Meet Mel Dickie, a 92-year-old substitute teacher and fishing rod masterby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Mel Dickie is not a chatterbox or self promoter, to say the least. He's responsive to any and all questions — he just doesn't run on.
"I'm more of a quiet person," the 92-year-old Rochester resident said.
But across town, there's no shortage of people who are happy to talk about Dickie. Mayo High School senior Ann Flesher is one of hundreds of Rochester students who have learned how to make custom fishing rods in a community education class that Dickie teaches.
"He made things more fun, and if you needed him he was always there for you," said Flesher, 17.
Dickie started teaching the course not long after he retired nearly three decades ago. He had turned his custom fishing rod hobby into a business, but still had time on his hands.
Dickie asked Sam Bailey, then a high school biology teacher and an avid angler, if any of his students might be interested in learning how to make a fishing pole.
Bailey, now retired, said when Dickie walked into the room his grandfatherly bearing calmed students — even the troublemakers.
"I have a peaceful feeling when I deal with him," Bailey said. "He's just so laid back, willing to help and never gets emotional or riled up."
The class, which requires detailed work and patience, could have been a disaster. Fine strands of thread are woven and glued in place around a carbon shaft.
Flesher, the student, said through it all, even as students called out for help when they got stuck, Dickie was calm and didn't lose his cool.
"He would never get angry," Flesher said.
Two years ago, along with his business and his community education class, at the age of 90, Dickie became a substitute teacher in the Rochester schools.
About 20 days a year, Dickie said he subs in whatever classroom he's needed.
"[It's] something to do and I enjoy being with the kids," Dickie said.
Dickie was born and raised on a southern Minnesota farm near St. Peter. He'd been a high school math teacher for just three months when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Dickie enlisted in the military and became a pilot. When the brass learned he'd been a teacher and was good with numbers and people he was assigned to train other pilots.
"I taught instrument flying," he said. "I taught new pilots how to find their way home."
After the war Dickie worked for a food company, then owned a Rochester insurance agency until his retirement.
Dickie's evaluation of young people these days is the same opinion he holds of today's teachers: They're great.
"They're teaching how to live with each other," Dickie said. "I think the educational system is fantastic compared to what I recall from years and years [ago] and what I was taught."
A FORMULA FOR HAPPINESS
Dickie stays trim and fit; he quit smoking years ago and was never been much of a drinker.
And he relishes his time with younger people, which at 92 is nearly everyone. Flesher, the student, said he's a model.
"He made us all realize that even if you're as old as Mel you can still keep achieving on what you have been your whole life," Flesher said.
One day not too long ago, Dickie said a Rochester high school student told him it was her birthday.
He wished her a happy birthday and let drop that he had just had a birthday too, his 92nd.
"The following morning I had a phone call from the students to sing happy birthday over the phone to me," Dickie said. "I look forward to things like that."
That's typical of Dickie's formula for happiness:
"Stay alive, and enjoy life."