Minneapolis home, the state soon wouldn't have a problem left to solve.
Schroedl and her husband, Carl Goldstein, run an organization -- Marnita's Table -- that connects the powerless to the powerful through the first thing they have in common: food. It prompted reader Melissa Garrity to suggest her for News Cut's You Should Meet series:
Ah Marnita! She is such a wonderful person. She is a connector. She has an art of bringing people of diverse backgrounds together to connect. Something, I think we can do more often. She has a huge heart and has always brought people together at her table....she then started a non-profit organization (along with her husband Carl Goldstein), called...Marnita's Table (see marnitastable.org). She focuses on starting conversations to bring people together from diverse backgrounds: culturally, financially, gender, sexual orientation, you name it. She feels if we can bring everyone to the table, we can accomplish something.
Schroedl grew up as a foster child in an all-white town in the Pacific Northwest. "I never really quite fit," she said. "I struggled a lot in high school; I attempted suicide four times."
She left home when she was 16 with $5 in her pocket.
"When I left home I made this vow: Nobody would ever feel unwelcome. As long as I had a roof over my head, that anybody who came to my door, that I would make everyone feel welcome in my home," she said.
She worked in Los Angeles for a time and went back to college with the idea of getting into public relations. But a deeper sense of justice was tugging at her.
"I went to community college for two years and transferred into UCLA as an honor student," she said. "I got all the way to midyear in my senior year. Something happened in the middle of a 'skepticism and rationality' seminar. It was one of these... 'do I exist?' discussions. I may not exist, but in my non-existence there are people who are literally homeless and starving and need help. I got up and walked out."
With a career in corporate communications established in California, she moved to Minnesota in the '90s. But her then-husband left her and the company she worked for went bankrupt.
"I've had one of those weird lives," she quipped. "I basically sat down and revisioned myself."
A dozen or so years ago, she met journalist Carl Goldstein, and turned her attention to doing something that makes a difference. Marnita's Table was eventually born, as described on her organization's website:
Our model, Intentional Social Interaction, is designed to catalyze enduring relationships between disparate populations and the organizations that serve them. In just six years we have become recognized and respected for our ability to bridge cultural differences and bring people of all ages, ethnicities and background together for the common good. Instead of being a "think tank," we are a "connect & then do tank."
It started when a non-profit, Social Venture Partners, was interested in engaging more people of color in philanthropy and asked her to put together an event. "So I invented something called the 'dinner and dialogue' and they gave us a small grant."
Quickly, she says, she knew she was onto something. Marnita's Table events -- simply called, "a table" -- are organized around a theme -- homelessness, education, HIV, for example. People are allowed to invite anyone they want, sometimes to her home. "No less than 50 percent of the people have to be considered "the minority" -- non decision-making and non-resource holding, she said. (See "Eating at the Table of Knowledge" for more information)
The meal is a big part of it. So are cards with questions on them spread around the table. "It's not designed to talk about your problems," she said. "It's designed to talk about what you have in common. So you're feeling pretty good; you have a nice glass of wine, there's some good food. The food and the question on the table are leading it. There's no facilitator."
The smallest group at her table was was 12. The largest has been 700. Up to 150 have been in her home at once.
"Most of our things are passive," she said. "You walk in and someone in the room will give you wisdom. Everyone here is viewed as an expert."
Food, she says, is the great equalizer that allows people to talk about something they have in common. It's what happens after that which solves problems.
"On November 5th, a young man came up to me and walked up with this in his hands," she says, holding a very small baking pan with a cookie. "(He said), 'You don't know me. I came to your table three years ago, and what you didn't know is I was homeless and I met someone in your living room. He gave me a job the next day. He knew I was homeless so he let me live in my car. He didn't mind that I didn't have a permanent address. I saved enough that I now have a kitchen and an efficiency apartment. Because I was at the table, I now have a kitchen.'"
During a table, people will leave contributions in envelopes. Schroedl keeps the notes attached to a few dollar bills. "'Forgive us that it's not more,'" she says, reading one. "'If people only knew.'" She pauses and then shakes her head saying, "Forgive us for being poor."
Schroedl says many of her "tables" take place in the 6th Congressional District. "They have all sorts of racial issues," she said. "It's a very diverse community in St. Cloud now. Most of those people come from conservative evangelical churches; they're bringing them in as war refugees."
In February, St Cloud School District Superintendent Bruce Watkins hosted a table with 90 community members to consider ways to improve the schools, a program called "Together We Succeed."
She described a typical moment in the life of a table:
"There was a Somali man, and a man who (on a form participants fill out) said his passion is 'maintaining a non-Socialistic, free society that is not taxed in excess.' This guy and this guy aren't in the same room very often. They both had 9th graders so they were talking about what educational success looks like to them. The Somali man said both his daughters were gang raped at a war refugee camp and so the definition of success to him is 'when both of my daughters sleep through the night and they come home from school smiling.' This other man had a 9th grade daughter, too, and he leaned in and touched the other man's hand. And they put their heads together and they started talking. It's about that human relationship and seeing each other as something other than their politics."
But in this case, the program didn't work out. The summer state shutdown scuttled it. Still, you can't defund a human connection.
There are many more success stories, however. Schroedl hosts tables for students, who, she said, change their behaviors because of them. One young woman, for example, said she was getting D's and F's until she went to one of Schroedl's dinners. Sometime later, she returned with a report card. "'What you don't know is I went back to class with a goal,'" she recalls the woman saying . "At the end of her quarter, she was getting B's. She said the dinner and conversation "'was the very first time anyone looked me in the eye and treated me as if I had value. I started behaving as if I had value.'" She's in college now. She also works for Schroedl.
"It's about knowing that all of us need a place. We need to know that we're safe, that even if mom and dad get a divorce and that we don't have money that we're going to be connected, that we matter, that we have value. And that's the number one thing I hear from the young people who come to the table: We mattered," she said.
Each summer, Schroedl and Goldstein host an "I Have a Dream Graduation Party." In 2008, a graduating senior invited her grandfather, a 78-year-old from Otter Tail County who "was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of mixed-ethnic romantic relationships."
"There was food everywhere and we took all the furniture from the main floor of our house and put carpets on the front yard. We made a living room and dining room on the front yard so everyone could dance," Schroedl recalled.
"Fifteen minutes after he came, he was literally bouncing saying, 'This was the best party I've been to in my life.' Fifteen minutes later he said, 'I've never been with this many people of color before in my life. I always thought we had nothing in common, but it's just that we've never talked before.'"
"Fifteen minutes after that he came up to me and said, 'I live in Otter Tail County and the white people don't talk to the immigrants and the immigrants don't talk to the white people. I always thought it was because they were just in my community taking things, but I'm getting it's because we don't have a connection.'"
"The fourth time he comes back to me and says, 'I've been talking to my wife; we want you to come to Otter Tail county and do a table.'"
"You know your living room will be half-filled with immigrants and people of color?" Schroedl said.
"He looked at me and said, 'My community is dying. We can't get anything done. This looks like it could really help my community.'"
Six months later, she said, the granddaughter brought a boyfriend home.
"He was Mexican-American," Schroedl said. "And Grandpa showed up unexpectedly." They both got along great, she said.
"'What happened?'" Schroedl says the granddaughter asked him.
"'You took me to that thing six months ago. I didn't know what I didn't know.'"
All because of a vow made by a 16-year-old girl who didn't fit in.
(All images courtesy of Marnita Schroedl)
When Joe Plut was considering teaching jobs, the University of Hawaii was interested.
"You should have taken that one," I said to him the other day, when I met him as part of NewsCut's The People You Should Meet series.
"But then I wouldn't have met you," he replied, revealing a seriousness of a life's philosophy with a rhetorical hug.
Had the Crosby-born retired English professor left Minnesota for good, he wouldn't have become -- from all accounts -- one of the most beloved people in the Lakes Region.
Plut, a long-time professor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd (formerly Brainerd Community College) is such a legend in Minnesota, that the Prairie Bay Grill will dedicate the Joe Plut Reading Room in his honor tonight. The executive chef, Matt Annand, is a former student, of course.
"Joe's students love him still," Nancy Waller, of Breezy Point, told me in nominating Plut for the series. "No matter where my husband and I go with him, he runs into a former student, they hug, and he remembers who they are. He often helps those that need the help, and always comforts them."
It might never have been. Plut left Crosby in 1958 for the bright lights of New York, with the suggestion from his parents that he give it a few weeks and see if he could find work. He and a friend hit town with $90 in his pocket, and no intention of teaching for a living.
"I was astonished I did it," he says. "We bought a paper and found a place to stay." They lied to get it, telling the landlord they were editors at Doubleday. "We didn't want them to think we just came into town without any money."
But he ended up working on his master's degree at Columbia (he's a graduate of St. John's) and began exploring a world they didn't have in Crosby. "It changed my life," he said. "I saw Bob Dylan in '62 at Carnegie Hall, and Mahalia Jackson, and Joan Baez was very young and she was in Philharmonic Hall," he said, displaying an astonishing talent for not only remembering years, but exact days and dates. He's also able to remember his students' names and the year they graduated.
After receiving his master's, he migrated to Metro Goldwyn Mayer in Manhattan as a legal researcher, researching scripts on the Dr. Kildare TV series. But it was the assassination of President Kennedy that brought him home. At a sad time, he decided there was more to life than New York. "It wasn't challenging at all. I left just in time to not find a job in teaching," he says, filling the Joe Plut Reading Room with a guffaw.
He found a home at Brainerd Community College, where he taught English and creative communication.
"I was conventional in the first years. I called all of my students 'Mr.' and 'Miss,' because that's what they did at Columbia," he says. "I was amazed how gifted my students were."
Over the fireplace in the soon-to-be dedicated Joe Plut Reading Room, a stern portrait of someone nobody seems to know has recently sported a new button. "Real men hug," it says.
It's fitting; Joe Plut is the "Mad Hugger" of Brainerd.
Sometime in the late '60s, he started hugging. "Some parents didn't want me because I was so wild. I was liberal. I'm more conservative now." He started hugging, he says, even before he heard a talk in the early '70s in Superior by Leo Buscaglia, another college professor who was so moved by a student's suicide at the University of Southern California, that he started speaking out for more "connectedness."
"I gave a talk -- on December 7th -- in all of my classes about what Buscaglia said and I told them I would hug them after class," he said.
"I've only been almost punched a couple of times," he said.
Around the time Robert T. Smith, the Minneapolis Tribune columnist, gave him his nickname, Plut began to realize he wasn't just a college professor; he was a beloved college professor.
"I suppose when my classes kept filling and that they allowed me to hug them, because, oh, I was wild in those days," he says. "Some who were really faint of heart didn't take it. But others took it because they wanted to get more open -- creative communication. I would hug after every class. A few over the years just shook hands."
"I provided the atmosphere -- a positive, loving atmosphere. I even stopped grading in red pen (he used purple). I would learn names on the first or second day. If a student would hug particularly tightly on a given day, I'd know something was wrong, so I'd write a note to that student. Maybe something was wrong -- a grandparent or something," Plut says.
His spreading fame took him on the road. He gave over 300 "love lectures," as he calls them. "I proved to myself I could do something else, then," he says.
But Plut didn't know that much about family dynamics with children. So a former student, Jim Kirzeder, invited him to live with his family for a month to watch one in action ("It was March 29, 1980," he remembers). One month became three months and three months became 31 years. "They're family," says Plut, who recites a coming winter schedule of visiting the families of the now-grown five children.
Plut's best friend, however, was Minnesota author Jon Hassler, another professor at Central Lakes College, whose novels examined the intricacies of life in small-town Minnesota. Plut wrote the 2010 book, "Conversations with Jon Hassler."
Prairie Bay executive chef Matt Annand came up with the idea of the Joe Plut Reading Room. "There's a Jon Hassler library at the college, so there should be a Joe Plut Reading Room here," he said, especially since Plut is his best customer; he eats at the restaurant a few times a week.
When it's dedicated tonight, Plut will fulfill an agreement with Hassler. They agreed years ago to write each other's eulogy. Plut got to read Hassler's first, when the author died in 2008.
"I had asked Jon one time, 'If I die first, what might you say?' He said, 'I've already written it.'"
If it says Joe Plut is the type of person you'd like to hug, he got it right.
When you talk to Mitch Roldan, it's tempting to divide his story in two, the part in which he was a gang member and the part in which he wasn't. "I'm very much the same person," he said, a testament to the complexities of his life and his role spanning his past and his present.
Reader Joseph Mitchell suggested the Minneapolis man for News Cut's The People You Should Know series. "His story is incredible and still ongoing," he wrote. He was right.
Roldan is the gang prevention coordinator for Centro Cultural Chicano. He acknowledges he was in a gang at one time, but doesn't want to dwell on it. "People will do anything to put food on the table," he said.
When his best friend was killed in a car accident, his uncle vowed to "help you make the right decisions." He got a job working with young people at Centro, but when his boss found out about his gang past, he was fired and moved to Houston. But the kids wouldn't let him stay. "I don't know what you did to these kids," his former boss said to him in a phone call, "but I've got a petition here from 100 of them demanding you come back, and these kids have never liked anybody." He came back.
What he did to the kids, from what I could tell, is understand them. "You take 180,000 Latino males," he said, citing national statistics, "and only 28,000 will graduate from high school. Only about 1 percent will go to college. Sixty-five to 70,000 will end up in prison. People think the difference between 12th grade in high school and college is like going from the 12th to the 13th or 14th grade," he said. "We find that it's more like going from the 12th to the 20th."
When we talked last week, he was scheduled to visit with a young man at an area school. "He doesn't want to leave the gang, and I'm not going to tell him to," he said. Instead he planned to listen and offer some ideas. The chances are good that the kid already knows who Mitch Roldan is, and he already knows "I don't snitch," he added.
Gangs, he says, give kids an identity. "When someone says to you, 'you're a Latin King,' it's often the first time they've been recognized for an achievement."
He says he doesn't do as much work with gangs as he once did. It's dangerous work and he's looking for ways to change a system. He can't do that, he says, without "credentials." He seems frustrated that for as much work as he does with Centro, and Minneapolis schools, and anti-tobacco programs he runs on Saturdays, and research work he does at the University of Minnesota, and his position on Minneapolis' Latino Advisory Committee, until he gets a college degree, he won't be able to do much more to change a system that needs changing. He's taking classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and hopes to transfer into the University of Minnesota.
"There's a lack of honesty in this system," he said. "I want to bring the honesty back."
He has a music career he's trying to develop, too, although he says he keeps it and his work with young people separate. Some of his work is dark and incompatible with the inspiration he's trying to give to young people.
The case for college, you should meet Harriet Peterson, Minnesota girls are not for sale, the post-Vikings world examined, and a ride on the space station.
I couldn't let the week end on the sad story of the elephant and the dog, and, fortunately, CBS News bailed me out by providing some good news. On The Road, the series that Charles Kuralt started, is back.
CBS announced that the series will return during tonight's CBS Evening News, under the wing of reporter Steve Hartman, who is the only current TV reporter who could fill Kuralt's shoes (and he's the one who originally reported the elephant/dog story).
The New York Times writes...
Mr. Kuralt "produced big-hearted essays on topics others thought tiny," The New York Times wrote when he died in 1997. "He reported on horse-traders and a 93-year-old brickmaker, on the wonders of nature and the nature of other wonders, like the sharecropper in Mississippi who put nine children through college or the 103-year-old entertainer who performed at nursing homes."
We old-timers have our favorites. Mine is the man who just stood on the corner and waved to people.
On the Road is pretty much what got me interested in the news business. Kuralt's reports were the ones I remembered. I often wondered why they were at the end of Walter Cronkite's newscasts and not at the beginning.
It would be many years later that I would come to understand -- by listening to public radio, mostly -- that the news does you no good at all, if it leaves you with nothing but despair.
A guy waving by the side of the road isn't more important than any of the well-documented crises, but it'll take whatever a guy waving by the side of the road has in his heart and his head to solve them.
All Things Considered host Tom Crann relayed the news about On The Road's return after we recorded a segment on his show tonight about the People You Should Meet series on News Cut, the biggest challenge of which is convincing people that people who "don't think they're worthy" of attention are worthy of attention.
I'd love to hear more about the people you think other people should meet. Don't be shy.(3 Comments)
Mona Majid, left, a Twin Cities resident, doesn't know it yet, but she's likely a future resident of the Upper Minnesota River Watershed region. Patrick Moore, right, has that effect on people. Ms. Majid was visiting an artist friend last week and Moore, nominated by Lynn Mader for News Cut's "You Should Meet" series, countered every reason she gave for not moving to Montevideo with a reason why she should, giving up only after failing to sway her with, "we've got the world's oldest rock here."
Still, it's likely Ms. Majid drove back to the Cities thinking what, one imagines, everyone who encounters Mr. Moore thinks: Montevideo isn't like most other places.
"We've been losing population since World War II," he told me last week in introducing me to the Upper Minnesota River Watershed region. "There's been a mass exodus of young people from the region, and we're one of the oldest populations in the country. People come here and study us because this is what the rest of the country is going to look like in 20 years."
Some people in the Twin Cities are studying what's happening in Montevideo for another reason: it doesn't appear to be dying, even after Walmart opened its store years ago and, like many other small towns, "dropped a bomb" on the downtown.
But many small towns don't have a Patrick Moore. He had a love of historical buildings and a desire to organize. So he borrowed $6,000 from his brother and put it down on a contract for deed on a $30,000 building. And he opened Java River, a coffee shop and restaurant that helped return a downtown to downtown.
"The coffee shop was my graduate school," he says. "I learned so much from people I had never met before and all of my stereotypes were challenged on every level -- from what it means to be a small business person and what it takes to run a business, the value of education."
A community organizer by training, a western Minnesotan by adoption, Moore helped create what every successful community needs: a sense of community.
"As a result of me just trying to schmooze people and get them to come back," he said, "I met all sorts of new people. I lived in town for eight years, I had this nice back-to-the-lander group of friends... in a sense I feel like it's who I am, but it's really limiting if that's all you're talking to."
"We started the coffee shop and I said to my staff , 'we've got 15 seconds to acknowledge someone walking in the door.' Part of it is when you're making their drink, you'd say 'who are you, where you from, how you doing today?'"
Lots of businesses have people who say those things; few have people who actually want to know. Once armed with the identity of the customer, the staff would introduce them to others.
Java River became "a place where these different groups meet -- the born-again Christians, the tree huggers, the Republicans, the Democrats, the young, and the old," Moore says.
Come for the coffee, stay for the community. Enjoy a political debate, and like each other even more when it's finished.
"When we fixed up the Hollywood theater and all the Democrats and Republicans got together to save the building, we didn't agree one iota on the Iraq war or the presidential election and we would get in big arguments about that. But we agreed that that building shouldn't be torn down. You can't predict what people are going to agree on, and you can't predict what the 'aha' moment is for people, but there always is one if you stay in a relationship long enough, and keep that tension long enough, and focus on fun. It's about laughing together."
"It's empowerment. It's creative empowerment. And I think it's going on everywhere and we're one expression of it," he says. "People would come in and say, ' I've always wanted to have an art show,' or 'do you think I can sing?' And I'd say 'yes.' It gives people permission to be themselves.
After "graduating" from Java River, Moore joined CURE -- Clean Up The River Environment -- which focuses on the Minnesota River. He used many of the same organizing techniques from the coffee shop at CURE, which now has a storefront office on the city's main street.
It's no coincidence, perhaps, that many of the businesses in the area have the word "river" in their name. Moore and the people of the communities have created an "identity" for the region around the river that runs through it.
"Let's suspend judgment and let's find areas where we agree," he says, about approaching a solution to its pollution. "We might not agree on (agricultural land) drainage, but we might agree on buffer strips. Whatever. That takes time. It takes relationship building and dialogue. We say we build the road by walking."
"I live in hope that as we are bringing farmers from the Minnesota River down to Lake Pepin and Lake Pepin up (to Montevideo), and as we sit around here with the 7,500 cow dairy operation, that we are going to find something."
As we walked along Montevideo's main street on the way to lunch at Java River, Terry Overlander of KLQP radio stopped to solicit donations for a Dawson Chamber of Commerce fundraiser. "I appreciate it, even though I don't agree with all of your positions," he said after getting one.
"It doesn't matter," Moore said. "It only matters that we're all residents of the Upper Minnesota River watershed."
Moore says he was "a river rat" as a kid, growing up at Fort Snelling, playing in the Minnesota River when, he acknowledges, it was at its most polluted state. "And it hasn't affected me....affected me... affected me a bit," he laughs.
But he acknowledges the serious problem facing the river.
"We're in the middle of an intractable debate between farmers and downstream people who are affected by the incredible amount of drainage going on," he says. "As the crop prices increase, it's driving more of it. You can't even buy tile anymore. if you don't have an order, forget it, it's already spoken for. They're going to plow up more land, and be draining it."
The board of CURE features both the tree-huggers and the the farmers, a fact alone that suggests a different way of solving problems in the region.
"You create momentum because people are empowered, they're having fun, and they come around. They aren't evil," he says. "That's the old model I was taught: organize people around anger. And I know how to do that. We've stopped coal plants and river-straightening projects that way. But that is not any fun. I'm over that. I have seen so many transformative things happen that didn't involve struggle; it involved a fun, collaborative, community 'aha.'"
"It's about developing relationships to the point where they become transformational and you have to be open to being transformed, and to transforming people. There are solutions we've never thought of and can't imagine. The issues of energy and food are only going to lead to discord, and war and famine. Israel was once the land of milk and honey. What happened? Misuse of resources happened. Erosion happened. I don't want Minnesota to become the next middle east. I love this state, I believe strongly in this culture, we're a practical people. We like to work with our hands. We like to get stuff done. We know how to work together when we need to. So there's a practicality to the culture that I get here that I don't get anywhere else."
He attributes the region's battle-back nature to the culture. "This was the hotbed of resistance to the foreclosure movement," he points out, showing a price that accompanies every story about the Upper Minnesota River region. "This is where people said, 'No, you're not going to do this. You're not going to borrow us money when land and crop prices are high and then when they drop, take the land from these hardworking people.'"
"It was a combination of the Scandinavians and the Norwegians... they came over here to get away from the king. And they weren't going to replace the king of Norway with the king of the railroad."
Moore says he didn't really get to know western Minnesota until he graduated from the University of Minnesota Morris and moved to Milan to be the newspaper editor. "There was this town-and-gown thing where there wasn't a lot of integration. I didn't hang with people who weren't college educated until I moved ... I was the only Irish Catholic in a town of Lutherans."
He became, he says, the "one-person chamber of commerce," connecting artist and "people who really loved history and really loved the land, and they loved to fish and they loved to hunt and they were creative."
He left Milan for a job in the Twin Cities and took a job with the Land Stewardship Project, but after after five years, he convinced his wife to move back here. "I long to have that big prairie sky and that feeling of openness. It literally feels good to me when I get on Highway 7 and we get past Hutchinson. There's a sense of 'you can see the whole.'"
"We have a lot of stuff going on and it's very exciting. We're animators. We're like yeast or bumblebees. We can see the whole and connect and make people feel welcomed."
"The river metaphor is there's a stream; you align with it and you let it carry you and you take steps where you can to get out of the way of danger. My motivation is nothing short of love for people and excitement that comes with creative collaboration."
"I hate it when people try to pigeonhole me," Pam Whitfield said to me when I met her in Rochester last week.
By "pigeonhole," she means focusing on the fact that she appears to be one of the finest college professors Minnesota has to offer.
She's right; there's much more to Dr. Whitfield, which is why Trey Mork of Dexter submitted her name in NewsCut's The Person You Should Meet series. "When you talk about Pam, most everything has to be capitalized," Mork says. "She actually is the person who's done it all."
She taught English in China ("on a dare," she says), studied with Ezra Pound's family in Italy, studied Spanish in Mexico, received her doctorate at the University of North Carolina (she put herself through grad school by teaching horse riding and freelancing for magazines), is the only young person ever to win high individual titles at both the Quarter Horse Congress and Eastern National 4-H judging contests, is a writer, poet and champion of Rochester's cultural scene, and a mother of two children to whom she wants to provide as many experiences as she can ("My father says, 'the only reason to spend money is to make memories,'" she says).
But it's hard not to focus on her career teaching English, Women's Perspectives, and Equine Science at Rochester Community and Technical College, if only for her ability to inspire her students, some of whom are -- in her words -- "wounded." Talk about almost any other aspect of her life, and the native North Carolinian eventually connects it to her students and her passion for teaching.
"You're not doing them a service if you can't connect to their larger lives," she says. Their "larger lives" might include people who've told the students they won't amount to much, and it often includes students who lack "basic success skills." Organizational skills in particular, she says, "are at all-time low." It bothers her that people have a difficult time writing a complete sentence.
There's a reason for each of the challenges a student presents to a teacher, so Whitfield gets to know them as people first. "I want to teach them they're not alone," she says.
She uses tough love as a verb and a tool, assigning more group work in her English classes because "if you let them choose who they'll work with, they get really honest with each other" about their approach to the class assignment. "I become more of a cheerleader; they take over," she adds.
Apparently, it works. Whitfield is not at a loss to count her success stories by name -- the athlete who told her "you're the only teacher that I couldn't sweet talk, sneak by, or smart mouth," for example. She requires her women's perspective class to work with non-profit women's groups "to do something that helps women and children," and help her students understand a larger world "where women are systematically abused."
One of her 2007 students in that class, Tara Kline, said Whitfield "restored my faith and my passion in learning."
When Dr. Whitfield won the Minnesota State Colleges and University System' "Board of Trustees Educator of the Year" award last year, Ms. Kline, now a University of Minnesota graduate who does women's advocacy work in the Twin Cities, introduced her.
"To have a student go on and change women's lives, it doesn't get any better as a teacher," Whitfield said in that presentation, not long before taking then-governor Tim Pawlenty to task. "Education is not a business; education is a mission," she said. "Education is how we change the world, one person at a time. Education is how we pull children out of poverty; it's how we right the race, gender, and class imbalances of our society."
Whitfield did not become a Minnesotan "willingly." She moved here the day after Christmas almost 10 years ago when her then-husband got a job with IBM in Rochester. She was pregnant, didn't have a job, it was winter, and she didn't know anybody except her apparent best friend -- her horse, Casper, "the Pegasus to my middle age," she says.
"I do my best thinking on the back of a horse. I've drafted lesson plans and created poems while riding through cornfields or along the Root River."
"I have one thing in my life that's not competitive," she says. "I don't have to look to him for validation. I could sit on a therapist's couch or I could ride a horse."
It's something she knows more about than most people. She holds five judging cards for horse competition, and is working on a 6th (pinto), teaches horse judging at RCTC, and coached Minnesota 4-H judging teams that have won national titles.
"I'm good at multitasking," she says, which explains why she finds the time to boost Rochester's cultural scene, too. "People always say there's nothing to do in Rochester, but you have to come out and try."
She's helped form a musical group -- Midnight Cowgirl -- which consists of her and fellow English professors ("I sass it up," she says). And she writes poetry, including a series of poems and essays "about women saying goodbye to bad relationships. Women just keep telling me their stories, and the way they say things sticks with me. The words and feelings beg for a forum."
She wrote this poem -- "Departure" -- during the 2007 Northwoods Writer's Conference.
I have always done
what is expected of me:
clear the supper dishes
bathe the children
send birthday cards.
When I awake at three a.m.
a dark angel
straddling my chest,
I know it for what it is:
my thought of leaving you.
It rises like yeast
in the room warmed
by our fights,
of our relationship.
I have lived with this thought
I welcome it
as an old friend,
or a game of cards.
I dress it up and parade it
around the room.
I admire the cut of its suit
how it might look
In my room,
three meals a day
bedtime at nine.
The world does not spin
off its axis.
The children do not asphyxiate.
The heart does not harden
In the morning
my sternum is not pinned
to the bedsprings.
Rather I hover
on new-grown wings.
"I'm not tired of teaching, and I'm not burned out," she says when asked "what's next?" Though she came to Minnesota mostly with just "a horse and two saddles," this is home. "I love Minnesota. I'm staying. People are nice to me here," she says. "It's been a great state for education," although she seems to struggle to avoid the past tense when saying so.
"Because I'm from North Carolina, I talk really, really, fast and my friends remind me I need to slow down," she told me at the start of our conversation, in which she talked really, really fast and didn't slow down, almost as if she was trying to keep up with Pam Whitfield.
Photos courtesy of Page McCarthy