Episode 205 - Memories
This is Tim. I think Charlie is beginning to realize that his story will soon be coming to an end, and there are a few things that he wants to make sure get included. So he's asked me to share memories of my life.
First, I need to share my version of True Confessions. When Irene came into my office to tell me about the Thompson brothers, I racked my brain to figure out who they were and where I might've met them, or one of them. No luck. So I did a Google search, and sure enough Charles Thompson was on the U.S. Olympic Aquatics Team in Sydney as a diver. I even vaguely remembered his coming up and introducing himself. When I greeted him it was with a completely refreshed memory and I shared no inkling of a Google search. However, he's a smart kid, and I think my suggestion to Chet about knowing the Olympic histories of the kids at The Lighthouse, and using Google for the information (and pictures), might've suggested to him my own use of Google. In any case, I understand Chet wowed them at The Lighthouse.
I might also say that he wowed Charlie and me at Dakota house. He was very outgoing, smart, and charming. What's not to like? And, what the Hell, I'll admit it, I like ogling the handsome bodies of divers, especially in their Speedos, and Chet and Chuck would prove to be as handsome as they come. Forget handsome, they were downright sexy. (Eyes only, Tim, hands off!)
What memories would Charlie want me to share in this episode of memories? I think he's told many of the really good stories; this is, after all, Episode 205. People are central to my happy memories. Literally thousands have moved through this university as students, faculty, staff, visitors, parents, donors, and others. Most never had any reason to meet me, except from a distance. But I do meet many face to face, briefly, or as part of a long-term relationship. Two or three students a week will come by my office and ask to see the president, or President Tim, or just Tim. If at all possible, Irene lets them come right in to my office, usually cautioning them that I have an appointment soon, so that the meeting must be brief. She knows that I'll extend a meeting if I think it's important, either to the student or to me.
At least once or twice a year I'll get a student who comes in, introduces himself, shakes my hand, and says something like, "I just wanted to see if it was really true that anyone could get in to see the President."
I could easily have resented this fairly obvious waste of my time, but I didn't. I always took the opportunity to tell the student that it was true that anyone could get in, and that having proved it, he should assure his fellow students of its truth. But then I would ask, "OK, now that you're here, tell me something about the university that you think I ought to know. Something good, or something bad."
Often I would be told of a particularly good, or bad, professor or staff member. Two librarians were frequently singled out in my early days as President–one good and one bad. The good one, Thelma Dixon, must've been the most helpful librarian on the planet. Several students made special trips to my office to praise her, and she turned up several times in response to my open ended questions. I checked with the head librarian, and indeed he was aware that Thelma was very helpful to students, often going way out of her way to help them find a needed resource, develop a difficult bibliography for a term paper, or get hold of a desperately needed book. More compliments about Thelma came his way than to my ear.
I walked over to the library one day and introduced myself to Thelma. She was about five years past retirement age, and looked the part of a little-old-lady-librarian if anyone did. But after two minutes conversation, you realized that you were never going to hear her sssshhhh a student, or complain about people messing up "her" books. She was bright and alert, and responded to questions quickly and easily. She usually walked a student to the book he needed rather than just pointing.
She seemed surprised to have me walk up to her and asked, "Thelma, how long have you worked in this library?"
"Dr. Tim. What brings you to the library today? How long have I worked here? I got my degree in library science when I was age 22. This was my first job. I'm now 71. I've been here 49 years."
"I understand that you've been offered several promotions to different jobs and have turned them down."
"I like being out here at either the reference desk or the help desk. I meet the students here and I like being able to help them with their research. I don't want to be in acquisitions, or administration, or cataloging. This is where the action is, and where it's been for almost fifty years."
"Bless you, Thelma. Staff with an attitude like that is what makes this a great university."
"It's a great university, Dr. Tim. I love being a part of it."
"And so do I."
I talked to the head librarian about Thelma's declined promotions, and what that had cost her in salary over the years. He told me, "Very little. The second time she turned us down, we decided that she was valuable where she was, and we created a higher grade reference librarian position, with higher pay. We've boosted that position up a grade at least three times. So she is one of the higher paid librarians on the staff."
I responded, "That speaks well for her, and for you. I really like to hear of administrators that value and honor people. I understand she'll have a fiftieth anniversary with us next fall, am I right?"
"Yes, I think it'll be fifty years on the first day of school in the fall."
"Are you, we, going to make a fuss over that event?"
"We're just planning it, so I don't know the details. But October first, or about that day, will be 'Thelma Dixon Day' at the library. We'll have a little ceremony, but most importantly, we're going to ask every student and faculty member that's ever had assistance from Thelma to come by the library and personally thank her, and sign her book. And the Reference Desk in the center of the Reference Room is going to be named the Thelma Dixon Reference Desk. Lars over in the carpenter shop is working on something special, but I'm not yet sure what he has in mind."
That was, by the way, the first time I'd heard of Lars. I'd get my own taste of his abilities in my own good time. The next October I got to see Lars' effort for Thelma. The Reference Desk was octagonal, surrounding an octagonal bookcase, which contained the reference books. The top of that bookcase was simply flat wood. Lars built a handsome eight-sided cap to the bookcase; carved into the eight sides of the cap were the words, "Thelma Dixon / Fifty years serving / the University of North Dakota / Community." That was repeated to cover eight panels. A similar panel went over the door to the room, labeling it the Thelma Dixon Reference Room, and she got a personalized nameplate, carved to match the other carvings, that said, "Thelma Dixon / Reference Librarian / Extraordinaire."
While I was getting compliments about Thelma, I was hearing too many complaints about the man who ran the Reserve Materials Room. He was very abrupt with the students, didn't cooperate well with the faculty, but managed to never give offences that could lead to disciplinary measures. He hadn't always been that way, but the self-importance of being in charge of an important division of the library seemed to have gone to his head. Attempts by his boss and the head librarian to talk to him led to threats of a lawsuit if he was disciplined.
How do you get rid of a problem? It's a state university, part of the government, the civil service. Is being abrupt, using what the hearer believes is a rude tone of voice, being slow to respond to requests, and similar complaints grounds for discipline or dismissal? We didn't have a faculty union at that time, or I would've talked with them. So I called him into my office. I very calmly, but completely, went over the complaints that I, and the head librarian, had received. Then I simply read him the riot act. I told him that he had to shape up, or I'd either fire him or move him to Chief of Book Returns and he could stamp in books all day. He responded with, "You can't fire me. This is the civil service and I've never been charged with an offence that could justify firing me."
I said, "You don't want to try me. Either shape up or get out. I'd rather you shaped up. I don't want to fire anybody, and I don't want to create the position of Chief of Book Returns. But it's no accident that more than half of the complaints that I've gotten about staff members at this university–that's the entire staff, not just the library–have been about you. That can't continue. And I'll see that it doesn't. Either the complaints end, or you do."
The complaints did end. He went back to the library, packed up his personal belongings, walked into the head librarian's office and said, "I quit." Then he walked out and was never seen in the library again.
Within an hour the head librarian was in my office, and I was clearly a hero. "What did you do?"
"I made it clear that he was going to shape up or ship out, and evidently he decided I meant it. He did us a great favor, because firing him would've been tough or impossible. So, keep him on the books for another month to keep his pay going. Then we'll show him as resigning with appropriate notice. I'll sign the necessary papers, because that's really stretching the rules and I can't ask you to do that."
"But you'll do it, right?"
"That's why I get paid the big bucks."
I never heard from our departed reserve librarian again, but about two months later I got a visit from his wife. She said that they'd told her in the personnel office that I'd signed the resignation papers. "I know that means that you're responsible for our getting that last month of salary. That was a
Godsend for us. It gave Herman time to get another job–in a warehouse; he never liked working in the library and should've quit years ago. Without that bridge, we'd have never made the mortgage payment, and once you get behind it's hard to catch up. Thank you, Dr. Tim."
That's the first and only time I've been thanked for firing someone, but it made me feel good.
Then there was the student with the green hair! I'm talking bright, neon green. This made fresh spring grass look dull. He came by one afternoon. I wasn't busy, and he got to my office about fifteen minutes before I was going to head to the pool. He didn't seem to have much of a reason to be in my office, he just wanted to introduce himself and say, "Hello." His name was Philip Hanson, and he was a senior who'd graduate the following June. I asked his major and he said chemistry. Well, that didn't fit with the hair. At least the stereotype of a chemist is much more serious than the green hair suggested for this young man. Aside from the green hair, he was dressed very typically for the campus, but not poorly: jeans and a polo shirt; clean sneakers with white socks; underwear not showing. I had a sense that the green hair was some kind of a test or challenge, so I decided that I wouldn't mention it. That seemed to disappoint Philip, but we chatted a few minutes and he left. I was tempted to say, "I like your hair," as he left, but I restrained myself.
As soon as he left I called the registrar's office for some background information on Philip. Turns out he had straight A's, and was on target to graduate summa cum laude. If he did, he would be the first in more than a decade that wasn't connected to the Gang in some way! As soon as I hung up the phone Irene knocked on the door and let Philip in for a second time.
He said, "I have a confession to make. I was here on a bet. In the chemistry lab we've been working on washable hair dyes for the theater. The stuff they've been using doesn't wash out easily, and their current play requires wild colored hairs. The actors want to be able to wash them our right after each performance. We fairly easily provided them what they wanted, but in the process we used our own hair for testing. As we finished up yesterday, somebody dared me to wear this green hair on campus today. One thing led to another and soon there was a bet on what you'd say about the hair if I visited you in your office."
"What was your bet?"
"I bet that you'd make some comment, but not be hostile."
"Someone bet that I'd say nothing?"
"Did anybody bet that I'd be upset or hostile?"
"Nobody in our group thought that would be your reaction."
"That makes me happy. I must be doing something right. Well, you have no idea how tempted I was to say, 'I like your hair,' as you left. But I was pretty sure I was being tested in some way, and had decided not to mention the hair."
"I'd be twenty bucks richer if you had."
"Where is your partner in crime? (Gambling is illegal in North Dakota you know.)"
"He's downstairs waiting for me. I told him he'd won, but that's when I decided to come back and tell you what it was all about."
I said, "Let's go downstairs, pick up your friend, and go over to the coffee shop. He can buy me a Coke, and you what you like, with his ill-gotten gains."
His friend was another senior chemistry major. They were both very interesting young men. We had a good conversation, but I excused myself fairly quickly to head to the pool. Charlie got a good laugh at the story that evening.
Philip did graduate summa cum laude and as such was the valedictorian of his class. I sent him a note a couple of weeks before graduation, telling him that if he'd wear his green hair to graduation and work the story of his bet into his valedictory address, I'd invite him and his family for dinner that night at Dakota House. He took me up on the offer. When he came to the podium for his speech he took off his mortar board, displaying the wildest, greenest hair you can imagine. In that one gesture, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. He told our story, and moved on to talking about standing out in a crowd, not being afraid to be different, and not condemning people who were different. It was one of the best valedictory speeches I've heard, and he got real cheers from his fellow seniors.
That evening Philip, his parents, a grandmother, and two younger brothers joined Charlie and me for dinner, along with Ronnie, Kyle and Sharon. It seemed to Charlie and me that Philip might enjoy meeting three of the most famous scientists that we had on campus. It turned out that Philip had taken a class with Kyle, and had met the others through Kyle. Philip's parents were very interesting; he was a professor of English at NDSU, and she was the Director of Meals-on-Wheels in Fargo.
I asked Philip why he hadn't gone to NDSU, and his reply was quite direct: "I think UND is the better school and I thought I should get away from home and out of Fargo."
His father said, "Even I would agree that UND is the better school, but it was State that made me a very good job offer about ten years ago. I've been very happy there."
His wife added, "And we've very much enjoyed living in Fargo. I will say that Philip's been very happy here in Grand Forks."
I turned to Philip's younger brothers, who turned out to be very unidentical twins, and asked, "You're about to head to college, I assume. Where are you heading?"
"We'll both be seniors next year. We're trying to decide whether we want to go to the same school or different schools. If it's the same one, it'll be here."
The other twin said, "If we decide not to go to the same school, one of us'll be banished to Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota."
I put in, "Well, I'll tell you a little secret. When you apply here, on the first piece of paper you send to the Admissions Office, put TTT at the top, even if it's just a post card asking for a catalog. That'll get you the VIP treatment you deserve."
Charlie looked at Philip, who still sported bright green hair, and said, "Philip, I'll bet you're ready to get rid of that green hair. We have a great shower upstairs, and you're welcome to use it. You have time before dinner."
Philip agreed, and Charlie took him upstairs, showed him the shower, gave him a towel and a good bottle of shampoo, and let him clean up. He came back downstairs just as dinner was being served by students from the university food service. He exclaimed, "You can't believe that shower. I think all of the chem majors in my class could shower in there at once. It's fabulous."
I said, "The only remodeling we did to this house when we moved in was to create that shower out of part of a bedroom we didn't need. We do like it."
The dinner went well, with no further items of great note. We said goodbye to the family, and they passed out of our lives for a while. In November on one of the lists of TTT applicants I found the names of Marvin and Elliot Hanson–Philip's younger brothers. Their high school academic records were outstanding, and as children of faculty they'd get half their tuition paid by NDSU, so they didn't need a scholarship. They didn't need the special consideration the TTT afforded some students, but we gave them the red carpet treatment anyway. I called and issued a personal invitation to visit again, and to attend as I assured them that their admission was certain. They decided to skip a campus visit, so I didn't see them again until the following September when both boys, their parents, and Philip called at my office to say hello.
I welcomed them, assured them that my office was always open if they needed anything or had a problem. I assured them that it would be better if they didn't color their hair before they came by. I asked Philip what he was doing. He replied that his planned program to get a Ph.D. had been put on hold. He and a fellow chem major had formed a business selling washable hair dye for the theater. It had been very successful, and they were expanding into a whole line of easily washable make-ups. The business was so successful that they thought that plans for graduate school might never materialize. I was impressed, wished them well, and learned about a year later that they had, indeed, continued to do very well with their business.
Marvin and Elliot were as good students as their brother, giving a co-valedictory address at their graduation. I kept track of them as they moved through their college careers, but they never needed anything and never had a problem, so they never appeared in my office. They're now off on their separate careers as an economist with the government and a cartographer with Rand-McNally.
This entire tale has focused on me more than Charlie. I think that's partly because he's been the chief storyteller, but it's also because he's been such a wonderful partner and has gone along with all of my crazy schemes. I have to wonder how his career would've been different had we stayed in Washington and let him become a big time lawyer, judge, or whatever. However, he wouldn't consider that possibility at the time, and he won't join in speculation about what he might've missed. I truly think he's happy at UND as part of the Gang and as part of our wonderful partnership.
That is not to say that he hasn't had his own great set of accomplishments. Let's just start with noting how few people there are in this world that have won Olympic medals–gold medals I will note–in two such different sports. I can assure you than nobody else in that small group of people has excelled outside of the world of sport as Charlie has. He's been an outstanding dean of law. Just ask anyone in the law school–student or faculty. He's raised the standards (not a lot as they were always pretty high); improved our reputation, especially in the East, where we were largely unknown; made the curriculum much more practical, which has led to a significant increase in the percentage of graduates who pass the bar on their first try; and built a law school endowment which is the largest among public law schools and only surpassed by a few private schools like Harvard and Yale. On top of that, in the time frame I'm writing about (2005-2006) he was sixty-five years old, looked like he was forty, could keep up with almost all of the our undergraduates, and was as virile as all but the randiest of teenagers–and I'll provide personal testimony about that! I love him because he's kind, gentle, and is madly in love with me, but all the rest sure adds to the infatuation.
One Monday morning a young man came into my outer office and asked Irene if he could talk with me. She asked him to wait, and she came into my office to ask if I had time to see him. She said, "I would've buzzed, but I thought I should tell you that this young man, John Longmeyer, looks to be pretty upset. I think you should see him today."
I probably would have anyway, but with that tip from Irene I had her send him in right away. He did seem nervous and upset, though it's hard to point out specific things that made him seem so. His hair was disheveled, but that wasn't unusual in the 1990's, but he looked like he'd been running his hand through it quite a lot. Irene introduced him as John Longmeyer, and left. I asked, "OK, John, what can I do for you?"
He sort of blurted out, "I'm gay."
I said, "So am I, but it seems to be upsetting you more than me. How can I help?"
"This weekend I visited my parents in Minot. I've thought that I was gay since middle school, but I never did anything about it, never told anyone, never had a boyfriend. I never talked to my parents about it. Then this past winter I met a boy in the theater. We both had small parts in the fall production of The Little Foxes. We met for dinner a few times before evening rehearsals and became friends. He was very up-front about being gay, and I shared that I thought I was as well, except that I'd never had any experience with a gay relationship.
"Well, one thing led to another, and we became more than friends. I don't know whether I'm in love with him, but we certainly are dating and enjoying each other."
I interrupted. "So you decided that it was time to let your parents in on your little secret."
"Did you take your friend with you?"
"Yes, I did."
"And it didn't go well."
"It didn't go well at all. My parents, especially my father, wouldn't even talk about it. They refused to even acknowledge my friend, partner, Preston. And this after they'd gotten along very well with him during the day on Saturday. 'We're so glad to meet a friend of John's,' and things like that."
I said, "But not that kind of friend, right."
"Right. It got worse, and we had to leave, but not before my father informed me that he wouldn't pay one more cent for me to go to, as he put it, that damn, corrupting university over there in that Grand Damn Forks."
I said, "I'm glad you came and shared your situation with me. But, just exactly why did you come to me now?" I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted him to spell it out.
"I'm going to have to drop out of school next semester. I don't have the money to pay tuition here. I have a little scholarship and I get a small loan, and I have a work-study job. But my parents have been paying quite a bit toward tuition and all of my room and board. Money I earned in high school pays expenses, but it can't cover tuition." At that point tears were beginning to show in his eyes, and he was just barely able to suppress real crying.
Let me ask a couple of questions. "First, how did Preston take all of this? Was he supportive?"
"Oh, very much. We were in his car–I don't have a car, and it was a good thing he was driving–I was in no shape to drive. We were going to just drive back here, but I didn't want to have to come back to the dorm with my roommate. I like him, but he doesn't know I'm gay. I needed to talk, and coming out to someone else was simply not going to happen. I suggested to Preston that we stop at a motel. There aren't many motels on Route 2–none in Rugby where I thought there'd be one. But there were several in Devil's Lake, and we stopped at a little mom and pop. We checked in, got a room, and walked to it. We went inside and then I think we both realized that we were crossing a threshold in our relationship. We'd been–I guess you'd call it dating–about six weeks. We'd never slept together–we both had roommates. We'd been swimming together at the pool, undressing and showering together, but nothing sexual–except perhaps in our minds. We'll in my mind, at least.
"When the motel room door closed, Preston grabbed me, hugged me and kissed me. That wasn't new for us, but this was a lot more of a kiss than we'd ever experienced. Well, one thing led to another, and we had a hard time forcing ourselves to get up and go out for dinner. That was Saturday night. Sunday was more of the same, and then we drove home. We were back in our dorms last night, but things have certainly moved for us. But, at the same time I'm afraid that I'm going to have to leave the university. I guess I'll get a job here in Grand Forks and stay with Preston. He says he'd like me to do that. But he isn't in a position to help me stay in school. He's taking on loans to pay his own way here."
Well, what do you say to a young man in that situation? I needed a lot more background before I could make any promises, but I wanted to take some of the load off of John's mind. I said, "John, things will work out. I'm glad you came to me and shared your story. When my partner, Charlie, took me to visit his parents–and they didn't know he was gay either–things worked out. And they may for you with your parents; don't give up on them. But it's your life, and you seem to be ready to take charge of it–even if it means getting a job here in Grand Damn Forks–I'm not sure I really like that name."
I checked my calendar, and found that Charlie and I were planning dinner at home on Thursday. Well, it would be dinner for four. The invitation was issued, received with great surprise but also a very grateful acceptance, and John headed off to meet Preston for lunch.
I called the registrar and asked him to send over a full copy of the records we had for both John and Preston. Damn, I didn't get Preston's last name. A call to the theater resolved that problem (thank God he was Preston and not Bill or another John). Preston Watkins was from Brainerd, Minnesota, and a freshman like John. Both of them were above average students, and both had been active in their high school theater programs, explaining how they'd gotten parts in an important production while they were still freshman. Interestingly, Preston's admission application essay (which isn't required, but which is encouraged) talked about his experiences coming out, both to his parents and to his friends in high school. Judging from the acceptance Preston reported, Brainerd High School gets high marks.
John's high school record was similar except nothing in his file suggested anything about his sexual orientation–which would be the norm. Preston's essay was very much the exception.
The two young men arrived at Dakota House on Thursday evening, looking very nice, dressed in coats and ties. I realized that I should've told them that school clothes were appropriate, but I'd forgotten. I introduced Charlie and then asked him, "Shall we invite our guests to take their coats off or shall we go upstairs and get ours?"
He answered, "It's nice to know that at least some students today are able to look this nice. I'll go get our coats."
Suitably attired, we invited our guests, who were obviously nervous about the situation they found themselves in, into our living room where we had some cheese and crackers out, along with a variety of soft drinks. We made it clear that we were drinking Coke and both of them chose the same thing.
I decided that I should get right to the point of the evening. I said, "Look, John, I know that your life has been clouded in the last few days by a fear that you're going to have to drop out of the university. So I want to begin this evening by assuring you that you won't be dropping out at the end of the semester. We have emergency scholarship funds available. I've already checked your record, and you qualify academically. The funds I'm referring to are part of a special endowment that specifies that Charlie and I may direct its use, and we have. You've been designated as a full scholarship recipient, room, board, fees, and textbooks, beginning next semester. It's all recorded with the financial aid office, and your registration for next semester is all cleared. The scholarship will be good for seven semesters."
As you may surmise, the funds Charlie and I tapped were the specially designated endowment funds provided by the Fred's Sports stock held by the endowment fund. Charlie and I could designate their use; that is, Charlie and I acting as individuals, not as officers of the school. Acting as school officers we're bound by a lot of rules and guidelines to guard against discrimination and favoritism. But spending Fred's designated money, and acting as individuals, we could simply say, "Give John Longmeyer a scholarship."
John looked stunned and could hardly speak. Preston spoke for him. "My God, can you really do that, this quickly, and simply because he's gay? That's wonderful."
"It's not because he's gay. It's because his father has, essentially, disowned him. The scholarship is to keep him in school, not reward his sexual orientation. And, yes, thanks to a very generous donor, I, and the university, are able to do this."
John recovered and said, "I don't know how to thank you. When I came to your office I wasn't asking for money, just someone to talk to. This is simply beyond my wildest dreams."
Charlie said, "Drink some Coke and have some cheese. Let this sink in, and then we'd like to talk a little more about your situation."
We waited until dinner, served by a work-study student from the university food service, to continue the conversation. "So, John, just exactly whom have you come out to, besides the three of us here and your parents?"
Having read his admissions essay, I knew the answer the next question before I asked it, but I wanted to give Preston a chance to talk about himself. "How about you, Preston?"
"I was involved with the theater group at my high school. We all knew each other pretty well. Early in my senior year I decided that I knew that I was gay–though I'd never done anything about it but fantasize–and decided to come out to my theater friends. So at the cast party following our fall production, I got everyone's attention and told them, 'There's something about me that I want you to know. I'm gay. It's part of who I am, and I don't want to hide it.' With that another boy, Dyck Reardon, spoke up, saying, 'Well, if Preston's got the guts to tell you that, so do I. I'm gay, and not ashamed of it. And I have a partner here.' Eyes looked around the room, and rather quickly Jason Weltner, stood up and said, 'And I'm the gay partner. Dyck didn't give me much choice, but I think it's time that everything was out in the open.'"
Charlie asked, "So how did the group take all these revelations?"
"Like it was no big deal. About a week later two girls, including the female lead in our recent production, told us that they were lesbians and in love. I'd been scared to death when I first spoke, but nobody seemed to react much at all."
I said, "Well, times are changing. It's not the fifties anymore. Good thing too. OK, are you guy out at all on this campus?"
Preston said, "John isn't, as he said. I've told a few friends, and there hasn't been any problem. I haven't had a situation where a sort of big announcement was appropriate. I think since John and I have been dating, a few of the kids working in the theater have figured it out. It's time to be open about it."
John said, "Preston is a lot more gutsy that I am, but I agree it's time to be open about it."
Charlie asked, "Preston, what was your parents' reaction?"
"I wasn't sure what to expect. My parents are pretty liberal, and we'd talked quite a bit about sex. From talking to my middle and high school friends, I think my dad was the only parent that ever talked to his son about masturbation. It was when they were talking about birth control that I said, 'Mom, Dad, I don't think this lecture is very important. I'm gay, and I won't be sexually involved with girls.'
"I couldn't believe it. Dad didn't miss a beat. He simply said, 'AIDS is as big a risk as pregnancy, so we'd better keep talking about condoms.'"
Charlie interjected, "The next time your Dad visits this campus, I want to meet him. I think he should get a Parent of the Year Award."
I asked, "How about your mother?"
"She wasn't quite so casual. After hearing my father's reaction she said, 'Preston, it doesn't matter to me whether you're gay or straight. You are who you are. I do worry that being gay will cause you some problems as you go through life. But lots of things in life cause problems, and you simply have to get past or through them and get on with your life. Now, tell me, do you have a boyfriend or partner or whatever?' I told her I didn't. And I didn't until I met John. After the word that I was gay got around school, several boys approached me, either hinting or outright saying they were gay, and suggesting that we get together and 'do things.' They weren't interested in a relationship, and I wasn't interested in simply having sex. Nothing happened."
John said, "You have no idea how wonderful it's been to simply be able to talk about all of this without feeling you have to hide things."
I switched the subject, and we talked about the university theater, and what productions were scheduled for the rest of the year. Soon the work-study student waiter brought in dessert, and we ate cherry pie and ice cream in relative silence. John and Preston left shortly after dinner.
Every now and then over the next four years, John and Preston would come by my office–to thank me again for the renewing scholarship, or just to update me on their lives. They were doing well in school, and by the middle of their sophomore years had made a life-long commitment to each other. Charlie and I were invited to their ceremony, which they held outside in a grove of trees on the edge of campus. Preston's family was there; John's was not. Charlie and I offered to stand in for his parents opposite where Preston's family stood. John warmly thanked us, but he'd asked Prof. (of theater) and Mrs. Houston to fulfill that role. I was glad to see that kind of a personal relationship between faculty and students.
One or the other of the two starred in almost every major–and minor–theater production their entire four years at UND. After graduation they headed for New York, and within a couple of years both had landed good roles in various Broadway productions. Charlie and I couldn't resist a trip to New York in 2001 to see the two of them in Naked Boys Singing. We'd have gotten there sooner–they opened in 1999–but we were involved in our sailing and couldn't squeeze in a trip to New York. I'll have to admit, I have rarely laughed so hard as I did when Preston sang, "I'm a Perky Little Porn Star from Skokie, Illinois." His prick managed to stay soft throughout that song, but neither Charlie's nor mine did!
Now a last story, this one an ongoing tale. It began with Charlie about two years ago.
It didn't start with a student coming into one of Charlie's offices. Rather in began in the natatorium, where Charlie was swimming laps while I was diving. Team practice was over and the public swim time had begun. Charlie knew I'd be finished soon, and he'd get out when he saw me. Just at that time someone dived into the lane next to his, making a terrific splash. Not only that, but the swimmer swam very awkwardly, making a funny splash with each stroke. Regardless, the swimmer was determined and as Charlie watched he swam four laps of the pool. Then he paddled his way over to the ladder and very awkwardly struggled out. He headed to the locker room, walking with a significant limp.
Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, and as Charlie thought about it, that was probably a very good thing. Charlie got out and walked over to one of the life guards and asked if she knew anything about the obviously disabled swimmer.
"Not much. He comes two or three times a week, usually a little later than this, which is probably why you haven't seen him before. This is his first year, so I think he's a freshman. Several people have tried to help him, especially as he struggles up the ladder to get out. He thanks people, but refuses all help. He says that he only accepts help when he can't manage to do something by himself, and he can get out of the pool by himself. I don't know how he gets along in the locker room, or anywhere else for that matter; I only see him here at the pool."
Charlie gave him a little time and then headed to the locker room, where the young man was just getting dressed, after having taken a shower. Charlie watched from a distance as he struggled to put the shoe on a very deformed leg and foot. Having been warned that he wouldn't accept help if he could do it himself, Charlie didn't offer to help. But when the shoe was on he walked up to the boy and introduced himself. "Hi, I'm Charlie, the university chancellor. I watched you swim–you were in the lane next to me. You're a very determined fellow."
"Hello. I'm Jimmy Lawson. Yes, I guess I am a very determined fellow, for whatever that's worth."
"In my book, it's worth a lot. Tell me about yourself."
"This mess of an arm and leg is the result of a birth trauma. Nobody really knows the details; my mother was under a general anaesthetic. She was told that I was a breach baby, and the damage to my leg and arm occurred as they worked to get me out. The cord was wrapped around my neck, so I wasn't getting all the oxygen I needed, so removing me was an emergency, and in the process my leg and arm were damaged. There was a malpractice suit, but we didn't get a settlement that amounted to more than future medical bills. I couldn't walk until I was about six, but I learned to swim before that. Swimming is important for my continued health. I'm over here at least twice a week. Sometimes I come early just to watch Tim dive. He's beautiful."
"You wouldn't be here if you hadn't done OK in high school. How much of a challenge is attending school."
"My parents had to struggle to insist that I attend a normal school. My mind wasn't affected, but when I moved around the building I had to go very slowly. They wanted me to use an electric wheelchair, but my parents wouldn't hear of it. They insisted that I could walk, and that getting dependent on a wheelchair of any kind would handicap me. They fought a lot of battles on my behalf, until I got to high school. Then they told me I had to fight my own battles. I've gotten pretty good at it."
"I would guess that one of your constant challenges is turning down the offered help of well-meaning people. The lifeguard told me that you always refused help getting out of the pool."
"Oh, Mr. Charlie, that's so true. My parents stressed over and over that I had to do for myself. If I accepted unneeded help, before long I'd need the help and be unable to take care of myself. It's a hard lesson, but I learned it. I'm afraid that I offend some people when I refuse their help. I always try to explain, but I know I hurt some feelings."
"You're quite a guy, Jimmy. I'm surprised that neither Tim nor I have heard your story. The Admissions Office usually alerts us to exceptional students."
"Nothing in my application mentioned my disabilities. When I came to campus for a visit, late in my junior year, I told the admissions people that I wanted no special consideration and no fuss was to be made over me. If they didn't tell you or Tim about me, they were doing exactly what I asked them to do."
"Are you able to function well on this campus?"
"Oh, yes. I'm not on wheels, but the curb cuts and elevators are a blessing. And the conveniently located handicapped bathrooms. Again, I'm not on wheels, but I my leg forces me to use the wider stalls. My slow walking presents a little problem. Unless two successive classes are very near each other, I can't get from one class to another on time. So I simply schedule classes every other period. At least this semester, that hasn't been a problem."
"You don't seem to feel sorry for yourself at all."
"Oh, no. I get up each morning, get dressed, walk to the dining room, and think: I'm so blessed. I can walk. I can see. I can hear. I see kids in wheelchairs, using white canes, struggling with lip reading or other hearing alternatives, and I think, God, I'm lucky. My injuries could've been so much worse."
Charlie said, "I know you don't want to be singled out, but I know that Tim would like to meet you. We're going straight home from here to dinner. Will you please join us? We always have enough food in the house."
"That sounds like an invitation I can't refuse, and I won't. But, honestly, I don't want to be singled out for special consideration."
At that point I came into the locker room, having finished my diving. Charlie saw me and waved me over. Jimmy and I were introduced, and Charlie told me he was joining us for dinner. I said, "Great. Well, Charlie, we'd better get dressed, Jimmy had a big head start on us." I didn't mention Jimmy's obvious disabilities.
As we quickly showered, Charlie briefed me on what he knew about Jimmy. I was pretty sure that I understood Jimmy fairly well.
We walked to Dakota House, talking along the way about Jimmy's studies and plans for the future. Charlie was definitely the right person for him to have bumped into at the pool–he was planning to be a lawyer. Jimmy and Charlie walked side by side; Charlie obviously struggling to go at Jimmy's very slow pace. I was behind, and I carefully watched Jimmy walk. He had a carefully controlled gait and foot movement that enabled him to walk, slowly, without having to expend too much effort. Later, I'd ask him about that, and he told my that around seventh grade a new occupational therapist had taught him to walk as he did. It'd changed his life. "I can't walk any faster, but when I get to where I'm going, I'm no longer exhausted." As we walked, I had an idea.
When we got to Dakota House, I assigned Charlie the task of making a salad and veggie while Jimmy and I went outside and grilled some lamb chops–which he'd said he loved. As we were standing by the grill I asked Jimmy, "Have you ever tried diving?"
"No, I'm not sure that'd be possible."
"You look to me like a kid that would try anything. Talk to your doctor and see if he thinks there'd be any serious risk to your diving. Have him call me if he'd like to discuss it."
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"I'm not sure I could get up the ladder to a diving board; at least not quick enough not to cause a real traffic jam. When I walk around campus at my slow speed, people can go around me. You can't pass on a ladder."
"If it wouldn't offend you, there are two guys on the university staff whose job it is to solve access problems. This is a new challenge for them. You talk to your doctor, and I'll talk to them."
We had a good dinner, interesting conversation, and Jimmy left to get his homework done. As Charlie and I thought about it, the evening was remarkable in two ways: First, Jimmy was completely open about his disability and willing to talk about it in a very clearheaded way. Second, despite this handicap, he didn't seem threatened by the idea of diving, even from a platform ten meters in the air. When I mentioned that he simply replied, "Provided my doctor doesn't think it presents some special risk, if you can dive from ten meters, then I can. It won't be pretty, but you can figure that out for yourself, and I'm sure you already have."
What a kid!
Two days later Irene told me that I had a call from a Dr. Wilson, at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. I took the call and was surprised to learn that Dr. Wilson wanted to talk about Jimmy Lawson. I said to Dr. Wilson, "I'm surprised to get a call from St. Louis about Jimmy. I thought he was from Fargo, North Dakota."
"He is. But about ten years ago his parents weren't happy with the care he was getting, and they started looking for a new orthopedist. They ended up with me. It seems that what they were hearing from his previous doctors was all of the things he couldn't do. Both he and they wanted to talk about what he could do. We've had a very healthy relationship. A lot of our consults are on the phone, after he has X-rays and cat scans done locally. He gets here once or twice a year now."
"Would I be correct that you put him onto the occupational therapist that taught him how to walk correctly."
"That would be John Harper on the hospital staff here. He's great. He and Jimmy really hit it off. Now, he tells me you're talking about his being a diver. Why diving?"
"Simple. It's what I do best. I'm a gymnast as well, but that seemed entirely too great a risk for a young man with an arm that he can't count on."
"You're right about that. The kid is daring, but he does understand that he has limits. He doesn't like to talk about his limits, but he does understand that he has some. Convince me that diving isn't too high risk."
"Well, I told him he needed to talk to you, because I don't really know what the risks are. Obviously we all take belly flops from time to time, but Jimmy doesn't have any special risk for that. I'd be worried that the equivalent of a belly flop for Jimmy would be coming down on his bad arm or leg at an odd angle."
"How often do you do that when you dive?"
"I've had some pretty spectacular belly flops, but I've never hit my arm or leg in a bad position. But I have a very well-coordinated body."
"What would happen if you did hit your arm or leg wrong?"
"I guess I'd break it."
"It would heal. Yeah, a real freak accident could leave you looking like Jimmy, you obviously don't worry about low risk things like that. If you did, you wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. Well, Jimmy's arm or leg would both break and heal like yours. But his is the lower risk."
"Why do you say that?"
"He's risking a banged up body that can't get much worse. You are risking a beautiful body, loss of your ability to perform in your favorite sports, really screwing up your life as you know it. Jimmy's made a good life out of what he has, but he knows very well what he has and hasn't. He's not risking half as much as you are when you go off a ten-meter diving board. And look what he has to gain: self-confidence; a new form of physical activity that may, and I mean may, be very beneficial to him; and an avenue to make new friends in a new sphere of activity. Dr. Tim, teach the kid to dive. Don't be fearful for him–he has a surplus of people being afraid for him. And above all, don't be condescending, and don't make inappropriate allowances because of his leg and arm. With his body, the definition of perfection has to change, but within his ability demand perfection. Too many people that work with boys like Jimmy make all kinds of allowances and concessions, dooming the disabled to failure before they start. Obviously, you aren't that kind of person, or you would never have suggested diving for Jimmy. But I have to give that lecture to everyone. Too often it doesn't take."
"Now I know why Jimmy goes to St. Louis for his medical advice. It's been a delight talking to you, Dr. Wilson. I'll get Jimmy started diving right away."
My next call was to Billy and Bess. We met in Charlie's office and talked about Jimmy. I repeated my conversation with Dr. Wilson as close to word-for-word as I could. Bess said, "I remember seeing Jimmy swimming in the pool. It's a struggle for him, but he never gives up. I have a hard time imagining him going off a diving board."
I said, "My goal for him is a two and one-half somersault with a full twist, from a handstand, from the ten-meter platform."
Bess said, and Billy thought, "You are out of your mind."
"I don't think so. The kid is determined, and I don't see anything about his body that would prevent him from doing that. Of course, it wouldn't be pretty, but we have to accept from the beginning that Jimmy isn't going to be able to give us good form, not even fair form. But I think he'll be able to actually do the dives. For Jimmy that'll be a huge accomplishment, and would put him ahead of almost any other disabled diver. The problem is that the paraolympic movement has no diving component. He'll be on his own; I think it would be better put that he'd be the world leader when he makes his first five or ten meter dive."
Billy said, "If this were coming from anyone but you, Tim, I would've exited laughing a long time ago. But you're serious, and I've seen you accomplish miracles in the past. But be very careful not to set goals that Jimmy can never reach."
"We'll talk about goals when we see how he handles the first few diving challenges he faces. Do you know, when he does laps does he begin by diving in or jumping in, or going down a ladder?"
Bess answered, "He does a very awkward combination of a racing dive and a belly flop. It isn't pretty."
"But he dives. And he started that on his own. If you were that impaired, would you dive in?"
"If I were that impaired I think I would've given up a long time ago. The boy is quite exceptional already. But the ten meter platform? Two and a half somersaults? I don't think so."
"Well, I do. And I'll bet Jimmy will jump at the chance. I'm going to take him to the pool to dive with me at six a.m. the day after tomorrow. Will you come around seven and let me introduce you?"
"We'll be there, and I think I'm going to invite Larry to join us. I think he needs a project, and he might find it in Jimmy. Whether you're willing to admit it or not, Tim, neither you nor I have the time to give Jimmy the coaching he's going to need to accomplish the goals you're setting for him."
"He'll be setting his own goals, but I really like the idea of inviting Larry."
Dr. Wilson had talked to Jimmy right after he spoke with me. Jimmy called me to tell me, and we set the morning diving date.
My next call was to Al and Alex, my disability access specialists. I told them I had a special problem. We had to be able to get Jimmy to both the low and high diving boards and the five and ten meter platforms. He could make the climbs, but it would so slow down his diving–and everybody else's–that it would be impractical.
Al said, "Well, what you want is a short-term solution that you can use day after tomorrow, and then a satisfactory long-term solution that won't embarrass the user or impede others using the boards and platforms. Right?"
"Of course. Got any ideas?"
Alex said, "Sure. For right now we'll rig up the smallest forklift in the warehouse. We'll fasten a chair and seatbelt to it, and we'll be able to put him anywhere he wants. Well, maybe not ten meters high, but he isn't going off the ten meter tomorrow. We'll think longer about a real solution."
It worked! The next morning Alex was there to operate the forklift and to train a couple of students to operate it as well. They also studied the facility to begin thinking about a more permanent solution–one that didn't require a second operator.
But that morning I was much more interested in Jimmy's diving than in how he got onto the diving board. I started by watching him dive from the side of the pool–as he always did when he swam laps. As I talked with him he shared a crucial insight into what he would be attempting. "You know, I never jump into the pool. When I started swimming, it was in a pool with steps into the shallow end, so getting in was no problem. Later I tried jumping in and found it was likely to hurt. I have too little control over my left leg, and the water can push it to the side, putting me in a splits. If I dive in, the water pushes my leg down and my arm toward my side–the natural place for them to be."
I replied, "Then in planing your dives we should select only those that land you into the water head first."
"That's right. I'm pretty sure that feet first isn't going to work."
"You know your limitations better than I do. I don't think it'll be difficult to work around that one. It would be, if you were going to be in regular competitions–you simply couldn't avoid half the possible dives. You're going to be diving for yourself, perhaps to put on a show, but going into the water consistently head first won't be a problem."
When Billy and Bess arrived along with Larry, I had Jimmy repeat his comments about not entering the water feet first. I told Billy and Bess, "I'll have to revise my goal for Jimmy. I said a two and one-half somersault from a handstand, but that would put him in the water feet first. His goal will have to be a triple."
Billy turned to Larry and gave him the background on my impossibly lofty goals for Jimmy.
Bess laughed at the idea of a triple, but Larry said, "Do you think that kid has any idea of what's in store for him?"
Bess said, "We need to make sure that he knows that he can tell Tim to shove off at any time."
I laughed and said, "I'll tell him that first." Jimmy walked up and I asked, "Are you ready to try the diving board?"
"I sure am, and I think riding that fork lift over there looks like fun."
Alex had come up, heard the comment, and said, "I hope so. Al and I had fun testing it last night."
I told Jimmy, "The whole idea of this dive is to make sure your head goes in first. Use the board like a platform, don't bounce. You won't get height and you'll hit the water quickly, so there isn't much timing involved. Just be sure to push off with that good foot, and kick it high into the air. The water will hit you in the face before you know it."
It wasn't a pretty dive. But his right hand hit, then his head, then his waist slithered in, and his leg flopped wildly. It was exactly what I'd hoped for. On his first ever dive from a board he'd managed to get roughly perpendicular to the water and head almost straight in. I thought, "Given normal legs, this kid would be a champion."
Larry said, "That kid has pluck. He hardly hesitated before going off the board. And because of his leg, he wasn't able to do what virtually all kids do: jump in a lot before they ever contemplate diving from the board."
Before Jimmy could climb out of the pool I asked Larry, "Are you looking for an extraordinary coaching project? If so, I'll formally introduce you to your star pupil."
Larry said, "I think it'd be fun. But are you sure that a lot of the fascination of this for Jimmy isn't the idea of working with the great Tim?"
I said, "We'll ask him."
Jimmy had walked up and asked, "Ask him what?"
Billy answered, "Ask him if he'd like the great Larry Knudsen, coach of many Olympians including Tim, Billy, Willie, Hardie, and others, to be his personal coach."
Jimmy thought for a minute and said, "Coach Knudsen, are you really willing to coach me? You're retired, do you want to commit the amount of time coaching me is going to take? There's no way I'm going to be a Billy or a Willie. But, if you're willing, I'd love it. It'd be an honor, a very exciting honor."
Tim had met his match in knowing just the right thing to say at the right moment. In an instant a bond had formed between Jimmy and Larry that would bring results that would startle us all. But more of that in a future episode.
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