Cretin High School

As almost everyone can probably relate, high school had a profound affect on me. In so many ways, my experiences there changed my life. Some in not so good ways; in other ways, it made me the man I am today. Most importantly, Cretin High School started me on the path that led to a mostly successful life. I think that is the ultimate testament to a high school experience.

My 40th high school reunion is later this Summer. That landmark is merely happenstance, not the reason I am writing this now. Rather, as a regular reader knows, this blog is basically a chronological catalog of influences in my life. Though I wasn’t particularly a fan of Cretin High School at the time, it provided me with fond memories, great friendships, and of course, profound life lessons. The very best thing about Cretin, for me, was stability. Up to that point, I had attended four different grade schools, none for more than three years. Finally, at Cretin, I was a member of the same class from grades 9-12.

My start at Cretin was hardly the greatest way to impress my new classmates. Though I’d never played organized football, my dad convinced me to try out for the team. I was rather small for my age (and young for a Freshman), but I could kick. I signed up and showed up – albeit late – for the first fall practice. I remember being all alone in the locker room trying to figure out how to put the uniform together. There seemed to be too many pads and I had no clue how they went into the pants. Same with the shoulder pads. The biggest problem was when I finally got all the pad and pants on. I didn’t know I was supposed to buy a practice jersey to wear over the pads, so I ended up stretching and pulling my t-shirt over the pads.

I suspect I was quite the spectacle as I staggered out to the field. I was met by a coach who stifled a chuckle and asked me what position I played. When I said, “kicker,” he lost it. He chewed me out and told me to head over with the defense. It was brutal. I was picked on by both the other players and the coaches. I think that was the first and only time ever I showed up for football!

Classes were okay. I was actually pretty good at most of the subjects that first year, except for military. For some reason, I never took to subjects of rifle marksmanship, first aid, and the other basic military topics. Our teacher, 1SG Stephens knew my sister Pam because he also worked with the band. He liked her, so I think he gave me every break he could. Ultimately, I got a “D” that first semester in military. In just about everything else I got “A’s” and “B’s,” so I figured that this military stuff was just not for me!

Based partially on general geekiness, as well as the football fiasco and the non-military bearing, I did not fit in too well at school. I was glad I had my two friends from St. Luke’s, Pat and Jim. We remained fast friends throughout high school , and even college, until we all ended up leaving town to make our starts in life outside of Minnesota. Up until then, we did almost everything together. For the most part, we were good kids, but I can tell you that we got into things that kids nowadays just don’t do. They were mostly juvenile types of things, such as bumper skiing, hitchhiking, drinking beer, and smoking cheap cigars. Oh yes, and checking out girls. Girls we had absolutely no chance at dating!

There were a number of others who came in an out of our circle during our high school years, including Dave, Dan, Larry, Tom, Mike, Bic, the Weiss brothers, . . . but most often it was just me, Jim, and Pat.

Cretin High School was a MUCH different school than the Cretin-Derham Hall (CDH) we know of today. Back then it was all boys. Girls were across an expansive field to the West. They could join the Cretin band and one or two joint classes, but that was rather rare. We just didn’t see girls around campus. We wore modified Army uniforms EVERY DAY! They consisted of tan shirts, black tie, Army green pants, black socks (except for Pat’s occasional white socks), and shined black Oxford shoes. We wore these to and from school, and even played intramural sports, without changing out of the uniforms. As a result, everyone in town knew what school we were from. There was no getting into trouble either before or after school without someone making a report to the school.

The other thing different from today’s CDH was the composition of the students. There was no fighting to get into the school. Everyone I knew from just about any Catholic grade school in the city got in; many others from public schools as well. The guys in our class included sons of bakers, mechanics, secretaries, car dealers, engineers, lawyers, and just about every blue and white collar occupation you could think of. We were a true melting pot of society, except for racial diversity. We had Hispanics and Lebanese, but very few African American or Asian classmates. I think Cretin in those days pretty much matched the demographics of St. Paul. We did have great intellectual diversity. We had highly intelligent classmates, those of average intelligence, and even some guys who really would have been better off at a different school where they had special programs. Still, we were all Cretin Raiders!

Freshman year went well overall. Except for 1SG Stephens’ Military class, I did quite well. Algebra, with the infamous Harvey Buron started quite well, but once he became a cheerleader for the S.P.A.F.F tickets, I lost interest. My grades suffered as a result. Besides, the second half of algebra was just pretty darn hard! Despite my experience with football, I did try baseball in the Spring. Unfortunately, work got in the way. My new boss, Don Ryan, at The Lexington didn’t care about my practice schedule, so I eventually quit the team. The Lex became my second (or third) home throughout my high school years. It, too, provided me many life lessons. More about that in a future blog post.

The worst part of Freshman year for me was Spanish class. For some reason, that class was extremely difficult for me. The teacher, Brother James Saiz, was okay, but he spent most of the second half of the year relying on audiotapes to teach the class. The entire class was hooked to headphones, complete with microphones. Kids would regularly “comment” on things even if it wasn’t their turn. Brother James rarely knew where the comments were coming from. Admittedly, some came from me, but by no means was I the most disruptive. For some reason, though, Brother James always seemed to think it was me. As a result of this – and my poor comprehension – I got my first “F.” Yup, I failed Freshman Spanish, My penance was to make it up in Summer School.

I took Spanish that Summer at Highland High School. The teacher was a cute young lady, who clearly piqued my interest. Even though school in the Summer was a real bummer, I did well enough to score an A! Take that, Brother James.

If Freshman year ended poorly, Sophomore year started dreadfully. The primary event that is still in my mind was the continual practicing for the annual Federal inspection. That is when someone from the “real” Army comes to the high school JROTC programs to inspect the program. This was a BIG deal for Cretin in those days – we need to keep the yellow star that signified “honor unit with distinction.” I hated the Federal inspection. Not only did we need to dress up in the full uniform, complete with the Army suit coat (we called it our “blouse”), spit shined shoes, and highly polished brass accoutrements, but we had to stand for what seemed like hours at attention as the Army Brass inspected the “troops.”

During one particular afternoon “practice,” someone made a snide comment in the ranks. It was something rather innocent like, “I hope I don’t pass out during the formation like a St. Thomas weenie.” I laughed. Oops! 1SG Stephens thought I was the one who cracked the comment. Even worse, he thought I made a racial comment about him (he was black). Though that was a different time in our society, to this day I swear that I never said (or heard) a racial epithet that day. 1SG Stephens was not convinced. He told me to meet him after school that day. When I did, he directed me to show up early in the morning with all my Army uniforms to turn them in to him. Yes, he was telling me that, in essence, I was being expelled from school. I was aghast. I didn’t know what to do. Some buddies encouraged me to call his bluff. I did show up early the next day, but without the uniforms. I again told 1SG Stephens that I never said, nor heard any racial comment. Reluctantly, he “allowed” me to stay. He said it was due to his fond feelings for my sister.

I suspect 1SG Stephens didn’t have the authority to expel me, but that did not change how much I worried for an entire night! Truth be told, I greatly respected 1SG Stephens. Though I didn’t do well in his class, he definitely instilled in me the need to treat all people with dignity. At that time in my life, except for first aid, I just wasn’t very interested in the military subjects he taught.

Sophomore year was an influential year for me in another, more positive way. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but he was a Christian Brother who was at the school for only a couple of years. One of the classes we took with him was a speech class. As one would expect, almost all of us teenage boys were mortally afraid to get up in front of the class to speak. We’d talk okay, but get us alone in front of the class and it became a different story. My first speech, like that of most of my classmates, was a bomb. The second was a bit more interesting. The assignment was a persuasive speech.

Jim had to give his speech before mine. It was awesome! His attempt to persuade the class that he could light a fire with random items found in nature was both interesting and entertaining. His argument that he could (or at least someone could) start a fire with an ice cube was hilarious. I think we all loosened up a bit after that. Pat always gave funny speeches, but I don’t remember any of the topics! My speech of persuasion, though was more difficult than either Pat’s or Jim’s. I chose to suggest to the class that the Minnesota Twins would win the pennant that year. The best part about that choice of topic was that I knew it through and through. My classmates seemed to be entertained and engaged, asking lots of questions, which I easily answered. Unfortunately, I don’t think I convinced too many of my premise! I did, though, gain a lot of confidence in public speaking that day and throughout the remainder of that class. That has served me well throughout my adult life. Oh, and by the way, the Twins did NOT win the pennant that year, though they did finish seven games over .500.

Sometime early in high school Pat, Jim, and I started hitchhiking home from school every day. We would walk down Randolph Avenue after school and hitchhike from the corner of Randolph and Lexington. Most days we got a ride down Lexington to Grand or Summit Avenue. Pat and Jim both lived within a half block of Lexington, so we typically stopped at one of their houses for a quick snack or to pick up some baseball or football gear, depending upon the season. Then we’d play catch and just hang out like normal teenagers would do. Before long, though, we all had shifts in the dishwasher dungeon at The Lex, so our lazy after-school time was interrupted. It wasn’t until Jim got a car that we stopped hitchhiking daily.

Everything from Junior and Senior years at Cretin pretty much blend together for me. Between school and working at The Lex, we didn’t have a whole lot of time for anything else. We worked almost every weekend evening. The biggest difference between the two years was that my sister Pam was away my entire Senior year. She was a Rotary Youth Exchange student to South Africa. Most kids went abroad either their Junior or Senior year, but Pam waited until she graduated from Derham Hall. Jon and Jen were still in grade school, so I was the only teenager in the house. That meant that during my Senior year, I didn’t have to share access to Mom’s car with my sister.

In my group of friends, no one had a steady girlfriend. Probably because we were just a bunch of geeks. We didn’t party at the Mississippi River or “the valley” like many of our classmates. Instead, we mostly kept to ourselves and drank crappy beer in beer cellar caves beneath the former Schmidt’s brewery in St. Paul. Truly, the worst thing that we did from a criminality sense was to surreptitiously move a case of Heineken beer from The Lex’s storage room into the alleyway dumpster late one night. Another of us retrieved said case from the trash and transferred it to an ice chest for the evening’s after work festivities. My recollection is that many years later, Pat felt guilty and replaced the case in a similar way. Of course by that time, he could legally buy the stuff! I can attest that neither Pat nor Jim had anything to do with the stolen car(s) escapades. That was all me. Perhaps I can write about that another time. And the Great Golf Cart Caper actually occurred, I believe, after graduation, so that, too, is another story.

Though we were not in the class of jocks, we did play football, baseball, basketball, and softball. We played hard! We always played intramural sports at school and were often as good as – if not better – than the class jocks. We actually played all year. In the Summer months, we scrapped together neighborhood teams to play baseball and football (depending upon the season) at the local Summit School. Since school was out, we had little competition for the field, but we did have some harrowing moments when someone blasted a baseball into the nearby tennis courts. For some of us, that was more often than was comfortable. I can only imagine playing a round of tennis, just to be interrupted buy a hard baseball jettisoning into the court. Sometimes we tried to talk our way out of it. Other times, we ran!

Football during those Summers was brutal. We played with at least ten to twelve players and almost always played tackle. No pads or helmets, just us, a ball, and the hard autumn ground. We were actually quite good. Pat was the best quarterback; Jim could have been nicknamed “sticky fingers” as our best receiver; and I was the guy who would run the ball up the gut. My stocky frame and low center of gravity made it very difficult for would-be tacklers. There is no doubt in my mind that we left many concussions on that field every Summer. Even so, we were almost always back the next day or the next week for another battle. Nope, we weren’t jocks, but we were certainly tough!

Senior year was a bit of a surprise. We all progressed steadily and were making decent grades! Pat was the freest thinker of the group, so he appeared less concerned with grades than Jim and I, but he also did pretty well in class. Jim was clearly the student. I think he may have tried to play dumb, but he was far from it. Jim was almost always the one who got his homework done. Pat occasionally did his. I did my homework rarely, instead relying on my innate abilities that consistently let me down. As a result, when homework was due, Pat and I begged Jim to share his homework on the morning it was due. Jim almost always relented. I still laugh today when I recall how one of our teachers routinely annotated all of our last names at the top of our homework and test pages. He was obviously on to the gig, but didn’t know who was doing the work and who the cheaters were.

All of our grades improved by Senior year, whether from study, shared homework, or simply by figuring out the system. As they do as you near the end of school, things started getting a bit more serious. College was near. No more of the BS we did in high school. It was time to put up. We all did. Interestingly, by the end of my Junior year, I was taken under the wing of a military instructor, Master Sergeant (MSG) Stock. MSG Stock apparently saw something in me that one might call potential, since it was highly unlikely that he saw many examples of achievement from me. Anyway, MSG Stock encouraged me like no one else at the school had done. For some reason, his encouragement stuck and he became somewhat of a mentor for me.

JROTC student officers were generally appointed at the end of Junior year. We had a number of great officers, including our friend, Larry, who became the “Cadet Colonel,” the highest student rank at the school. Jim and I made it to the sergeant ranks, yet for some reason Pat remained a private (probably due to his habit of wearing white socks). I was rather proud, but still a bit jealous of those appointed as officers. That, plus the specter of college, caused me put my nose to the grindstone some more. As a result, I had an excellent first semester of my Senior year. Just before Christmas break I was promoted, along with a small cadre of other Seniors, including Jim, to the officer rank. MSG Stock’s faith in me seemed to be taking fruit.

As an officer, we had to set the example. Now I had to do well. With the increased attention, I guess I must have rose to the challenge. I was finishing high school on a high note (our graduation hijinks notwithstanding). The best thing about being an officer, though, was being able to attend the highly anticipated formal Officer’s Ball. Unfortunately, I had no date. Gone were the days when my sister would arrange a date with one of her friends. Now I had to find my own date and it wasn’t easy!

I catalogued all the girls that I knew and got recommendations from my friends. Since they were basically in the same boat I was, we simply didn’t have much of a pool of dates. I was somewhat friendly with a salad girl at work – she made the salads and sandwiches at The Lex. She was nice, pretty, petite, but a little shy (as, of course, was I). I really didn’t know much about her, but knew that I liked her. I asked about her of my friends at The Lex. Most said she was the nicest girls around – probably too nice for me! One guy recommended that I stay away because he had dated her for months and couldn’t even get to first base.

After deliberation and summoning all the courage I could, I stopped her just as she was leaving one night. I stammered while asking if she’d like to go to the Officer’s Ball. I was thrown for a loop with her reply. “With who?,” she asked. Flummoxed, I finally spit out, “Well, with me!” She quickly answered, “Sure” then turned and flitted away down the stairs. I called through the darkness, “okay, I’ll give you details later.” No reply as she was gone into the women’s locker room.

We had a marvelous time at the Officer’s Ball. To me, this young lady was truly the Belle of the Ball. I haven’t looked back. Second base (or more) was not an issue for me. Forty years later (35 of them married to her), that was the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life. In a roundabout way, Cretin High School gave that to me. As I’ll write about later, Cretin also set me on a path – the United States Army – that would be a central part of who I am today. Things don’t always happen the way you plan them, but my experience with Cretin High School tells me that God’s plan is a whole lot better than any plan I could have made. Thank you, Cretin! Go Raiders!

By the way, if you like stories about Cretin High School, keep a lookout for my friend Jim’s upcoming book, “Cretin Boy.” Check out his (much superior) writing at:

965 Summit Avenue

As hinted to in previous posts, I was fortunate to live in what some friends called a mansion! There is no doubt that our home on Summit Avenue in St. Paul was huge. Most of the time, though, we had three separate families living there. My parents rented out the entire third floor and the separate carriage house above the garage. Still, we had an exceptionally large house for a family of six.

Our home was situated on a expansive lot that had more driveway and parking space than some nearby parking lots on nearby Grand Avenue. I know that well because it was my job to clear the snow with our trusty old snow blower. For the smaller snows, that meant easily over 90 minutes of work! The same was true for mowing the lawn. It was an exceptional task with our little Lawn Boy mower. So, yes, this large home taught me the value of hard work.

I had no idea that we were moving from our idyllic home in Desnoyer Park. Nor did our mother! Dad took us kids for a ride one day when Mom was out of town. We drove to the middle of St. Paul and stopped in front of this large brick house. Local realtor, Ray Jambor met us and we walked up to the front door. He rang the bell. There was a small speaker next to the door and a voice came across, saying, “Who’s at the door?” Ray responded, “Ray Jambor” to complete the rhyme. The next thing I knew, we were touring this great house.

For a kid about ten, this was quite an eye-opening experience. A maid answered the door and led us in. The first this I saw was the long, wide hallway. Halfway down was a huge, ornate wooden stairway leading to the next level. The things I remember most from that first exploration of the house were the fun features that I’d never seen before. In addition to the intercom at the front door was a large electric sign on the third level that directed which of the seven doorbells was rung. Only five of the six exterior doors had doorbells, but there were bell buttons in the dining room and master bedroom.

There were also multiple clothes chutes, all that led to the basement laundry room, various hidden compartments throughout the house, a built-in basketball hoop in the driveway, a small bricked paddock adjacent to the garage, commercial toilets, and a non-working turntable in the garage that had been used to turn around a small car or carriage. Perhaps most impressive to us, though, was a commercial milk dispenser like you’d see in the kitchen of a large restaurant. We learned that it contained large 3-gallon containers of milk. I think Jon or Jenifer coined it the “milk machine.” Overall, this house was was incredible!

Even more incredible was my dad said we were buying the house! Our mother was still away. I still don’t have any idea how my dad broke the news to her, but I can visualize her reaction. I’m sure if she had any real say in the decision, she would have put her foot down. I remember the sales price in about 1972 was $76,000. The Zillow estimate for 965 Summit Avenue today is $1.6 million! My parents sold the house many years ago for less than one-quarter of that price. The main reason for selling was that the heat bill over the winter was well over $1,000 per month and the house was just too difficult – and expensive – to maintain, even with the renters. I know my mother was relieved when they sold the home since she was the one who had to keep the darn place clean! Even so, that house was filled with so many interesting memories.

The reason I describe the house is not to brag about living in such a place. To the contrary, throughout the time I lived there, I was embarrassed to be living in such a large home. We were certainly better off than most, but I am fairly certain that my dad lived beyond his means. Yes, he worked hard as a lawyer, but in many ways he was just very lucky (or perhaps quite wise) when it came to real estate. Maybe we appeared to live like it, but I certainly never felt like we were what I’d call rich. We had average clothes, never got the newest fads, never got much of an allowance, and lived rather simply. I remember many times when my mom was afraid to buy groceries because her checks had bounced. Dad always told her not to worry, but it was an indication that we were not as well-off that we appeared to be. For me, the house meant that I had to constantly deny being “rich.”

Dad always said that in order to be a successful lawyer, he needed to look the part. For him, I think a lot also had to do with his lifetime competition with his older brother, E.C. Grayson, who made his mark in San Francisco and Washington DC. Dad was also influenced greatly by his high school chums. Dad attended the prestigious Saint Paul Academy, where the majority of his classmates were clearly upper crust of Saint Paul society. While we no doubt shared in more than average, I never really liked anything to do with this appearance of being wealthy. The problem was that most of our friends were either lower or middle class and the obvious disparity almost always made me embarrassed.

One great thing about living where we did on Summit Avenue was its central location. A main city bus route ran along Grand Avenue, which was only a block away. I know that Pam and I explored the city on that bus. Those were the days when a kid could hop on the bus and go downtown – or anywhere else – unaccompanied. We took great advantage of that. I even remember taking the bus to Minnesota Twins baseball games by myself – at night! In addition to the bus, we could walk to church at St. Luke’s Catholic Church every Sunday, walk to St. Luke’s school, and get just about anywhere pretty easily. There were some shops on Grand Avenue, but the popular, upscale Grand Avenue of today was nonexistent. Instead, there was a 7-11, a dry cleaner, a couple of gas stations, several liquor stores, Knowlans grocery store, Bober Drug Store, a bank, KFC, Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips, a couple of car dealers, The Lexington Restaurant, a bakery, some apartment buildings, and various other commercial establishments, none too interesting for kids.

Even Summit Avenue was a bit more run down at the time. In fact, in retrospect, the whole neighborhood was a little rough. One block to the North was Portland Avenue. That was home of a lot of firmly middle class Irish families, such as the McKasys, the Molitors, the McMonigals, and many others. Successive blocks North quickly brought lower middle class and true poverty. Even though we traveled freely throughout the neighborhood, it was rarely much North of our block.

Like The Timbers, 965 Summit Avenue was a house for parties. I don’t mean juvenile parties like my brother Jon would throw. There were numerous formal parties at our home. We held a several large open houses for the church and other organizations, regular gatherings for the Kappa Delta (“bridge club”) gang, formal dinners, some of which me and my siblings served as servers, and many dinners prior to high school dances. In addition, this was definitely what you would call a “drop-in” house. All kinds of friends, clients, relatives, and others would drop in, often unannounced, and would stay for hours (or in some instances for days!). This cast of characters included our German plumber, Karl Schneider, who in his youth was a member of the Hitler Youth Corps, Dick Sadler, former manager of Heavyweight Champion George Foreman, various catholic priests, former St. Paul mayor, George Latimer, numerous St. Paul and Ramsey County Judges, and many, many others. It was a fun space and my parents were apparently wonderful hosts.

Even though I always denied my Summit Avenue “richness,” I came to appreciate everything about that home and the neighborhood. I still have very fond memories of Summit Avenue.. Strangely enough, I think I have a rather unique perspective. I not only lived and played on Summit Avenue, but I went to Church there (St, Luke’s), went to grade school there (also St. Luke’s), attended college there (one year at St. Thomas College), attended law school there (William Mitchell College of Law), worked there (the AAUW College Club and the University Club), and was married there (our wedding reception was at the University Club). Later, I completed my first marathon by completing the final four miles or so along this great boulevard. All this on stately Summit Avenue!

I learned so much from this home and neighborhood. As indicated above, I learned the value of hard work. I learned from Karl Schneider and others about maintaining a home and its systems. I learned from my mother how to plant a garden and from my father how to repair windows! I learned great humility out of fear of being identified as wealthy. I learned from my many friends, some living at close to poverty level, that people are all the same no matter how much they earn, what they wear, or where they live. I learned to enjoy having people around and I learned to appreciate the value of privacy. As we lived there during an influential part of my life, I learned a LOT of life lessons.

Desnoyer Park

Our home in the Desnoyer Park neighborhood was at 2470 Beverly Road. This was the home of my childhood. I vaguely recall our Highland house, but this was truly the first house that I could call home. It was a stately home perched atop of Eustis hill. It was on a corner where five streets came together. The home was large, builds of white stucco with blue shutters, and had a huge yard. Though the address was on Beverly Road, the front of the house faced Eustis Street. It had a front overhang that was held up by four magnificent pillars. A hedge surrounded the extra-large corner lot, making it appear a bit like a mansion.

The house consisted of two useable stories, plus a full walk-up and voluminous, albeit unfinished and rustic, attic. It had the normal kitchen, living room, dining room, and three-season porch on the first floor. The second floor included a master bedroom, three good-sized bedrooms, and a bathroom. All bedrooms had more than adequate closets. A single-car garage was attached. The basement was large and housed the furnace, a laundry room, and a “workshop” area (as if my dad had any use for a workshop!). Soon after moving in, my parents updated the kitchen, added a full first floor bathroom, and turned the porch into a real “family room,” complete with bar seating through a kitchen opening.

The neighborhood was very quiet. This small triangular neighborhood was bordered by railroad tracks and interstate 94 to the North and Northwest, the Mississippi River to the South and Southwest, and the Town & Country Golf Course to the Southeast. It consisted mostly of small homes with families. It was just our parents, me, and my sister Pam when we moved in. Brother Jon came very shortly after. In fact, he might have been the reason to move into the larger home.

Pam and I quickly became acquainted with the neighborhood kids. Pam started kindergarden at the Desnoyer Park school. A year later, Mom enrolled me at a nearby Montessori School. I remember something about me being too smart for “normal” school, but I’m sure that was just Mom’s idea of explaining why I wasn’t in the same school with Pam. I just remember that I felt like I got cheated out of nap time, something that was NOT in The Montessori curriculum. Perhaps that is why I am such an advocate of good naps even today!

Because of the advanced learning at Montessori school, Mom, Dad, and teachers suggested it might be a good idea for me to start regular school in the first grade rather than kindergarten. The only problem with that is that I was a very young first grader, turning five just after the start of school. It certainly was not a problem with the academic rigors of the first grade, but I believe it later hurt me on various levels. Not only was I always one of the youngest in the class, but I suspect that I was perhaps a bit more immature than my classmates. From an athletic perspective, it definitely hurt my prospects. I was already of small stature, but was a year in growth behind many of my classmates.

Despite being the youngest, I very much enjoyed Desnoyer Park school. It was a great place to start since it was an old “temporary” schoolhouse with only three classrooms. There was a kindergarten room, a first grade room, and a combined second and third grade room. There were always a number of second graders in the first grade room as well, but these were likely the slower kids. We never knew a difference about it since even the second graders in the first grade class inevitably ended up in the third grade the following year.

The first grade teacher was very strict. I think her name was Mrs. Mudge. She got the kids in line from the very start. She was also the one who really controlled things during recess. Recess was what I remember the very best about the school. We had a blast playing every game imaginable. In addition to controlled games like Red-Rover, we played king of the hill in the winter and had a giant slide, a huge jungle gym, and a now-banned and dangerous merry go round. I recall playing a game similar to king of the hill where the last person left on the merry go round was the winner. It was pretty scary, but I won a few times. I was also ruthless when it came to spinning the thing as fast as I could, and likely contributed to some injuries. We all got up and walked away, though!

I had a very sweet, older teacher in the second grade. I don’t recall her name (maybe Ms. Abby), but I remember wanting to please her. As a result, I did quite well in school that year. My report cards were excellent (one of the few times in my life!). Unfortunately, she was retiring the following year, so she co-taught with a new teacher when I was in the third grade. The biggest thing I remember from third grade was that was the year my Grandpa Grewe died. That occurred shortly after my sister Jenifer was born. It was a complete shock – and my first experience with death. I was crying in school one day and my former second grade teacher kept me after school to ask about it. When I told her about my Grandpa, she gave me a hug and told me she would have to help fill the void. She made me feel much better. It was an act of kindness and compassion that I’ve never forgotten. Even thought I don’t remember her name, she had a profound impact on me. From that point on, I suspect that I “felt” compassion for others more than most of my male friends.

Immediately behind the school there were several large skating rinks in the winter – one for general skating and one for hockey. There was also a warming house adjacent to the general rink. It seemed that most kids (and a lot of adults) hung out on the rink during winter months. Many times we needed to shovel the ice before we could skate. Unfortunately, I could never skate well. Part of this was because my dad was not a winter sports aficionado. I don’t think I ever saw him on skates. That is probably due to his parents being transplants to Minnesota from South Carolina. Since I didn’t really take to winter sports, I suspect felt the cold more than my peers, something that would never change. I remember that from a very early age. Even if we were at the rink, I spent way too much time in the warming house as opposed to on the rink. I’m sure it also had to do with embarrassment for not being able to skate as well as the other kids.

The summer months, though, were wonderful. I could run and play with anyone. Most of the time it was Tommy Boehm, my sister, and Tommy’s sisters. There were a few other kids that joined from time to time, but I feel like our group sort of ran the neighborhood. We certainly ran, walked, and biked all throughout the neighborhood all summer long – and from sunup to sundown every day. We lived the life of Riley! Tommy was a year behind me in school, but because I was young for my class, we seemed to click together quite well. Tommy, though, was the adventurous one. He taught me to stretch boundaries. Most of the time that was okay, but it was during one of these adventures that I received my first stitches.

My new stitches!

Another bad lesson was when my sister and I locked our mom in the basement. Mom had told us we could NOT go out to play at the Boehm’s house. I have no recollection why, but she had been quite clear about it. When Mom was in the basement doing laundry, Pam and I locked the basement door and left. Bad decision! Not only was Mom livid, as we should have expected, but she had to crawl out a small basement window. As this was a rather old home, the screen was nailed to the frame. As Mom was crawling out, she stepped on a rusty nail. The nail went right through her sandal into her foot. After her trip to the ER, we were grounded for WEEKS! We learned, albeit a little late, NOT to mess with Mom!

All in all, Desnoyer Park was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in. Unfortunately, after sister Jenifer was born, Dad decided our house was too small. Our growing family soon ended up in a grand new home on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul. That home would lead to even more fine adventures, but I consider our home on Beverly as my childhood home. It contains not only the stories listed above, but many more fond memories.

My Big Sis

I don’t know how I could write about influences in my life without talking about my older sister, Pam. We are actually less than a year apart – good Irish twins! Since we are so close in age, we basically grew up as best friends. Almost all of my very early memories include Pam. We did almost everything together. Even our first friends were kids from the family kitty corner from our house. Pam’s friend was Cindy. The lore is that Cindy was also my first love. Though Pam was one grade ahead of Cindy and me, she was probably closer to Cindy (thus me) than to Cindy’s older sister. Cindy had a younger brother, Tommy, who I started to hang around with as well. So though we were playing with neighborhood friends, Pam and I basically still hung out together.

Pam was almost always the “good” kid. I was the one who always seemed to get in trouble. I do remember, though, when we both got our mouths washed out with a bar of Disney’s Snow White soap after we called each other “poopey.” Poopey was our favorite swear word, though I’m not sure where it came from. Maybe it was us making fun of our little brother Jon’s dirty diapers! Anyway, any time our Mom caught us calling one another poopey, we got the soap. I remember Pam saying poopey an awful lot, but it seemed that I ate a lot more soap than Pam!

For a while we slept together in the same room and the same bed. Like all close siblings we took baths together. Over time we graduated to separate twin beds and then I got a room all of my own. We played all the games, told stories, and did all the things that little kids do. I looked up to Pam even way back then as my elder. She was my best friend. I remember Mom having to tell us to stop talking and go to sleep. We just whispered instead! Sometimes, we would even creep down and try to peek into Mom and Dad’s bedroom. Occasionally their door would be locked and we would giggle.

One particularly funny story occurred when I was in the fourth grade. Pam was in fifth. (perhaps Pam won’t think this so funny!). Anyway, we were both relatively new to our school. Our previous school was a three-room schoolhouse, Desnoyer Park, with only K through 3. After third grade, we had to go to another school just over a mile away. So, I was a relatively new fourth grader at the “new” school when I got called to the principal’s office. I had no idea why. I got interrogated for over an hour about the “magazine” I brought to school and why I thought it was so funny. I kept objecting and claiming not to know what the principal was talking about. She was a mean lady and VERY large. She actually threatened to sit on me if I wouldn’t admit to what I did. The only problem was that I had NO IDEA what she was talking about. It ended up with me going home after my mom was called about her evil son.

Later that day, Pam confessed that it was she had brought a Playboy magazine to school that day. I truly had no idea. Yes, I vaguely recall that we had found a couple of magazines somewhere. Dad found us and told them that he had bought them for a client of his who was in jail. I guess we believed that story then, but that still didn’t excuse Pam for blaming her little brother for bringing the Playboy to school that day. From then on, I got the reputation in my new school class for being the class clown. So, what does a class clown do? Yup, get in trouble and make everyone laugh. From then on, I was nothing but a troublemaker at that school!

This is where I need to confess. Though Pam’s ill-fated curiosity landed in my lap, there were oodles more dumb things that I did that landed on her. I picked on her a LOT, but that never stopped me from wanting to be more like my big sister. Most of the time she either put me in my proper place or even more likely, quickly forgave me. It was the latter that provided a life lesson to an indolent and arrogant young boy. Forgiveness, I’ve learned, is one of the most difficult and important values one can exhibit, yet Pam practiced it as a young teen.

As we got older, we grew apart, as siblings often do. We had our own groups of friends. I think Pam did a much better job making new friends since she continually got involved in things like Girl Scouts and later, music. Pam stuck it out in the school band, unlike me, who quit after just a couple of years. Her dedication to this craft made her quite the musician. Her musical repertoire stretched from the tiny piccolo to the marching band tuba. I watched Pam succeed again and again. At first I thought she was just lucky latching on to things and doing well. Later I learned that all Pam’s successes were the byproduct of something else – practice and hard work!

Whether it was getting excellent grades, being an accomplished musician, keeping a clean and orderly room, learning to cook, being selected for a Rotary international youth exchange program, or otherwise getting recognized for this or that, Pam continually demonstrated to me the value of diligence and work. Unfortunately for me, I was much more interested in having fun and being lazy. This caused some distance between us, mostly because I was jealous of her successes.

We both started at the University of Minnesota at the same time due to Pam’s year abroad with the exchange program. At first, she was much more successful transitioning to the academic rigors of college, but I began to catch up when I finally figured out the need to put in the proper effort. Interestingly, Pam and I followed a similar curriculum and we shared a number of classes and professors. Almost by default, we started getting closer again. We played intramural softball and football together. Pam was pretty darn good – for a girl! She was also pretty tough. During her time in South Africa, she learned to play rugby. If a guy wasn’t ready for her block, he would find himself on the ground! She also carried the tuba in the University of Minnesota marching band. Quite a feat for a diminutive young lady. I became more proud of her than jealous.

After college, we both ended up moving far away from home. I was in Germany with the Army. Pam had married a man from Mexico and moved to Mexico City. Not surprisingly, Pam had done quite well for herself there. Before long, though, the draw to his hometown was not nearly as strong as Pam’s need to be closer to her family. She moved back to Minnesota. I wasn’t nearly as diligent, still living hundreds of miles away from family even today.

I could go on and on with the Pam’s life-long lessons to me. Just observing her actions demonstrates the great character traits she consistently teaches me (and others):

  • Loyalty. Pam showed such incredible loyalty and diligence to her work with the Boy Scouts. During her time there I must have had a half-dozen different jobs. I recall various conversations about how it was not easy and times she felt under appreciated, but she always stuck with it.
  • Thoughtfulness. Pam is definitely “old school” when sending cards and notes. I always receive birthday and holiday cards from Pam, but also receive notes out of the blue that may include a newspaper clipping, an old photo, or something else that made Pam think of me. That is obviously a testament to her always seeking ways to do for others and her love for family.
  • Toughness. I already relayed the story above about her intramural sports career, but Pam has always been a fighter. My dad regularly told the story about when Pam almost died as a newborn. She had appendicitis as a newborn and required surgery the day she was born. The doctor told my parents that she would not survive the night. Well, she certainly did. I think that made her the apple of my father’s eye (at least until littler sis Jenifer came around!).
  • Consistency. Pam is always there to help celebrate my achievements and activities, as well as those of Amy and my kids. Unlike me who has missed many, Pam is always there.
  • Integrity. Pam never ceases to amaze me. Before she married Doug, she insisted that they receive “permission” from the Catholic Church. This also says a lot about Doug, a non-Catholic, to stick with her, but after years of petitions, interrogations, hearings, and who knows what else, Pam was finally granted permission to marry the “heathen.” Pam demonstrated integrity to her faith (and Doug to Pam). I think they both won on that deal.

I am not trying to embarrass my big sis for her great qualities (yes, I should have mentioned her humbleness as well), but she truly provided, and continues to provide, this younger brother more than a normal share of positive influences. Sure, she has her faults, but I don’t want to take anything away from HER story! Your turn, Pam.


When I consider influences in my life, I cannot leave out my dogs. Except for a couple of short intervals, I’ve never lived WITHOUT a dog in my life. On the one hand, they provide companionship, unconditional love, and a calming presence. On the other, they can provide as much angst and worry than even people can. I can say without a doubt, though, that dogs have provided me with much more positives in my life than all the trouble and worry they cause.

Dogs are like kids. It is hard to have a favorite since we love them all the same. For me, I think there is some sort of continuum for my dogs. I think the “normal” process is when people get a new puppy, all their time and energy gets focused on the new dog. There is no doubt that happens due to the demands of a puppy, but there is certainly a novelty of the puppy that draws us in. For whatever reason, I’ve been perhaps a bid standoffish to my new dogs. Yes, I welcome them into the family, but have always been clear that the oldest is always the “top dog.” Each dog needs to earn his or her way to that position in my affections.

My current dogs are Buster and Bella. Bella is my top dog right now, but Buster will get there in time. Bella has only held that position for a couple of years, since the death of Schonie. (Don’t tell anyone, but Schonie probably still ranks as the best dog I’ve ever owned!). Buster, try as he might, has not been able to overtake her as the top dog in my heart. At least, not yet.

Buster and Bella

Each dog has distinguishable and unique personality characteristics, but the breeds also provide some commonality. We’ve had three Miniature Schnauzers, one Boxer, and an American Bulldog over our nearly 35 years of marriage. I grew up mostly with Boxers. There was a Miniature Poodle and a few others during my youth, but it was almost always a Boxer. They were: Bos’n, Tanya, and Hush, and a couple of others for short times as well. After I left home, my parents continued with Lucy and Emma. Somewhere along the way, my parents stumbled upon Pugs, which I’ve never taken much of a liking to.

Schnauzers taught me unconditional love, as well as spunkiness, love of life, determination, and empathy. Between Schatzi, Schonie, and Bella, we’ve been blessed with many years of great companionship. Sure, they bark, but they are also great watchdogs. Much better than a Boxer who would either welcome strangers or sleep through a burglary. It may be because I’ve experienced several years of elder-Schnauzer care, but I find that I worry about these dogs more than any other. I can’t explain why. Perhaps it is due to our first – Schatzi – and her near-death experience after eating a handful of cold medication (that is a story by itself).

Dealing with Schonie and Belle as elder dogs in rapid succession has clearly tempered my experience with Schnauzers. All our Schnauzers have had kidney issues and bladder stones. Schonie and Bella had heart problems, but this did not manifest itself until late geriatric ages. Through this, I’ve learned great empathy. They have all been excellent dogs, but age made them subject to regular bouts of peeing in the house and occasional vomiting and indoor pooping. The urination has been the hardest, due to its damage to flooring and carpet. I all-too-slowly learned to be more forgiving of these “accidents” and recognized that this was not a time to scold the dog. I especially feel sorry for the times I firmly scolded Schatzi, and even Schonie, for something that was truly beyond their control.

Casey was our only Boxer. She was a “rescue” from a neighbor who could no longer keep her. We got her when she was about two years old. Casey was the bridge between Schatzi and Schonie. Despite my normal ranking of dogs, I don’t think I ever let Casey fully take over the reign as top dog. Rather, she was a bit of an outsider to our Schnauzer-friendly household. That said, she was the perfect dog for that time in our lives. She was GREAT with our kids and could roughhouse like no Schnauzer ever could.

Boxers, including Casey, taught me unconditional love. They were always willing to just be there, to talk to, to cry to, or to play with. They are relatively short-lived, so I learned the value of living in the “now.” All of our Boxers were clearly geriatric by 10 years of age. Old age, unlike with the Schnauzers, seemed to come on very quickly. The good news is that they didn’t need the same elder care as the Schnauzers. They were ready to die when their time came.

Boxers taught me the need to doggy-proof our home. They are proven hunters – of food and leftovers. Unlike the Schnauzers, who were happy with dirty diapers, the Boxers LOVED counter-surfing and tipping over and destroying the trash. I needed to learn to change MY daily habits to avoid the anger, mess and sickness caused by a trash-eating dog. One of my favorite examples was when one of the Boxers of my youth (Tanya, I think) actually opened the refrigerator and ate over two pounds of fondue steak meat while we were at Christmas Mass.

Buster is the current baby of the bunch. Bella is now 14 and Buster is only about 8. He is our first (and likely last) American Bulldog. Most people would immediately identify him as a Pitbull or at least a bully dog. Except for his interaction with other dogs, he is nothing even close to a bully. I have never seen a dog who loves people so much. He is also the happiest dog I’ve ever known. Though he is a nervous Nellie, this dog is ALWAYS wagging his tail. If I yell at him, or even if I smack him for something he has done, he responds by wagging his tail, looking at me with eager eyes, and smiling in the way that only a pit-breed can do. Whenever I am mad, sad, or simply having a bad day, Buster’s happy temperament quickly tames my temper or bad mood.

Of all my dogs, Buster has taught me the most. He, like Casey, was a rescue dog. This time it was from our son and the City of Minneapolis. Buster had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when another dog bit someone. We quickly ushered him out of Minneapolis because he was tagged as “potentially dangerous.” From Buster I learned patience in spades. I also learned what it means to be a good dog owner. You would think that after a lifetime of dogs, I would know how to be a good dog owner. Until Buster, I did not.

Buster wasn’t a bad dog, but he came to us with a well deserved reputation as a furniture destroyer (he had eaten full couches) and was far from being house-broken. The latter was very quickly remedied. The problem there was simply a matter of providing him with a regular schedule of eating, going outside, and sleeping. We learned that he really was house-broken, but had no routine that he could depend on. Who knew that this was so important for a dog? While I suspect that our lives were fairly regular, our previous dog care was much more haphazard. Buster keeps us on a very demanding schedule! Buster, like his breed’s reputation, is exceptionally loyal and will never give up on a task. Those alone are wonderful lessons, but there is much more that Buster has taught me.

From Buster I’ve learned to become a much more intentional dog owner. I know that I have to be mindful of his schedule. I realize the need to provide him exercise. Previously, we merely tossed our dogs in the back yard to do their business and “play.” We also chucked a few balls to them now and then. But, a large dog like Buster needs regular interaction and attention. More importantly, though, somehow along the way Buster became extremely dog-aggressive. I don’t mean he just likes to bark and snarl at other dogs. He literally wants to destroy them. Once he spies another dog, it takes all the strength I can muster to pull him away. He will not let up. As a result, we need to be ever vigilant to the situation around us. We avoid contact with other dogs at all cost (except those in his “pack”).

We’ve spent thousands of dollars on training. The most effective training for Buster has been the inclusion of a “shock collar.” That is the ONLY thing that we’ve found that can help divert his attention – though only momentarily – from another dog. Besides that, the training required hours and hours of patient training. We can see the results every day in a very well behaved dog. Buster listens and follows commands unlike any dog I’ve ever had. He will obey instantly. The value and patience of regular training is apparent and has been a great lesson to me for the rest of my life as well. It reinforces the importance of regularity, hard work, and diligence in whatever you want to improve upon.

The bottom line to this long article is that dogs have been a huge influence in my life. Without the life lessons and companionship provided by my dogs, I would not be the man I am today. They encourage me to be a better version of myself. I like to think about the country song by the Bellamy Brothers to sum up the impact and importance my dogs have been to me: Lord, I hope that I can be the Man that my Dog Thinks I Am.

Highland Park

Okay, this one is hard. My first real memories take place in Highland Park. Highland Park was considered a rather upscale neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. My family lived there when I was born. I’m not sure if we actually lived within the boundaries of Highland Park, but our house was on Highland Parkway. The “real” Highland Park” was about a mile South, but my parents always called this their Highland Park home.

Me and my sister Pam in our Highland Park yard

Our home was a very small cape cod style house. I remember it only through pictures. The first few memories are from here, but I have a hard time determining whether they are truly memories or it they are just recollections based upon black and white photographs I’ve seen. One photo is of the home from the front. Another is of me in some sort of kid’s car on the sidewalk. Finally, there is a photo of my parents’ Volkswagen Beetle parked on the street in front of the house.

Besides the photos, I about the only things I can remember are getting scolded by my mother for apparently straying too far away down the block and playing in a sandbox in the back yard. I think there was a fence to keep in the dog(s), but I don’t really remember that. Hopefully, one of my siblings can find one or two of the photos and upload them to this blog!

There is literally nothing else that I remember about that house, the neighborhood, or even anyone else. I don’t remember my father, my sister, Pam (who was just under a year older than me), or any other relatives or neighbors. I don’t even remember our dog, Bos’n, who was obviously around when I was born. I recall hearing stories of not only Bos’n, but possibly a litter of other little boxers that my family may have been involved in raising. I also remember a story about Bos’n getting welts all over his body from eating green apples, so I suspect there may have been an apple tree in the yard.

I’m not sure how long we lived at our Highland house, but it couldn’t have been too long. Most of my early childhood memories are from our home on Beverly Road, my grandparents homes, and Grand Lake. Each of those locations will present many, many more memories, but you I am convinced that we all need to go back to our beginnings in order to figure out where we are going.