I first wrote this post in a private blog in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. As Veterans Day approaches, I feel compelled to share once again to a wider audience.
“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
President Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery on November 19, 1863
At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ended. It was also known as the First World War or WWI. British writer H.G. Wells wrote an article titled “The War That Will End War,” published in The Daily News in London on August 14, 1914. A mere four years later, the youth of Europe was sapped. The horror of the First World War seems nearly impossible for a modern day American to fathom. It left nine million soldiers dead and 21 million wounded. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Great Britain each lost nearly a million or more lives. In addition, at least five million civilians died from disease, starvation, exposure, and what we now call civilian casualties of battle (i.e., errant bombs).
Not only were there significant casualties in that war, but the everlasting peace was a utopian promise that never materialized. A history class likely told you that the armistice of 11/11/18 led to a botched peace settlement. European victors wanted to punish Germany with loss of territory, reparations, and other penalties. This crippled the German economy and humiliated the Germany people. It ultimately led to Hitler and World War II. So much for a war to end all wars!
The American view at the time focused primarily on the end of hostilities in France and Belgium (where the American troops were deployed) and failed to pay attention to ferocious fighting everywhere else. The Great Armistice of 11/11/18 may have ended a battle, but outside of the United States and central Europe, war never really ended during those years. Russia was still in the midst of their Bolshevik Revolution and then the Russian Civil War. The collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian empire led to the new nations of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. All had internal wars between communists, anti-communists, fascists, and others. Similarly, the breakup of the old Ottoman Empire led to bloodshed in Turkey and throughout the Middle East. India, Korea, Vietnam, and China had similar struggles. Those of us in the United States were mostly ambivalent until twenty-one years later when it reached our shores – that famous “day that shall live in infamy.”
Obviously, the idea of a war to end all wars is folly. Even since WWII, we’ve never stopped fighting. Our nation has currently been at war since at least 2001! When will it ever end??? According to philosopher George Santayana, “only the dead have seen the end of war.” Santayana also stated that “our best hope, I believe is to continue to remember the past.” One of the most important ways to to so, in my opinion, is a continuing remembrance, every Veteran’s Day, to the war to end all wars, as well as remembering ALL veterans who have served our country. Interestingly, according to the American Legion, in 2018, only less than seven percent of our country has served in the military. That makes it especially important to continue to remember by observing Veterans Day and other veteran’s events.
I know it is probably politically incorrect to invoke remembrances of Confederate soldiers, not to mention those of our various adversaries around the world. I understand the desire to remove Confederate monuments, but a part of those monuments is not so much to make heroes or martyrs of southern soldiers, but to provide visible reminders of what we have lost. That is especially true of monuments to soldiers rather than specific leaders. The fact that we, as a nation, were able to correct such a terrible wrong of slavery at such great cost is something quite important to remember, so in my remembrance, I include the soldiers on both sides.
Even on Veterans Day, many Americans will fail to give much thought, let alone thanks, to these soldiers from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the current War on Terror, and every war and skirmish in between. In the War on Terror, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan since October 2001 and nearly 21,000 have been wounded. Their sacrifices rarely make the headlines and, sadly, they are remembered only by family and friends. Of those who survived, nearly all carry some sort of baggage due to their service, as do their families.
According to retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, “most Americans are only vaguely aware that we’re still fighting overseas, and the reason for that is that they don’t have any skin in the game.” I agree with Lt. Gen. Barno’s assessment and believe that is not healthy for our society. That is why I proudly fly my American flag and my U.S. Army flag on this Veteran’s Day.
I recently read an article by columnist Tim Morris in the online version of the New Orleans Times-Picayune that succinctly stated, that in one century we have gone from naively believing we could end all wars to senselessly tolerating perpetual warfare as long as someone else does the fighting in faraway places. That someone else is any veteran. Their war is closer than we might believe.
At the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month of 2018, we should stop and think about what that means.
“I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
Mark Twain couldn’t have been more misguided. My retort to the legendary Twain is, “never miss a funeral.” Caring for the dead is one of the most human of any possible endeavor. I spent nearly fifteen years as part of the funeral industry and have seen emotions of grief, anger, anguish, fear, frustration, sadness, depression, resentment, anxiety, relief, empathy, care, concern, sympathy, kindness, and so many others. Death is final. It conjures up past regrets, dashes hopes for the future, and quite often creates unending strife within families. One of the most important promises to and from an American Soldier is to never leave our dead behind. Because of the impact of death, our funeral rites are incredibly impactful. Funerals are as old as human culture itself and are dated back to the Neanderthal age of over 300,000 years ago.1
Because of my experience in the funeral industry, dealing with messy probate matters as an attorney, and by personally ministering to several dying people, I believe I have unique insight into death, dying, and funerals. Death is as much a part of life as are birth and living. Due to its finality, though, death is perhaps the most difficult life event anyone has to deal with. It may feel more complicated prior to a loved one’s death, particularly if it is slow death, since you need to deal with the thoughts, fears, and pain of both the loved ones and the dying person. But in actuality, I think it is much more difficult after death; therefore, the funeral becomes a seminal event for the survivors.
Let’s face it, no one wants to go to a funeral. Some are more difficult than others. The worst are always for young people – those whose lives seemed to offer so much promise for the future. Next are when a spouse dies. No one can properly prepare for that loss. Then there are funerals that provide some sense of relief to the survivors. Almost all, though, are sad. I believe that going to a funeral, or at least a visitation, is one of the most kind and compassionate acts that we can do as human beings. It can also serve as a personal reminder of the things that are most important in life.
I recently attended a memorial service for my wife’s cousin’s husband. I met the man perhaps only once or twice, but his memorial was impactful for me. Because of this recent experience, I wanted to share stories of other funeral experiences that highlight my belief of their importance. The first is intensely personal because it was for my mother. It was what I consider a rather eclectic funeral. No one will forget the blind pug, Winston, foraging around the tables for scraps at the reception! But that was her wish, so Winston attended. Who is going to say no to a dead person?
The thing I remember most were the people who came. Almost everyone who had been somewhat close to me and my family were there. There were a few exceptions that we expected to attend, but did not. We silently remembered those. What struck me the most, though, were two of my high school friends who showed up. Pat, Jim, and I were incredibly close friends in high school and college, but we lost touch, especially after we all moved away from the Twin Cities after college. I went to Germany, Pat to Oklahoma, and Jim took a job in the Milwaukee area. Due to the distance, it was a very rare occurrence to find us all in Minnesota at the same time. But they were there. I can’t even articulate how much this meant to me, but I will never forget it.
A second example was when a co-worker’s mother died. At the time she was a former co-worker, but we had worked together for about seven years. We were never particularly close, but interacted at work for a long time. We chatted regularly about the difficulties she encountered while caring for her aging and infirm mother. Lois and I were the only civilian employees in our small section, so we were the only continuity as our military comrades transferred in and out. Because of that we shared a common bond.
Lois is African American and is about ten years older than me. She retired about two years prior to her mother’s death, but we remained in contact through Facebook. When I learned that her mother passed, I immediately searched the obituaries for the funeral information. On the day of the funeral, I left work early and drove to North Baltimore. When I entered the funeral home for the visitation, I was not particularly surprised at the demographics. I was surprised to find that I was the ONLY white person there. That, in itself, was a very interesting experience, but I digress.
I signed the visitor log and started making my way to the casket. Lois spied me and rushed over to greet me with a hug. She proceeded to introduce me to her kids, grandchildren, uncles, cousins, and all of her relatives. In fact, she took me around the visitation like I was visiting royalty! I was so embarrassed to be treated that way, but I was also humbled by how much my visit seemed to mean to Lois. I will likely never see Lois again, but I will never forget her mother’s funeral. I doubt, too, that she will ever forget me.
My last story is also about a former co-worker. Shortly after John retired, he and his wife moved to rural South Carolina into their dream retirement home. John’s retirement was tragically cut short due to cancer. Because of their new home, John and Jan were quite far away from friends and former co-workers. Since John and I were close – he was a great mentor and friend to me – I felt an obligation to attend the funeral, even though I’d recently visited him on his death bed. Like the above examples, John’s funeral was quite impactful for me.
I didn’t know what to expect at John’s funeral. I knew his wife, but had never met his son. What I wasn’t expecting were other co-workers. Yet, four other people had taken the time and expense to travel to the funeral. Not only is that a wonderful testament to John, but I can’t put a price on the respect I gained for those individuals who put their families, personal time, needs, and desires aside – on Easter weekend – to attend John’s funeral.
It was a very small wake and funeral. There was family, one neighbor, and some of John’s son’s friends. Very intimate. I can say that they were all touched at those of us who traveled a long distance. John’s son gave a heartfelt eulogy, and somehow did so without breaking down. There was a receiving line as we exited the funeral home. When I greeted John’s son, he gave me a big bear hug. Then he started to cry. Just the realization of how much his father meant to me – and the others from his former job – caused him to finally break down. We chatted for quite some time outside of the funeral home before we all simply had to leave. Even though it cost more than an insignificant amount of time and money, I am more than glad I was able to attend. I think I got as much out of it as John’s family.
In all my personal experiences, and in my work and studies of funerals, the tradition I like the best are the New Orleans jazz funerals. It seems that people would actually enjoy attending those funerals. The attendees literally dance through the streets in a funeral parade. According to Eileen Southern in her book, The Music of Black Americans, “on the way to the cemetery it was customary to play very slowly and mournfully a dirge, or an ‘old Negro spiritual’ such as ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ but on the return from the cemetery, the band would strike up a rousing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ or a ragtime song such as ‘Didn’t He Ramble.’” What a way to go!
So, the next funeral you think you maybe should attend, do it! Even if it isn’t a jazz funeral, you are making a difference in someone’s life. Maybe even your own!
1 Paul Pettitt, When Burial Begins, British Archeology, Issue 66 (Aug. 2002)
We all have families and extended families. Most of us have close friends and further networks of acquaintances. I am lucky to have been a part of a very unique network. This is a collection of people in my family’s life that is strangely close. There continues to be an ongoing connection between us all. I refer to them as the “Kappa Deltas,” the “Bridge Club,” or even just the “KDs”
The Kappa Deltas were a National Sorority at the University of Minnesota. I don’t know much about them, except that there is a specific class from the late 1950s that impacted my life throughout – and continues today! My mother was one of the younger members of the class, but she was a part of this group of very strong young women who worked hard to maintain their connection long past graduation from the University. A number are still around today, but the incredible connection they built lives on in the kids and grandkids of those who are no longer with us.
The way I understand it, the KDs wanted to continue getting together after graduation, so decided they had to come up with a reason. That turned out to be a regular Bridge competition. Nowadays, we’d call it a game night, but then it was all about cards. They rotated homes every month. When going to these gatherings my mother would tell us they were going out to the “Bridge Club.” That name stuck with my family, though nearly everyone else just kept the Kappa Delta moniker. Before long, they did more chatting (and drinking) than the cards. There was just too much to keep up with, especially as children started entering the equation.
My dad may have felt a bit left out, as the earliest get togethers included only the women. The guys soon decided that for this to last, they would need to get along as well. So, not only were they invited to the gatherings, but they started doing some of their own. My dad used these guys as free labor to help with some of the annual work needed for our Northern Minnesota lake home, The Timbers. He started inviting the KDs on the many trips that he organized. Pretty soon, the men were nearly as tight as the women. My dad coined their group, the Kappa Delta Gentlemen’s Auxiliary. It stuck.
Kappa Deltas are part of my earliest childhood memories. Our families got together regularly, whether at the Watson’s pool in the Summer, hotel parties on New Years’ Eve, girls’ or boys’ weekends at the Timbers, various travel getaways, riding on someone’s boat or snowmobile, weddings and funerals, and more recently, the Annual KD party around MLK Day weekend. We’ve even shared each other’s dogs over the years!
Not only were the KDs interested in keeping each other’s company, but he Kappa Deltas were a group of strong women with a desire to raise strong daughters. They definitely did! One special tradition was an attempt to create strong relationships with the girls’ fathers. My sisters often told me of how much they respected and appreciated not only their own father, but all the KD men. The role models they provided for each others’ daughters were invaluable to those girls. A big part of that bonding was when the KD fathers brought their daughters to The Timbers every Fall. That meant ONLY the girls and the dads. Boys and mothers were strictly forbidden that weekend. Not to say that the boys were left out – we certainly were not – but this was special. Several years later (after a lot of complaining by the boys), there was a separate weekend for just the boys. That was nice, but not nearly as successful as the girls’ weekend.
The girls also got something that the boys did not: the wedding circle. Though I’ve never experienced this, my sister Jenifer (and likely Pam?) did. The Kappa Delta women gather around the bride on the dance floor and sing a Kappa Delta song to her. I don’t know the details of the song – or if included some sort of wedding prayer – but know that it was an important and moving moment for my sister.
Most, but not all, of those Kappa Delta women stayed married to the same man their entire lives. So, not only did I have a great example of my parents, but an even larger society of married parents with the KDs. In my mind that was incredibly powerful. Most of the kids are following the same pattern. Amy and I recently celebrated 37 years, so that is a pretty good testament to the example the KDs provided to me!
There were different relationships between the families, but we considered all of the adults as equal parents. Any parent could discipline any child. We probably listened even more closely when it was NOT one of our parents! They also looked out for all of the kids. No one had to worry too much about the trouble their kids were getting into knowing that there were plenty of adults around with their eyes open.
The families mostly lived within the Twin Cities, though a few ventured away for jobs or other pursuits. Some lived closer than others, so we may have seen some a bit more often. The Watsons took our dogs for several months as we diagnosed my sister Pam’s allergies. They later got a boxer. When that dog had pups, we got the pick of the litter for turning them on to boxers. We still share photos of our dogs like grandmothers show their grandkids!
Though the dogs may have cemented that connection, Helen and Lee (Kicker) Watson truly became second parents to us over the years. When we were growing up, their kids, Sheri, Matt, and Katie, were closer to us than our cousins. I can say the same about the Andersons, Yasminehs, Linnes, Fagerstroms, Laings, Hadd/Barringtons, Neumans, Halkos . . . .
Not only can I point to the Kappa Deltas for influence and mentorship in my life, but by their demonstration and commitment to their friendship. The KDs are always there for each other when needed. I can’t think of another group with so much common care and trust as the KDs have for each other. When we lived overseas, we regularly received letters from Kappa Deltas. When someone needed help, KDs were there. Kappa Deltas are godparents for each other’s children. After my dad and Joan Yasmineh died, it was only natural that my Mom and Walid Yasmineh grew closer. They never went beyond friendship, but they certainly enjoyed each other’s company, as well as common religion and political views.
I’ve seen other long-term relationships throughout my life, but none as close as the KDs. My wife, for example has an ongoing relationship with several high school friends. We often get together as couples – and support each other in various ways – but we just don’t have the melding of extended families like the KDs. I’ve come to recognize the uniqueness of this group and continue to awe at the many years this has continued.
This all could not have happened without some instigators (community activists?). They changed a bit over the years depending on who had time, but one organizer was definitely my dad. It was Dad who cemented the Gentlemen’s Auxiliary. He was the one who got The Timbers weekends started. He was the one who planned several of the group trips (including a surprise 60th birthday party for my mother in Jamaica).
Dad was also the one who kept them all entertained! Every once in a while someone would get dad to start rolling on his Minnesota State Fair Carnie act. He’d be off chattering about the Minnesota State Fair Midway freak show from the 1950s, screaming about exciting motorcycle barrel where the walls were “straight up and down,” bartering tickets, or selling hot dogs. “Weenie, weenie, weenie, RED HOT, he would shout, “a loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you can eat. Weenie, weenie, weenie, RED HOT!”
One of Dad’s regular off-color jokes was about the Polish socks. Thank goodness I don’t have a photo, but here is the gist of the joke: My dad would ask, “How does a Pollock pull up his socks?” He then proceeded to drop his pants (revealing his tighty whities), grab his socks and pull them up, then pull his pants back up. That was my dad in a nutshell. Prominent attorney who never lost his sense of humor, though many of his antics would get his bar card revoked today!
That isn’t to say that there were not other instigators in the group. There were, but I’ll let others add in the comments if they are not too afraid to share!
Suffice it to say that the Kappa Deltas have been an extremely influential part of my life. They are truly lifelong friends, as I’ve known them longer than I’ve known anyone. We don’t get together nearly as often as we used to do, but we still keep updated address, phone, and email lists of both the “adults” and the “kids.” There is no doubt in my mind that the “kids” will still keep in contact once the original KDs are gone. In the meantime, I look forward to the next get-together!
Okay, so first baseball was my passion. Unfortunately, in high school my work schedule started getting in the way of organized sports. As a result, I ended up focusing on intramural softball. Little did I know then that softball would be a sport I’d end up playing all my life! Most people move to golf at some point, but I still haven’t lost that competitive spirit once I walk onto a softball field. My goal now is to play softball into my 60s, if possible. I’m getting pretty close!
It all started in high school with our lunchtime intramural softball games at Cretin High School. My friend, Jim Landwehr, talks about this in his hilarious book, Cretin Boy. We wore what would probably now be called a “Class B” military uniform every day of school. That meant a military uniform complete with long sleeved shirts, long wool pants, a black necktie and military-style dress black oxford shoes. We didn’t have time to change clothes, so that was the uniform for softball. It was hardly a competitive league, but more of a pick-up game. My friends and I gulped down our lunch every day to ensure we were at the field early enough to be on one of the teams.
When I moved on to the University of Minnesota, Pat Judd, Jim Landwehr, and I almost immediately signed up for the intramural teams. Because of our circle of friends, we chose to go with co-ed teams. We were competitive and were pretty darn good. In those days, I always started in center field. I staked out that position mostly due to that being the position of my childhood hero, Willie Mays. I even wore Willie’s #24 on nearly every jersey I’ve ever worn. The University intramural games were always a lot of fun, but I quickly got the reputation of being a hot head. I just could not get ahold of my competitive juices, even in a recreational league. That was a fault that I’ve worked hard to change (only somewhat successfully!).
The University intramural teams led to city teams in Saint Paul. At one point we even had uniforms with numbers and nicknames on the back. My number, of course, was 24 and the name was “The Ax.” For whatever reason, I don’t recall why/how I got that nickname, but we did have some pretty creative nicknames, not to mention team names! Pat coined one of our teams, The Walrus Gumboots, a shout-out to the Beatles.
I moved from Minnesota after graduation, so no longer had my softball buddies to play with. I took a bit of a softball hiatus, but not completely. I learned quite early in the Army that it can be difficult for Army officers to participate in intramural leagues. We were always targets for the enlisted Soldiers. Some surly enlisted men saw the sports fields as an opportunity to take potshots at the officers that they otherwise could never do. As a result, there were lots of innocuous takeouts on the bases, “errant” throws at the runner, and other things that could be done arguably within the rules, but were clearly dangerous.
At my Officer Advanced Course at Fort Lee, Virginia, a few of us brave souls decided to give it a shot as an all-officer team in the post intramural league. Between these and semi-competitive games among our fellow Advanced Course classes, I learned a LOT about myself. First, the league was as tough as expected. We hung in there despite nearly ever other team trying to get us to quit. We never did. We did not win many games, but we were competitive and we never quit. That alone was a victory. The inter-class rivalry games were infrequent, but one tournament created a huge personal issue for me.
I previously mentioned my competitiveness. This was one of those time it where that competitive fire got the best of me and it hurt. I don’t remember the details, but one of our staff instructors was the umpire. I got into a heated argument about a call and ended up throwing my glove. Bad move! Not only was I dressed down on the spot (he was a senior officer), but it was I later that the I really felt the effect. I was in a dead heat for the ultra competitive “honor graduate” spot. The turning vote was my inability to control my emotions on the softball field. Passion is a great quality for an Army Officer, but it must be controlled passion. That was a lesson that I learned the hard way. I wish that it created a more lasting respect for umpires. Sadly, that has not been as successful as I hoped, but I truly am much better!
After leaving the Army and starting law school, I worked at the Ramsey County Courthouse. I quickly learned that there was a courthouse softball team. We even had at least a couple District Court Judges who played regularly. This was a co-ed league. For being a bunch of work colleagues in a city-wide league, we were pretty good. I made many good friends as part of this league and keep in touch with some of them to this day.
Two of my colleagues on the courthouse team became very good friends – Tom Kempe and George Perez. Together we played in multiple leagues over the years. The most constant was a weekly league with the Knights of Columbus. We played for a team that Phil Sterner, one Tom’s fraternity brothers managed. This was an all-male league from various Twin Cities Southern suburbs (or “parishes” because it was a Knights of Columbus league). This was a unique league because we did not have umpires. We used a carpet for the strike zone. In essence, if the ball hit the carpet behind home plate, it was a strike. If not, it was a ball. It did not matter if the pitch was thrown 50 feet high – as long as it hit the carpet – it was a strike. The batting team supplied an “umpire” who was to watch the carpet and to rule on the outs. This was fairly successful, but still led to a heated argument every once in a while.
I played with the Knights for many years. It was a lot of fun, but the military again took me away. This time it was my mobilization to Germany and the follow-on civilian career with the Army in Maryland. That ended my time with the Knights, but I was still able to find a softball league to play in. I played for my unit team at Fort Meade. Since I was a relatively new employee when I first began to play, this turned into a great opportunity to meet and get to know many of the people that I worked with. I made some lasting friendships on that team and enjoyed every minute of those games.
I thought my softball career was over when I had spine surgery in 2009. I was also concerned as my eyesight was changing. I’d had a few near misses on the field with batted balls coming pretty close to beaning me in the head. By this time I was regularly playing infield. Between that and my back surgery, I tabled my softball playing for the longest stretch of my life. It was not until moving back to Minnesota in 2019 that I resumed this passion.
In the pandemic Summer of 2020, my kids were looking for players for their co-ed team in Minneapolis. I jumped at the chance and have not looked back. Now I mostly pitch. I’m not particularly good at pitching, but it fills a need for the team – and I wear a mask for protection! Despite using protective equipment, during a very cool September game that year (the last Fall league game), I had to stretch for a hard hit ground ball. While trying to twist to pick up and throw the ball, I felt a hard pop in my right leg. It hurt! Even worse, the runner was safe at first!
After a moment on the ground I slowly got up and tried to amble back to the pitcher’s mound. It didn’t take more than a couple of half steps to realize that I wasn’t playing any more that day. I was helped off the field and later diagnosed with a full hamstring tear. I had surgery in October to reattach my hamstring and started the six-month-plus rehabilitation regimen. It again appeared that my softball playing days were over. I couldn’t walk without a limp and certainly couldn’t run by early Spring of 2021.
When my son asked this spring if I was up for softball again, I couldn’t say no! Even though I was still not ready to run, I thought I could at least pitch. Well, we just finished the Summer session and the end of session tournament. During those tournament games, I almost felt almost like my old self while running the bases! They talked me into Fall Ball, which will have me playing after my 60th birthday. It has been a good run and I think this old guy still has a bit left in the tank. We’ll see where it all leads!
I previously wrote about my love of baseball, especially as a childhood fan of the great Willie Mays. I played at several levels, but was never really good enough to play on a competitive level. Mostly, I played baseball by myself at our home on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I practiced various baseball skills for YEARS at that home. That consisted of three specific training regimens – hitting, throwing, and fielding. I know I mentioned this briefly in a previous blog post, but never got into the real details.
As is the case with most kids, I felt hitting was the most important skill. I practiced hitting the old fashioned way. That meant throwing the ball up in the air with one hand and then hitting the ball with the bat. This involved a whole lot of running back and forth as I had to retrieve the balls that I hit. It also meant that I had to hit in a directional way to ensure I wasn’t hitting directly at the house. Unfortunately, I broke a TON of windows when I failed to hit away from the house.
My home plate consisted of a sewer cover right near the garage/carriage house in the back yard. Our house was an overbearing structure in right field, like a version of the short Yankee Stadium right field porch. For whatever reason, the giant brick walls seemed to call the balls to come that way. After not too long, my dad banned baseballs in our yard, so I switched to tennis balls. While this was actually much safer, especially as I got older, striking a tennis ball with a baseball bat still carried more than enough momentum to carry through windows from 100 feet away.
Left field was our neighbor’s house. Even though I was strictly a right-handed batter at the time, I avoided hitting to left field even more than the dangerous prospect of hitting our house. Yes, I’m pretty sure I broke a few windows in the neighbor’s house, but much less frequently than I did in my own house. As a result of the challenges of my yard, I became and remained a dead-center hitter (and continue to this day in my softball league).
Throwing (pitching) was slightly less dangerous, but it still led to a number of broken windows. These were usually basement windows, so I could normally get by for a week or more without anyone finding out! The house was a solid brick structure. I taped a “strike zone” rectangle on a wall near our back patio and stood about 30 feet away while I threw tennis balls against the house. This was great practice! I could throw “fast” balls, curve, knuckleballs, sinkers, and a few other pitches. Over time, I gained pretty good accuracy on most of them. Unfortunately, a tennis ball really didn’t do a good job building arm strength and the accuracy I gained with a tennis ball did not necessarily translate to throwing accuracy with a baseball (or softball).
My final training skill was fielding practice. While I broke fewer windows doing this, I gained many more bruises on my body and also actually created a hazard to cars! It is rather funny for me to recall that I actually did this, but I did it hours on end every summer for several years.
Our home had a very long front sidewalk. I wrote previously about this house at https://graysonlaw.blog/2019/07/22/965-summit-avenue/?preview_id=166&preview_nonce=5c27f21c4b&preview=true. The front stairway of the home had about a dozen steps from the open front porch to the sidewalk. The sidewalk itself was about 100 feet from that stairway to the next stairway that went down to the boulevard. It was fairly wide – at least six feet across. The sidewalk was made up of very old concrete squares, each about 18 inches square. Because of the age of the sidewalk, none of the individual squares were even. Some were sunken, some raised, and others cracked.
You might think that I continued to use my trusty tennis ball to throw against the steps. Well, you would only be half right. Throwing a ball at the steps caused it to ricochet back to the thrower at various angles and speeds. The crooked sidewalk added to the adventure, so you had to be good in order to avoid the ball getting past you and into the somewhat busy street. I’d very often throw my body at a ball, much like a hockey goalie, if it was unclear whether I could get the ball with my glove. Now here is the interesting part. No, I didn’t use a tennis ball, but instead used a golf ball! I also used a smaller, little kids’ glove that seemed to better accommodate a golf ball.
Yes, I tore up lots of golf balls. The worst part, though, was whenever the ball got past me. I was pretty good about watching for pedestrians coming down the street, but I definitely could not account for cars. Several got nailed over the years, but surprisingly, very few ever stopped. Many slowed down, probably wondering what they had hit, but most never seemed to know what had happened.
As you can guess, this fielding practice required a great deal of dexterity and skill. Over the years, I’ve played softball with pretty good success in both the infield and the outfield. I contribute most of that success to those days playing on the hard sidewalk in my front yard!
As I mentioned, I had various other experiences playing baseball, including little league, limited High School play, and lots of sandlot play. The latter was for sure the most fun of all. I think it was a typical experience for kids back in the 1960s and 1970s (and prior), but not so much so today. Almost everything with kids today is scripted by adults. Our sandlot baseball (and helmet/pad-free tackle football) was standard Summer fare for us. There were great lessons learned on the fields in those days, some of which kids of today will never experience. It was these dog days of Summer that my friendship with Pat Judd and Jim Landwehr was really cemented. We were the regulars. We could count on a few others, but we never knew from day to day who might join the crew.
Our first challenge was to find enough kids to field close to two teams. That was tough! We needed at least 6-7 kids on each side. If we were short, we often played on both teams. More likely, we simply would have the hitter rotate back into the field after they’d hit. The second challenge was to find a decent field. Our favorite was a field near the Summit School. They had a great field with a very high “green monster” fence in left field. It took a mighty stroke for one of us to get the ball over the fence. Unfortunately, this did happen from time to time. It was unfortunate because the opposite side of the fence was a number of tennis courts. The players (often adults) really didn’t like the idea of stray baseballs raining down on their courts as they were trying to play. As a result, we often got chased off the field. Then, we all hopped on our bikes in search of another decent field.
The lessons surrounding finding a suitable field, identifying, calling & cajoling a sufficient number of players, ensuring the right equipment (bat, ball, bases, etc.), choosing sides, and setting ground rules (the tennis courts were an out, not a home run!), and being able to mediate disputes – all provided great logistical, legal, and other lessons for young kids. That is a far cry from the experience of today’s kids. I don’t know if it was better. It likely was, but mostly it was just a different time. I am so glad I had that experience.
My enjoyment of baseball and all the skills required led me to my lifelong love of softball. I’ve played softball at various competitive levels for over 45 years. Those experiences alone, and the friendships I’ve made though softball, have shaped me and provided valuable life lessons. More fodder for a future blog post!
Curling is indelibly connected to Winnipeg for me. As noted in an earlier post, Doug Bruce, Greg Hudalla, and I decided that if we were going to go to Winnipeg, we’d better go for the Curling tournament. In Curling parlance, a tournament is called a “bonspiel.” Our target was to play in the bonspiel in Winnipeg, so we first had to learn how to play. We enlisted a fellow Rotary Club member, Al Zdrazil, to play. His influence on us was instrumental. He was the only person on the team who had ever curled before, so he was our mentor.
The start was not pretty. Al signed us up for a league at the Saint Paul Curling Club. We played once per week for our first season. I think we started in November, so we were able to get a few games under our belt prior to the Winnipeg Bonspiel in February. Al was a great teacher and was our team’s “Skip.” The Skip directs the play, tells us when and how to sweep, and always throws the last stones. A good Skip can make even an awful team somewhat competitive. Al was that for us, but we still lost way more games than we won.
That first year was probably hilarious for others – and a severe test of patience for Al. Unlike most experienced curlers, we all seemed to have a hard time just walking on the ice! I know I took more than my share of spills. Al assigned me as the “third.” That meant that I threw third and stood behind the ice target on the far end of the curling rink when the Skip threw. Greg and Doug threw first and second, respectively. I swept the ice for the first two throws, along with the person who was not currently throwing.
In a sense, curling is a lot like shuffleboard, but just with a whole lot more strategy involved. The game consists of four players per side, who each throw two stones toward an ice target at the opposite end of the rink. The object is to get maximum points by landing stones closest to the middle of the center of the bullseye in the “house.” Each time play goes from one end to the other the score is tallied before play returns back the other way. Each leg down is called, not surprisingly, an “end.” Teams alternate throws and whichever team threw the second stone also throws the last stone, so that team clearly has the advantage. The first advantage is determined by a coin flip at the beginning of the match. The winner of the previous end always throws last in the next end. Teams generally play 10 ends, except for blowouts, where the match can end early. For us, we were subject to that mercy rule more often than not.
Throwing stones is truly and art. This part of the game is a bit more like bowling than shuffleboard. The thrower starts with on foot on a sort of starting block called a “hack.” This is quite necessary in order to get the traction to propel a 40+ pound granite curling stone. All players wear special shoes or a pull-on “slider” on one foot. This allows the non-push-off foot to glide along the ice before the thrower releases the stone. A good curler has the ability to get most throws within the “house.” Like bowling, there are out of bounds areas, like gutters. If a stone hits a side-wall, it is out of play. It also must get beyond a “hog line”that is thirty-three feet from the hack and past the hog line on the other end of the rink. Any stone that falls outside of those boundaries must be removed.
There is quite a bit of strategy involved in the game. Not only does a curler need to be able to throw stones within the house – ideally to the “button” in the very center of the twelve-foot target – but they also must consider guarding stones in the house, lest they be knocked out by the opponent. Good curlers will often remove stone after stone, so it could easily come down to the last throw by the skip with the advantage. As a result, there is a lot of consideration to leaving guarding stones in front of the house. That leads to the stronger curlers (generally the third and the skip) having to navigate a very small path into the house.
I enjoyed the strategy and likened it to chess on ice. I also greatly enjoyed the collegiality of the game. Curling is considered a gentleman’s game. No offense to my female readers, but not sure if there is a modern term for this. Like golf, there are unwritten rules about sportsmanship. Cheating, arguing, or berating the other team are forbidden and greatly frowned upon. The two Skips determine the score by agreement at the conclusion of each end. The loser of each match graciously shakes hands with the winner – and stays on the rink to clean the ice.
Here comes one of the best parts: every rink I’ve ever curled at (including the Saint Paul Curling Club) has an upstairs or adjacent clubroom with large tables to accommodate all eight players. The opposing teams gather after the match at the same table to share a few pitchers of beer (or Scotch!), talk through the game, watch the next round of games, or just shoot the bull. Of course, the losers pay!
By the time we reached Winnipeg that first February, we were a somewhat seasoned team. At least we were very good at cleaning the ice and buying the beer! Though we’d been through most of a season at the Saint Paul Curling Club, we were in no way prepared for our Winnipeg experience. First, the Saint Paul Curling Club, though a fine and well-established club, is in a rather nondescript building in what was at the time a somewhat depressed neighborhood of the city (I must note that both the neighborhood and the club have considerably improved their respective curb appeals!). The Granite Curling Club in Winnipeg is a magnificent edifice that is known as the mother of curling in Western Canada. The Tudor-framed clubhouse, with it’s arching rink to the rear, is the Province of Manitoba’s oldest curling institution and one of the oldest sporting groups in the province. The building is now considered a Heritage Building by the City of Winnipeg.
The second eye-opener for us was the competitiveness of the play. Curling in Canada is like football in Texas. On local television, it is not uncommon to have three separate stations, all with different curling events on air at the same time. Everyone watches and plays and even a novice Canadian was seemingly miles (or should I say kilometers?) above our level! Though the Rotary Goodwill Conference brought a good cross-section of North Americans to the bonspiel, the Canadians were clearly there to defend their turf – especially from their fellow Americans coming from South of the border!
One interesting tidbit I can share is an occasion several years later that seemed to defy the rules of both curling and Rotary. Surprisingly, our team of amateurs ended up in the final match. We were shocked to find that our opponent showed up with a ringer on their team. Someone akin to a professional curler showed up to replace their weakest curler (some strange malady had apparently stricken him). Yes, he was a Rotarian, but it just didn’t seem fair. We felt that the Canadian team was probably strong enough to beat us without the ringer, so it seemed just a bit of a overkill. We thought this was an affront to both the collegial unwritten “gentlemen” rules of curling and Rotary’s Four Way Test. We objected on those grounds, but our Canadian hosts quickly denied the appeal. After a somewhat competitive game, the the Winnipeg Goodwill trophy stayed in Canada.
I look back to the various lessons of curling with fondness. I have always been quite competitive. One of the reasons I have not been able to golf well was my Uber competitiveness. I think curling helped cure that, albeit only slightly. I loved the collegiality and professional demeanor required in curling. Al Zdrazil always insisted and ensured that we keep our cool. I’ve been able to take that to other endeavors, even the golf course, and think I am for the most part a better – and friendlier – competitor. Similarly, curling mandates the after-match camaraderie. The certainly helps to keep civility. We laugh and joke together to embrace our common humanity – as respected competitors. If we could only ensure that same civility in other endeavors of our society, we would live in a better world.
The traditional trip to Winnipeg started on a Friday. The bus ride was really the kick-off for the Saint Paul and Rotary District 5620 attendees, though there were almost always others who either flew or otherwise found their own transportation. The luxury bus arrived in Winnipeg late afternoon on Friday, which allowed attendees to check into the hotel and check into the conference. None of the “formal” activities started until the Canadian club hospitality suites “Canuck Nite, eh!” opened around 9 PM that night.
That sequence changed slightly when the curlers joined the trek. The curling bonspiel (tournament) started on Friday morning, so we had to arrive a day earlier. Most of the attendees had no problem adding an additional day to the trip, so most years the bus simply left earlier to accommodate curling. The group gathered for an informal dinner on Thursday evening, but otherwise tried to clear their senses in preparation for the grueling curling schedule on Friday. Other years, the curlers simply found their own way to Winnipeg and met the bus upon its arrival on Friday evening. More on curling in yet another blog.
Shortly after arrival, the St. Paul/District group met for cocktails at our own District Hospitality Suite for cocktails before walking a few short blocks for a fine dining experience. Dinner took place at Hy’s Steakhouse in downtown Winnipeg, a classy, upscale establishment that featured “Prime Grade steaks, cold martinis and trademark warm hospitality.” Coats and ties were demanded of the gentlemen and ladies wore appropriate evening attire.
We were ushered into a dark private room with one large rectangular table. The table was meticulously set for the precise number of guests. One of the short sides of the table was reserved for Bob Johnson, Dick Grayson, Bob Knox, the Rotary District Governor, and any other dignitaries. Like almost everything about the Winnipeg event, the Hy’s experience was scripted, though the script definitely allowed for spontaneity. Bob Johnson usually kicked off the event by recognizing the guests and the Rotary District Governor(s) in attendance. We then went around the table with introductions. We told a little bit about ourselves, our club, Rotary classification, and how many years we’d participated in On to Winnipeg. Many were repeat attendees, but we almost always had a healthy number of newcomers. It was nice to meet and get to know some of our smaller group before getting inundated with hundreds of other Rotarians at the larger meeting.
This dinner was paid for in advance with a flat fee, but it was always a challenge to ensure we did overspend our budget. Bob Johnson (or me) was responsible to ensure that we had an opportunity to order one cocktail before ordering dinner. We also had a very strict rule on the total number of cocktails by each attendee (thus the need for the cocktail party prior to the dinner!). After cocktails, we ordered our dinner. Wine was served with dinner, but again, strictly limited. I don’t remember all the details, but we engaged in general conversation with the people around us during dinner. There were, though, occasional interruptions by someone (usually Johnson, Knox or Grayson) with something they wanted to share. Dinner was always wonderful and the company was exceptional!
Sometime after dinner and before dessert, the real magic started. The floor was opened for stories, jokes, or whatever anyone wanted to bring up. My dad, Dick Grayson, always stood up to tell his latest joke. At some point someone (usually Bob Knox) would shout out, “Number 9!” Others would then join in, “Yes, number 9!” Newcomers would typically just look around wondering what was going on. After some rumbling back and forth, it became apparent that they were calling for my dad get back up to tell a specific joke. There were two stories/jokes that my dad seemingly told every year. Both were relatively long “jokes,” and each involved significant animation by my father. It always started by Knox or someone else yelling a number. You could count on hearing either “The Brigadier” or The Four Balls.” Most years, he would tell both, and this was clearly a highlight to all of the “regulars.”
I never had my dad’s gift of storytelling. I usually forget the punch line or otherwise can’t remember the sequence of the joke. Though I generally can see humor in almost any situation, telling stories/jokes is normally not my strength. I am much better with the written word, where I can think and ponder to get the words right. That said, I attended the Winnipeg Goodwill Meeting the year immediately following my dad’s death. At some point during the Hy’s dinner, the group started yelling numbers. I knew there was no way I could replicate my father’s recitation of one of his jokes, but I stood up anyway and gave it my best shot.
I chose “The Brigadier.” This joke involved an old British Brigadier sitting at a pub regaling his experiences during the war. The Brigadier was talking to an elderly chap at the other end of the bar. They were both hard of hearing, so the Brigadier’s “aide” (i.e., his son) had to shuttle back and forth between the two to transmit each part of the conversation. During his telling of this story, my dad would literally run from one end of the room to the other to animate the shuttling between the elderly British men. He used his best English accent to add character to the story. It has a quite funny ending, but certainly the best part of this whole story was my dad’s obvious joy in telling the tale.
During my telling, I admittedly might have had a bit too much wine during dinner. I truly wasn’t expecting to tell the story, but I’d heard it so many times that much of it was stored somewhere in my brain, even though I didn’t think it was. Somehow, I was able to channel my father in telling his story. I don’t know if it was nostalgia, recognition of the effort, or mere pity for me, but I got a solid round of applause after nailing the punch line! I felt that Dick Grayson was looking down proudly.
Dinner almost always had somewhat of an abrupt end. This was another of Bob Johnson’s scripted items. We needed to finish up on time in order to get to the Canadian hospitality suites. The Canuck Clubs did a fantastic job highlighting their local areas – and they were always a lot of fun. We meandered from room to room, each with a distinctive theme, and met Rotarians from across the Manitoba and beyond. We often received tchotchkes/souvenirs from each room – and there was always something unique to eat or drink. Most suites included music, dancing, games, and other activities. I can’t begin to explain how interesting and fun these evenings were, but it was typically long after midnight before we got to bed.
Saturday consisted of a business meeting, business/Rotary seminars, a formal luncheon, and various tours throughout the city. The luncheon included speeches by the various District Governors in attendance, award of the curling trophy, and the Sergeant of Arms for the Order of Rotary International Fellowship administering fines for various faux pas noted so far at the conference. Many of these were inside jokes, but some were terribly funny. The tours were fun and there was plenty of free time for other activities, such as ice skating on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, the Festival du Voyageur (Canada’s Winter Carnival that often synced with this meeting), Manitoba Moose Hockey, numerous museums, and shopping.
The Saturday evening formal banquet always kicked off with full pomp and circumstance. This was black tie optional. It included a bagpiper escorting the head table into the ballroom and a formal flag ceremony presented by the Canadian Mounties. A Canadian Color Guard would present the flags of both Canada and the United States and the audiance sang both National Anthems. Soon after me and our group of curlers started attending, Colonel (retired) Alan Ruvelson and I added to the ceremony by wearing our Army dress mess uniforms and presenting a United States Flag to the Winnipeg Clubs. There was always an interesting (and often famous) keynote speaker. Several times this was the sitting Rotary International President, but we had politicians, comedians, and various other famous types. All were very good!
Immediately following dinner was a mad dash to the U.S. hospitality suites. Like the Canadian rooms the previous night, the U.S. clubs did our best to match the hospitality. Ours was known as one of the more sedate rooms. We had a single harpist or a piano player, but were known for the drinks. Most hospitality rooms, both Canadian and U.S., offered wine or beer, but the District 5960 suite was well-known for our full bar. We also served ice cream sundaes as a drink alternative. Both options brought significant crowds to the room. We had to “staff” our room with a schedule, so our District attendees could get around to the other U.S. hospitality suites.
At a certain appointed time (11PM?), there was an informal attempt to gather all attendees back in the main ballroom of the hotel. The only “business” was to circle the room (holding hands if you were interested) and sing Auld Lang Syne, as celebration of our lasting friendships. For many, this was a powerful and defining moment of the entire conference. Then, it was quickly back to the hospitality suites. After an exhausting evening of pomp and circumstance, staffing our hospitality suite, and visiting other suites, we were definitely tuckered out. We had to sleep fast since the bus left promptly on Sunday morning. We often had to rouse someone who missed their alarm.
The ride home on the bus was simply a reverse of the outgoing trip. The bridge tournament continued until an eventual winner was determined. Those not involved in bridge simply relaxed and caught up on their sleep. Unlike some, I worked for myself, so did not have the following day off (Presidents Day), so I definitely took advantage of the plush bus seating for a nap.
In addition to my multiple years attending the Winnipeg Annual International Rotary Goodwill Meeting, I have attended many other conferences. In Rotary alone, I’ve attended four International Rotary Conferences, at least a half-dozen President Elect Training Conferences, and various District and multi-District conferences and events. None of those measure up to the Winnipeg Conference. Attendees came from across Canada, throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana, and even regular attendees from North Carolina and Arizona. It was unique and diverse. International Conferences are wonderous in their own right, but I find them a bit too large and logistically difficult to navigate. Smaller conferences don’t provide a sufficient critical mass. Winnipeg was just right.
Several years after I left the Twin Cities, the Winnipeg Annual International Rotary Goodwill Meeting died. This was actually a slow death, as attendance had started to wane. Like many events, it is hard to sustain over a period of years, but this event hung in there for over 80 years – through wars, a depression, and many other times of economic and social turmoil. It was a unique display of the long-standing American (Canadian and U.S.) partnership. I am encouraged to hear sparks of new interest in resurrecting this tradition – and will be first in line, together with my pal, Doug Bruce, when that effort begins to roll!
Who would be crazy enough to go to Winnipeg, Canada, in February?! I thought that for many years as I watched my father and his Rotary pals board a bus to Winnipeg. This was a tradition of my Rotary club for years, but had only fairly recently been re-energized by Saint Paul Rotary luminaries such as Bob Johnson, Bob Knox, Dick Grayson, Ken Crabb, Rich Cammack, Andy Keane, John McNulty, Jerry Meigs, and a whole host of others. I think my first foray into the winter tundra was 1997 or so. That was the 79th Annual International Goodwill Meeting. The event started to commemorate the charter of the first Rotary Club outside of the United States. The Saint Paul and Minneapolis clubs, together with Duluth, charted the first club in Winnipeg. The International Goodwill Meeting was truly a grand celebration of U.S. and Canadian relations. Many Rotary International Governors appeared over the years to add to the festivities.
The crowd that Johnson, Grayson, and Knox, et al, re-started was quite lively. That might be an understatement. Rather than the traditional train trip to Winnipeg that the earlier groups had organized, this newer group of hearty Northerners charted a luxury bus for the trip. For the non-politically correct version of this trip I have to use my imagination. I just know that there was a lot of liquor loaded onto the bus and upon their return to Saint Paul, none could drive home from the bus drop off location. Thus, I was the “designated driver” to get some of them the last few miles home. I also know that cards were involved, but it certainly was not poker. Bridge was the game – and they always carried a trophy from year to year, newly inscribed with the latest winner. I have heard stories, but cannot confirm, of some shady movies that may have been played on the television screen on the bus.
II say I can’t confirm activities on the bus because I’ve only heard rumors. Fortunately, a few brave women, including Rotarians Gretchen Dian, Carolyn Brusseau, and Nancy McKillips, made the trek a couple years before my attendance and they were able to clean up the act! I can pretty much attest that EVERYONE who attended the event came back with marvelous stories of the great Canadian hospitality. For a few, this trip became their primary Rotary interest. I figured there must be something beyond the drinks and I can assure you that there definitely is!
My group introduced curlers to the throng of Rotarians from the Twin Cities heading North. Curling had been a part of the International Goodwill Meeting for many decades, but no one had recollection of a contingent from the Saint Paul Rotary Club. The problem for me was that I didn’t know anything about curling! The whole idea started when my Rotarian friends Doug Bruce, Greg Hudalla, and I were spending a late evening around the fire at the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. We decided it might be fun to see what all the hubbub was about. First, we figured we’d better learn how to curl.
We recruited other members of our club, Al Zdrazil, and later Alan Ruvelson, to join our team. We registered for a league at the Saint Paul Curling Club. Al was the first “skip” for our team since he was the only one who had actually curled before. The skip is the leader who calls the shots, directs the action, and throws the last stone. We were not particularly good, but we had fun. It is my recollection that we lost most of our games, with possibly one or two lucky wins. We especially enjoyed the collegiality among teams. The collegiality included sharing several of pitchers of beer with the opponent after the game.
President’s Day weekend in mid-February was normally the weekend for the International Goodwill Meeting. It correlated to Rotary Founder, Paul Harris’s birthday, rather than the actual founding of the Winnipeg Club. It also gave some South of the Northern border Americans a Monday holiday to recover!
Our first trip to Winnipeg was quite an eye opening and enjoyable experience. What was interesting about it was the structure. Everything about our Club’s and District’s participation in the weekend was scripted in very detailed fashion. Much of this was due to the assiduousness of Rotary Past District Governor Bob Johnson. The planning actually started in late Fall (September, I believe). The planning meeting was a dinner at a local HOA club room. It was called the “Due Diligence” dinner. Dinner with cocktails (of course!) and as we learned, the menu was exactly the same every year:
Appetizer of cream cheese and chutney with crackers
Grilled tenderloin steak – at least 2 inches thick
Classic chocolate ice cream bars
Cabernet Sauvignon wine
After dinner, Bob led the agenda (printed for all). It consisted of providing the dates and times for everything (down to a tee), assigning various tasks and roles, and picking out ideas for our club/district hospitality room. Bob assigned me as “chair” of the event, even though I had not even attended a Goodwill Weekend meeting! It worked out just fine, though, as Bob really ran everything behind the scenes. Interestingly,at the end of the dinner, Bob always seemed to be the one loading the leftover liquor into his car. Ostensibly, this was so he could be sure to “save” it for the next year’s due diligence planning dinner!
Doug and I alternated as chair for several more years and we essentially followed Bob’s script. Our biggest job as “chair” was to arrange for the bus and to recruit attendees. This was actually quite a difficult job since we had to ensure an optimal number of riders on the bus in order to make it relatively affordable, but the bus not too full.
The bus ride had a script as well. I don’t recall all the details now, but Bob gave me a list of the booze to purchase. He seemed to have it all measured by the glass. It seemed like plenty to me, but Bob had his ways. I just didn’t know why the specifics were was so important to him. The packing list also included pickled herring, various condiments (some quite strange), sandwich fixing, and various other snacks. Bob Knox also supplied “real” glassware since he claimed you could not drink a fine cocktail out of plastic!
The bus ride was LONG – about 9+ hours. There was a Bridge game going during the entire trip. The non-bridge players read, chatted, or brought work along for the trip. There was a television on the bus, but I really don’t recall much interest in watching videos. Drinks flowed freely. I finally found out why Bob Johnson was such a stickler for the amount of liquor. As we approached the Canadian border we needed to make sure we did not exceed the limit of alcohol per person crossing the border. Fortunately, that limit did not apply to liquor already imbibed, so the pace of drinking often increased suddenly when we got within about a half-hour of the border.
Arrival at the entrance of the Fort Garry Hotel in downtown Winnipeg was epic! What a grand and historic structure. It is a huge stone building very close to the main Winnipeg train station. It has over 240 guest rooms, a casino, and several HUGE reception rooms. There was more than enough space for a large convention. Just past the main lobby is the circular, formal and ornate cocktail lounge with a high ceiling. It is almost like sitting beneath the dome of a grand cathedral.
I am many paragraphs into this blog and we haven’t even gotten to the main event, the International Goodwill Meeting. Suffice it to say that I learned so much about planning and organization – and people – from the preparation alone. Bob Johnson, for all his faults, was a tremendous influence. His meticulous planning and attention to detail live with me to this day. The meeting itself and all the hijinks will have to wait for my next blog post: Winnipeg, Part II, the International Goodwill Meeting.
As it so happened, one of my most influential Army mentors, Colonel Dave Pearson, had retired from active duty and was then a member of the Saint Paul Rotary Club. Dave was the chair of the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. This was a very well established and long-term Club project. The project started in the mid-1940s as the Rotary Youth Conference and was the first of its kind in the world of Rotary. Over the years the names morphed. At one time it was called the Young Men’s Leadership Conference, Rotary Youth Leadership Conference, and then the full-name of the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. It later became Camp RYLA as I will explain below.
Many aspects of the conference changed over time, but the overall concept remained the same. Each club in the District was invited to send two students to the annual event. The conference lasted between 3-4 days with a basic ideal of teaching and inspiring mature high school students on leadership, recognizing and celebrating vocations, and yes, even to showcase Rotary. The latter, though, was mostly an afterthought.
Most years had somewhere between 120-150 students in attendance. Rotary provided housing, meals, transportation, and the program support. All of this was done through volunteers. Our biggest task was to recruit volunteers to serve as counselors, cooks, speakers, drivers, small group leaders, game leaders, and a whole host of other tasks. Dave Pearson recruited me to serve on his committee with an eye toward leading the Conference the following year. I was involved in all planning with Dave that year and spend a wonderful four days at the YMCA Camp St. Croix. Camp St. Croix is a fantastic wooded site that sits atop the bank of the St. Croix river. It consisted of a large number of separate cabins for campers, together with a large dining hall, theater, and a number of other administrative buildings. The YMCA also had a high ropes course and trust workshops that we built into the curriculum.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Army had other ideas, so I missed the 1996 Conference. Dave recruited another Rotarian, Dan Fesler, to take up the role as Chairman of the 1996 Conference. Upon my return, I worked closely with Dan and Dave to ensure I was ready to take on that role for the 1997 Conference. As is Rotary tradition, both stayed quite involved, so we didn’t have any failures. They also had recruited another member, Sheila Maun, to take over in case I was not ready.
“Be a Leader” was the conference theme that year. The objectives of the conferencewere to learn about leadership and how you can make a difference; to learn about county government and how it operates; to learn about group dynamics and decision-making; and to learn about yourself and others. The 125 student attendees reflected a cross-section of society and were chosen to attend based upon their leadership potential. Approximately 50 Rotary leaders assisted in the conference and nearly 100 more Rotarians were involved in planning the program. Many of the Rotarians participated in a unique ethical problem solving discussions with the students. We used the Rotary Four-Way Test to teach and demonstrate ethical principles.
I had so much fun training and teaching – and just being around those young people – that I decided to lead the conference the year after Sheila’s year. I served as her deputy in 1998 and then served as Conference Chair of the conference again in 1999. Sometime between my first and second conference, I figured I’d better work on continuity. I met Kelly Unger at a Rotary District event and put her in the pipeline as conference chair. Next were my Rotary friends, Doug Bruce and Greg Hudalla. The four of us, together with a group of Rotaractors (in short, Rotary for younger members), ended up being the core of the program for the next several years. District Governor Will Salesses took notice of our enthusiasm for the project and Greg and I us to a Rotary International event for Camp RYLA. RYLA stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. It was there that we realized that others outside of our club were doing very similar events. The only difference was that theirs were District projects rather than the project of a single club like ours.
We shared ideas, but left that meeting with the idea stuck in our heads to broaden the reach of our conference to a District-wide event. Why should the Saint Paul club bear the entire brunt of planning and execution for what was, in fact, a District-wide event? As is typical in large organizations, this took some lobbying work – both at the club level and at District level – but ultimately, our Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference became Camp RYLA.
Enough about the administration of this project. This blog is supposed to be about influences in my life. Yes, I had a lot of fun – and learned a lot about organization – but the real magic of Camp RYLA was experiencing the effect and transformation it had on our students. It truly changed lives. I saw it first hand many times. Even for those it did not transform, it certainly had a lasting impact on almost everyone who attended. Let me give you an example of the transformation I saw on one young man:
Gunther was a quiet, mild-mannered teenager. He was rather shy, had very few friends, and simply didn’t get out much. Gunther didn’t particularly like school and frankly, wasn’t doing all that well. Neither his parents nor his teachers had expectations for him after high school. College did not appear to be in Gunther’s future. Gunther would likely stay home in their small town, find a nondescript job and pretty much keep to himself. But he wouldn’t necessarily be invisible. You see, at 17 years old, Gunther weighed well over 300 pounds. Finally, something changed in Gunther’s life. One teacher noted a spark and found a way to recommend Gunther to attend a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp. Gunther reluctantly agreed, but didn’t hold out too much hope for anything.
Once at camp Gunther was thrown together with a number of students he didn’t know. They were all together in an unfamiliar environment. Slowly throughout his camp experience the real Gunther began to emerge. Gunther later explained that Camp RYLA was the first time in his life that he was accepted. He’d never experienced that before. He was accepted for who he was, not what he looked like. He was not ridiculed. No one made jokes about his weight. Others listened to what he had to say. By the end of camp Gunther began to show true leadership. This shy, introverted, friendless teenager with no self-confidence was remarkably transformed. He made more friends in one weekend than he had made in his entire life.
It didn’t end there. Gunther returned to school and maintained the confidence that he gained at camp. His grades improved markedly and he began to demonstrate leadership in his school. After the summer break, he returned to school with renewed vigor. He made the school’s honor roll and was becoming a popular member of his class. Gunther returned to Camp RYLA the following spring as a junior counselor and continued to demonstrate his new found leadership skills and self-confidence.
I saw this transformation first hand. Last I heard Guther graduated from college and was happy. I talked to his mother several years ago. She cried as she talked to me. Gunther was doing quite well and his future looked bright. She told me that Camp RYLA was by far the best experience Gunther ever had. It changed his life.
That is what Camp RYLA is all about. It can be a life changing experience. It was for Gunther and it was for me. I’ve seen other similar things in Rotary, whether through Camp RYLA, Rotary Youth Exchange, and various other programs, but Camp RYLA definitely changed my life. I became a better leader, listener, learner, and coach. I learned how I can live my life in a way that can positively impact others. I, like Gunther, was transformed. No longer was I a Rotary newbie, but I belonged. I had become a Rotarian.
As indicated in my last post, it was not my decision to join Rotary. I think I wanted to follow my own path rather than follow that of my father and grandfather. I was already a lawyer working for my dad, so I figured that was enough. As the years have gone by, my Rotary experience has been far different than either my dad or grandpa. I’ve been a member of four different Rotary clubs and two Districts. That alone gave me a much broader perpective of Rotary. I have been more involved in Rotary International, such as Youth Exchange, attending meetings abroad, being involved in District leadership, and attending multiple Rotary International Conventions.
That said, I have similar experiences to my dad and almost every Rotarian. That means enjoying the fellowship of other Rotarians; celebrating the successes of Rotary’s PolioPlus effort to eradicate Polio; participating in club projects in the local community; and just being a part of a community with similar values of truth, fairness, integrity, action, goodwill, friendship, diversity, mutual respect, leadership development, philanthropy, fun, and fellowship. Nearly all of my Rotary experiences have been positive, but like any endeavor, I’ve run into a few Rotarians who forgot the hallmarks of Rotary’s Four-Way Test. For a Rotarian, the Four-Way Test is the cornerstone of all action. Of the things we think, say or do:
It is amazing to associate with a group of people where almost everyone has the same basic ethical values. I find that to be one of the best aspects of Rotary. My first – and current – club is one of the oldest clubs in the Rotary World. There are currently somewhere over 35,000 Rotary Club worldwide and the Saint Paul Rotary Club was established in 1910 as Club #10. Over the past 30 years, it has ranged in size from around 100 members to well over 250. I used to explain to non-Rotarians one of the best benefits to the club – if I need a lawyer, there is one (or more) in the club; if I need a realtor, there is one or more in the club; if I need an auto mechanic, there is one or more in the club. Mortician, doctor, dentist, accountant, architect, property manager, pastor, opthomalogist, stock broker, veterinarian, educator, banker, travel agent, insurance agent, dry cleaner, entrepeneur, pig farmer, jeweler, manufacturer(s), caterers, College President, city mayor, publisher, printer, graphic designer, florist, moving & storage, librarian, historian, newspaper, Scouting representative, picture framer, auto dealer, beer brewer, advertising executive, chamber of commerce, and a whole host of non-profit businesses and services, there is one in the club. It is like an Angie’s List on steroids – and all hold the same basic values.
Almost all of my best friends are Rotarians. I guess it is just natural for people to associate with like-minded people. Yes, there is great diversity across many demographic and political characteristics, but all are united around the common theme of the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self” and the aforementioned Four-Way Test. This was not always the case, but for many years, Rotary International has led in diversity, even before it became commonplace. That is because Rotary is truly and International organization. We have members across the globe. An International Rotary Convention is a veritable smorgasbord of people and cultures, many wearing their traditional/cultural attire. All share a common ethic and a strong desire to make the world – and their own communities – better. We don’t just pine for that, but we get our hands dirty to make it happen.
Okay, I think I’ve rambled on long enough about some positive aspects of Rotary. It was not my intent to have an entire blog about this, but rather, to talk about my experience in Rotary and how that has impacted my life, so here goes:
As I think back, I had a rather typical beginning in Rotary. I attended meeting regularly. In those days, members HAD to show up. There was competition among members for the longest streak of 100% attendance. The leaders were often in decades, not months or years. I knew very few of the members and was one of the younges members in the club. I latched on to Doug Bruce, a stockbroker about my age, but there were few others. Everyone knew my dad, so that was always a topic of conversation. Many expected me to be as gregarious as he was. Perhaps I am in some ways, but in as much of an outgoing way. As a result, it really took me a long time until I felt like I fit in. It was even longer before I truly felt I was a Rotarian.
I volunteered on projects as I could. At the time, I had young children, so could not do as much as I would have liked. The first project I really dug into was a gardening project in downtown St. Paul. It was called the Cleveland Circle Project. Cleveland Circle was at the point of several well-traveled routes into the city. It was an intersection of roads directly in front of the St. Paul Civic Center, which is now the Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Minnesota Wild hockey club (and yes, the Wild does have a Rotary member). The Rotary Club of Saint Paul was “deeded” four plots around the intersection to be used as flower beds. Rotarians planted the plots every Spring and kept the beds weeded throughout the Summer. I think I volunteered for weeding once, and was thereafter personally called each successive session. After about a year of this, I suddenly found myself as the Chair of the Cleveland Circle committee.
I had little idea of what I had undertaken. The previous chair provided very good instructions on the logistics, but less about recruiting volunteers. I put a notice in the club bulletin and made an announcement at a weekly meeting about our upcoming tilling and planting effort. At that time, I had little idea what gardening was all about, so following the previous year’s instructions, I rented a gas-powered tiller. I showed up early on a Saturday morning with the tiller and had to figure out by myself how to work it. It is a wonder I didn’t lose a limb! As the morning moved on, the hot coffee became cold – and the doughnuts were not much better. No one showed up to help! Nada. These were big gardens – four of them – and I was on my own.
Even before starting the tiller, though, I had to clean the gardens after a Winter of neglect. As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of garbage that had accumulated over the Winter. It wasn’t only fast food wrappers, but condoms, hypodermic needles, and more weird stuff than you would expect. Sometime near 10:30AM, a couple of Rotarians showed up, one of whom actually knew what he was doing with the tiller. He stayed until we finished all four plots. I’d been there since 8AM and it we finally finished sometime after 1PM! This was untenable unless I was able to recruit volunteers.
I had learned my first lesson of Rotary – Rotarians were more than willing to help, but they must be personally asked. Sometimes it takes multiple asks. The Cleveland Circle planting was supposed to take place the following Saturday. I knew I couldn’t call all 200 Rotarians to ask, so I tried the next best thing: made a fool of myself! That was something I didn’t need any training on. I got up in front of the membership on Tuesday and sang. I don’t do Kareoke and have rarely been noted for my singing voice. It took all the courage I had, but I walked up to the podium asked for volunteers by singing a request to the tune of “Day-O.”
“Day-O, Saturday-O, Rotarians are goin’ out and we’re gonna plant flowers . . . .”
Yes, I also made some calls. By the time Saturday rolled around, we had a good sized crew. With sufficient volunteers, the task of four large beds was actually pretty easy. I was able to direct and supervise rather than actually do ALL the work myself. Lesson 1 of Rotary learned! The rest of the year went pretty well. I think I was chair of the Cleveland Circle project for at least a couple of years before turning it over to someone new. I learned a lot about Rotarians and became more than just a mere member. Lesson 2: if you want to feel part of the club, you need to get involved. The more, the better. Also, it never hurts to make fun of yourself every once in a while!