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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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May 2010 Archives

French Lessons

The foreign-language section of my memory is more jumbled than usual this spring. It's always been something of a junk drawer, where all the odd remnants of my past linguistic efforts have accumulated.

Like so many drawers in my house, this one makes me regret I didn't keep it organized all along.

I'm about to teach a summer writing workshop in France, for the second time, and this time I vowed I'd be ready. This meant signing up for remedial French in a community education program this winter. Just how remedial, I didn't know.

At first, every sentence I tried to form in French came out in Spanish, the language I started learning in Mexico 40 years ago and am still working on. (I decided long ago that I'd never understand Spanish subjunctive, so I've concentrated on accent and vocabulary, but I cling proudly to those.)

To my dismay, the more French I studied, the more my hard-won Spanish faded. Verb endings went first, then whole verbs, then nouns. For many weeks, all the little words in Spanish - and, in, from, with, above, below, etc. - lingered, like forlorn little children whose big brothers and sisters are off at summer camp.

Then they too were nudged into the distance. But not by the French I was learning.

No, the little words that sprang most easily to mind were suddenly German. I'd studied that language in high school and had used it heavily as an exchange student. Apparently it was my foreign-language bedrock.

It had been more than a decade since I'd needed to use German on a trip, but now it had been prodded awake by my rummaging in the language drawer. Either that, or it rose to the challenge of a traditional enemy and began refighting the Franco-Prussian War.

None of this has exactly advanced my own cause. But now reinforcements have ridden in, from most unexpected source: My younger self - the 19-year-old college girl who took first-year French at the U of M and had the amazing wisdom to annotate all the readings.

A somewhat older self saved her books, and a much older self was too nostalgic about life as a Golden Gopher to throw them out. Every time I tried to, I rationalized that they might come in handy someday.

It turns out that all the selves were right: Someday, it seems, is now.

So my bedtime reading this month is a French memoir that I last opened in 1962. I have no memory of numbering every word I didn't know and listing their definitions in the margins, but there they are - translations of 10 or 12 French words per page, all in my own once-tidy handwriting.

Thanks to the good sense of the college kid I was, I can actually read this book. Sometimes, when someone in it tells a funny story, I even get the joke.

I'm beginning to believe that when I get back to Brittany this summer, I may be able to say more than "I would like a crepe, please.'' Who knows? I might even be able to discuss an idea or two.

I just wish that smart college kid had done the annotation thing with Spanish. After all this, die Sprache is going to need some major rehab.

A Maverick Hero

What does a maverick professor do when he stops teaching? If he's Tom Walz, he keeps right on being a maverick.

It's not just a choice for the former University of Minnesota professor - it's more like a mission. That has made him a powerful influence, a role model, an agent for change and - for many people, including me - a hero.

Walz insists that anything I write about him should focus on what motivates him now - the memory of another maverick hero, a retarded man named Bill Sackter, made famous by a movie starring Mickey Rooney. I'll come back to that.

I met Tom Walz in the late 1960s, when I was a young reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. Education, even at the university level, was in flux then, as was American society as a whole, and Walz had started an alternative project at the U of M that I wanted to look into.

He called it The Living-Learning Center. It was housed in the old University YMCA, in a big hall that he and his students had filled with comfy cast-off chairs and second-hand desks - something Walz has continued to do with every official space he gets his hands on.

Makes it more human, he says.

That is Tom Walz in a nutshell: Everything in his life has been about making the world more human.

Soon after our interview, Walz suggested that I cover a student trip he was leading to his favorite country, Honduras, where he had been the first Peace Corps director. Back then, it was one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere - a tropical semi-hell where 60 percent of its children died before age 5.

Long afterward, I realized that the maverick professor had selected us fellow travelers because he sensed that we each needed to be in Honduras.

He put us into the same bare-bones, grass-roots, poverty-level settings that his Peace Corps volunteers had lived in - the kinds of places where most of the planet's people still live.

Every day, Walz sent us out in pairs to investigate issues facing the developing country. He paired me with a student named Tom Gjelten, who went on to a stellar career as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio.

Evenings, we'd rendezvous to discuss what we learned, usually talking around a battered table in some beat-up hotel where the guest list changed a couple of times a night - a place chosen, not to cut travel costs, but to give us nice, middle-class Middle Westerners a bracing case of culture shock.

That was the best training I could have had for travel writing: You learn a lot more about human reality when you don't stay in look-alike hotels where you can't hear roosters crowing in the mornings.

For all of us, Walz was planting seeds, shaping minds, guiding us, in a teaching style so low-key it didn't appear to be teaching at all.

To me, he talked a lot about "the Family of Man.'' Years later, when putting real people into my travel writing had become a habit, I knew I had Tom to thank.

Just as Tom Walz had changed our lives, Bill Sackter changed his - and inspired a lot of other people's around the country.

Bill was a gentle retarded man who was only seven years old when he was sent to Faribault State Hospital. He was institutionalized there for the next 44 years.

One of Walz's students, Barry Morrow, befriended Bill after his release, became his legal guardian and eventually wrote a television screenplay about him. Mickey Rooney played Bill; the film won a Golden Globe and two Emmys, and Morrow went on to a Hollywood writing career that included the screenplay for "Rainman.''

By then, Walz was a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Iowa. He arranged a job for Bill in the school coffee shop, soon renamed Uptown Bill's. When Bill died in 1983, he had become a beloved symbol of hope and achievement - locally at first, then nationally.

Keeping Bill's memory alive has been Tom Walz's calling ever since, through The Extend the Dream Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees a constellation of micro-businesses providing meaningful work for disabled people.

Two years ago, Walz helped produce "A Friend Indeed,'' a prize-winning documentary about Bill's life, and last year he published his autobiography, "Memoirs of a Maverick Professor," as a fundraiser for the foundation. (For information, go to http://www.uptownbills.org.)

This summer, Walz is stepping down as foundation director. He's in his mid-70s now and says it's time. But given his maverick mindset, I suspect his retirement is going to look like anybody else's full-time job.

(I mean, this is a man who once spoke so persuasively of volunteer work that, for a minute, I actually considered refusing my salary - that's how good he'd made working for free sound!)

I met Bill Sackter only once, when I drove down to Iowa City to write a feature about him for the Star Tribune.

In overalls and a Santa Claus beard, Bill shuffled around his coffee shop, showed me how he made the coffee and collected the money, played a few tunes on his harmonica and told his life story - without a trace of bitterness.

His voice was gruff but genial, and he proudly patted his shirt pocket as he spoke. That was where he kept his release papers from Faribault - the precious dog-eared document that he called his "On-My-Own.''

What I remember most about him was that Bill Sackter was happy. Out of a life of isolation and suffering had come joy.

Everyone should be so lucky. Those of us whose lives Tom Walz touched - and continues to touch - know we already are.