Sigh. Reality continues to ruin my life, as Calvin once declared to Hobbes.
I guess when life gives you snow, you should make snowballs. Or snow angels. Or a snowman. Something like that. Except I don’t want to do any of those things. When did I grow up?
In Focus on Abilities (p. 22) this week, instead of a Special Olympics athlete, we instead feature a man who dedicated the latter years of his life to coaching those athletes, to putting a smile on their faces, to making sure they all got some ice cream from Dairy Queen after a meet or game or match. Mike Rychart, or Turk as he was affectionately known, sounded like quite the guy, always quick with a joke, a man with a big heart.
I never met Turk, but I knew his son Dusty. He was our All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year at another publication a couple of decades ago. Against the naysayers, he walked on at the University of Minnesota, earned a scholarship and became an exceptional player as the program rebuilt from the ruins of the academic scandal that rocked the program in 1998. Dusty went on to have quite the successful basketball career in Australia, met and married a girl there and recently became a father. They still reside there in Brisbane. While I may not have ever met Turk, I feel like I knew him a little because I knew Dusty, who like his father, has a lot of heart.
It seems like yesterday that I pulled into Applebee’s in Grand Rapids in my Camaro for an interview with Dusty for a story for Minnesota Basketball News. My, how time flies, whether you’re having fun or not. That had to be around 17 years ago.
It got me to thinking about how I got my start in writing—forgive me if I’ve related these stories before; my memory isn’t quite as sharp as it used to be—and about some of my mentors.
I grew up loving to read, to absorb new information. My mom read to me constantly when I was a toddler (and all through my formative years), and I learned to read at a very young age. My appetite for books was voracious from that time on, but I don’t really recall loving to write; not at a young age and not for some time after. I had a pretty healthy imagination, but those stories were trapped in my head for a long time.
Mr. (John) Artisensi was my high school literature teacher and my Knowledge Bowl coach—yes, I was captain of the Knowledge Bowl team at Babbitt-Embarrass for the duration of my high school years, and I’m not ashamed to say that I loved it; I should have gone on Jeopardy before I killed too many brain cells. While I didn’t take to him as a mentor at the time, in hindsight I realize he did provide invaluable advice and experience during my time under his tutelage. I’ve been fortunate enough to run into him a few times over the past few years and to be able to visit with him, and I guess here, thank him for those lessons. (Word of advice to any students who may be reading this either on purpose or by mistake—show your gratitude to your teachers that make a difference in your life while you have the chance.) I am certain that Mr. Artisensi was at least partially responsible for spurring my creativity and imagination through his teaching.
The man most responsible for my career as a writer—and I (usually, except when I’m starving) love him for it—was my junior high grammar teacher and high school basketball coach Mr. (Dan) Zubich. I remember how intimidated I was by him my first day in his class in seventh grade. He was a tall man who walked with a limp from an old knee injury and botched surgery, who didn’t exactly come across as cuddly and kind—at least not to me, who at that time was about a 5-foot-1, 100-pound shy, bespectacled kid. He was gruff and somewhat sarcastic, and I’m pretty sure I was terrified of him for most of seventh grade, but I’m pretty sure that was his strategy with all his seventh grade classes; it was a pretty effective way to have an orderly classroom.
One day, I came into his class for fifth hour (right after lunch). I had a bag of peanuts in my pocket I was still munching on. He walked in after the bell and declared, “I smell peanuts.” How he knew it was me, I’m not sure, but suddenly he gave my desk a boot—the chair was attached to it—and spun me halfway around. I never snacked in his class ever again—at least not as a seventh-grader.
I hated grammar class—it was a lot of rote—and if I had been clever enough to know one of my favorite phrases—“the department of redundancy department”— then, I would have called it that. Of course, not to his face. He always stressed how important it was to have good grammar and punctuation and to know it well, and that’s always stuck with me. As much as I disliked the repetition, I was good at it, and I’d finish my assignments early and immediately dive into whatever book I was reading at the time.
Mr. Zubich noticed my love for reading, or at least in hindsight I think he must have, for by eighth grade he’d have me come over to his desk to talk when I was done with my work. He’d let me read his daily copy of the Star Tribune, and I’d always devour the sports section. If my memory serves me correctly, he must have recommended me to the Babbitt Weekly— my first writing job when I was a freshman or sophomore—where I got paid about 12 cents per column inch for my short articles on local football, basketball and baseball games. He gave me a perpetual hall pass—probably why I was voted “Teacher’s Pet” in my senior yearbook—so I could escape to the library whenever possible (or sneak in the gym to shoot hoops).
He taught me what good writing was, and the importance of attention to detail. One time sticks in my head. It was a Monday column by Patrick Reusse or Dan Barreiro—probably Reusse; I don’t think he liked Barreiro much—about the Vikings. Jerry Burns was the coach at the time, and the column led off with the blood that was dripping from a hangnail Burns had ripped off during a game but didn’t seem to notice.
“Miller, it’s the little things—details—that make good writing,” I can remember him saying. “The lead; you need to draw the reader in. You’ve got to have a good lead.”
I highly doubt I would have ever pursued writing if it wasn’t for the time he took to talk to me personally about it. He never pushed me towards it; rather those conversations instilled in me a love for it. By my senior year, I wanted to become a sports writer, and while the importance of sports has dwindled for me as I’ve aged, and I’ve turned towards pursuing other writing goals, I’m so thankful for his attention. It opened up a whole new creative world for me.
He’s also probably the only person who’s ever motivated me by yelling at me. In basketball my senior year, we had lost our top seven players off a highly-successful team from the season before. I was a starter at a guard spot (starting in the third game of the season; I ran myself over with my car two weeks before the season, so I came off the bench because of a deep femoral bruise the first two games, but that’s another story for another time).
One of our starters was an eighth-grader, and the other three were upperclassmen who didn’t respond well to yelling, so that left me as the guy reserved for his “encouragement.” But I loved the man, would have ran through a brick wall if he asked me, so I worked all the harder. I’m both highly competitive, and I didn’t want to let him down.
While we were never blown out, we only won three games that year, a dozen of them by single digits. In our only win on our home court, I missed the front end of a one-and-one, or maybe it was two free throws, in the fourth quarter in a close game. He proceeded to call timeout and shake me by the neck and shoulders in the huddle, asking me if I was going to miss another free throw. I said “No, sir” and went 5-for-5 from the line the rest of the game to seal the win.
Maybe a good neck-wringing isn’t exactly smiled upon nowadays, but it sure was effective that night. Mr. Zubich lives in Wisconsin now and has for a number of years. I probably could have used another neck-wringing or three in my 20s and early 30s . I might not have missed as much as I did then if he had been around to do that for me.
Mr. Zubich, I guess I just wanted to say thanks, for your attention, your attention to detail, for everything. It occurs to me I may not have said that before.
Until next time…
Brian Miller is a longtime local writer who resides in Eveleth. He welcomes glowing accolades and scathing reviews at email@example.com.