A week later, I flew home to Minnesota. It will always be home, all the more so in the coming weekend: I was bound for the 50th reunion of the Edina High School Class of 1969. Woo hoo! Go Hornets! Landed at noon and picked up a rental car, driving east, then across the Minnesota River to eat lunch with a special person from a half-century ago: Chuck Wiser, one of the founders of Vanguard Travel. Chuck’s partner Rick Fesler actually hired me (I called him a month earlier to thank him). As I have written several times and in several places (including a LinkedIn post last month), that job gave me direction, identity, and a way for pay for a university education.
I had not seen Chuck in eight years, but because I’ve known him well, we picked up where we left off. At 84, he’s had more than his share of health issues, but was sharp as ever, and still active on the golf course. He treated me to a walleye (fish) sandwich at his Mendakota Country Club. As we left, I thanked him to changing my life.
Pedal to the metal, west to Edina (a southwest suburb of Minneapolis) to “check in” with dear friends Rick and Murph Dow – it was so handy to stay just a few minutes’ drive from the reunion venues, and the Dows are superb hosts. But I could only yak for a few minutes, because I was due to meet nephew Evan Kail at four. Picked him up at work, and we motored three blocks north to The Lowry for a beer and fun yak. He was starting an interesting second job. Woulda been nice to chat longer, but the first reunion evening began at six, so I dropped Evan at his apartment a mile south, then drove familiar local streets across southwest Minneapolis and Edina to Braemar Park and the golf course clubhouse. As I walked up to the building, I spotted long friend Jim Grotting sitting in the shade on the phone, talking to his high-school girlfriend Cathy, who was in San Diego and not at the reunion (Cathy’s mom Verna helped get me the travel-agency job 50 years earlier, a fact I mentioned to Cathy with thanks and praise). As I said goodbye, memories flooded in at a rate I could not absorb.
It was well above 90° with almost equivalent humidity, and not much cooler in the clubhouse, but it didn’t matter, because I was immediately surrounded by friends and classmates, laughing and backslapping and kissing girls I never would have kissed 50 years ago. The night sped by. There were plenty of reunion regulars, last seen a decade earlier, but a large number of people who told me this was their first – folks like Karna Lundquist from elementary school, recently retired after a career in pediatrics. Two former teachers were on hand, Jinny Winter Jensen, widow of my late dear friend and 12th grade English Teacher, Bud Jensen, and Larry Stotts, who was my theater-arts teacher. The next morning, I jotted down the names of 52 people I talked with.
As always happens, I woke at about 6:00 Eastern Time, which was 5:00 in Minnesota. Wide awake, time to get up and get going! Murph is an early riser, so we had a good yak and coffee in their kitchen, catching up on our kids’ lives. Clear skies soon changed, and by 8:15 it was pelting rain, with wet forecast until early afternoon. Hopped in the Toyota and zipped across Edina to the apartment of Marlys Chase, mother of longtime friend Steve Schlachter. She had cooked us a superb bacon-and-egg breakfast, and I got caught up with their lives. Mrs. Chase is inspirational, still strong at 85.
We yakked for several hours. At 11:45, classmate Marty Kupper picked us up, and we drove west to Lake Minnetonka and a hospice, to visit a classmate, John, suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a dreadful terminal illness. I saw John a year earlier, and while ill, he wasn’t sliding downward; unhappily, that changed in the spring, and his goal of attending the reunion was dashed. So the least we could do was bring a little of the reunion to him. It was sad, but I’m glad we went (John passed away two weeks later.)
Happily, the rain stopped and the sun was peeking through clouds. Motored back to Edina, then back to the Dows. Rick kindly loaned me his fat-tire bike, and I zipped off, on a new regional bike trail across Edina, then north around two of Minneapolis’ many urban lakes, then home, 27 miles in total. A great ride, through familiar, yet changing, neighborhoods. It was especially fun to ride up and down several streets in Edina’s Country Club neighborhood, a solid place where we lived before my dad got sick and had to sell the house to pay his medical bills. There was Steve’s house, and Jim’s, and Ann’s, and Lucinda’s . . .
As I finished the ride, I thought of wonderful words from the popular BBC TV series, “Call the Midwife”; at the beginning and/or end of most episodes, actress Vanessa Redgrave voices memorable and poignant words, and these came to mind:
Home is not simply a mark upon a map, any more than a river is just water. It is the place at the center of the compass, from which every arrow radiates, and where the heart is fixed. It is a force that forever draws us back.
Rick and I had a nice yak and a beer, I showered and changed clothes, and headed less than a mile to Interlachen Country Club. I was ten minutes early, but the place was already hopping with classmates (I learned from one of the organizers that it was a record turnout, 260, including a few spouses).
It was a repeat of the night before: connecting with people I had not seen in a half-century and others I see regularly. Conversations with a couple of Montanans, but mostly people who stayed in Minnesota. Many of us observed that we could look across the room and instantly recognize someone we hadn’t seen in five decades, while others looked completely unfamiliar; such is the intersection of aging and memory.
Total high point that night was a pep band that lifelong musician Ralph Campbell organized, a mix of players from our class and some from later EHS classes; they played our two high school fight songs. We cheered along, “H-O-R-N-E-T-S, Edina Hornets fight, fight, fight,” and tears came to my eyes. The event ended at 11, but I was totally worn out by 10:30. Said goodbye to a number of long friends and motored home. Colossal.
Milestones are so important – don’t miss them in your lives.
Same drill Sunday morning: up with the sun at five. Like 24 hours earlier, first task was to jot down the names of classmates and friends I met the night before, and the count was 17, plus “kids” from Friday night. Murph was up, so we had another great chat. Rick peeled off for a bit of work (like me, he’s staying busy in his seventh decade). I hugged Murph at 7:25 and drove to 50th and France, the shopping area of my childhood. At 7:45, I met longtime Edina pals Chris MacPhail and Greg Paske, and a few minutes later Jim Marquardt. We piled into a booth at Edina Grill, tucked into another big egg breakfast (this time with smoked salmon), and a lot of good conversation. We were close friends for many years, but don’t see each other much anymore: 10 years earlier for Greg and Chris (at the 40th reunion), and by my reckoning more than 25 for Jim. We talked a lot about Greg’s second career, 17 years as a substitute teacher in the Scottsdale (Arizona) public high schools (he taught across the entire spectrum, from music to physics), and Jim’s life work as a pediatrician (he told some funny stories, including selective use of his hearing aids when listening to overly worried moms). Some revisiting of memories from childhood and adolescence. Fun time, but not enough time.
I peeled off about 9:30 and headed out “on assignment.” In December 2018, I met a young Irishman, Will McConnell, who was making a documentary film about a Belfast firm, York Street Flax Spinning Co., for which my father worked as a sales rep in the Upper Midwest. Will wanted me to capture a bit of video for the documentary, trying to find scenes that looked more like that era, late 1950s and early ‘60s. I did my best, in neighborhoods and older parts of downtown Minneapolis. Last stop was Fort Snelling National Cemetery to pause for thank yous and prayers at my dad’s grave. A lot of remembering in one weekend.
The memory factory would continue for another day or so: Sunday afternoon I flew to Dallas/Fort Worth for a Monday reunion lunch of people who worked in American Airlines’ advertising department or for our longtime ad agency. Picked up another Hertz car, and in no time was zooming along I-635, 70 mph. Unlike folks in the Northeast U.S., Texans build fast roads, and plenty of them, which made me smile – yes, I get that cars are not the optimum mobility solution, but they exist, so you gotta deal with them (in the Northeast urban planners tend to deny their existence, hence massive traffic jams in places like Washington).
Was at Ken and Peggy Gilbert’s house in North Dallas by 5:30, hugging the humans and petting their two dogs, Bella and Papi (who came with daughter Blair from her Peace Corps stint in Tonga). Had a quick beer and headed with son Allen, a business-jet pilot, to a great Tex-Mex restaurant, Cantina Laredo. Filled myself with enchiladas – at home, I would have taken half of it home, so I tucked in. We motored home, and Ken suggested a dip in their pool, which was tonic. We bobbed in the shallow end and yakked for an hour (Ken and I were colleagues at American Airlines for decades). Lights out at 9:15, for nine solid hours of much-needed snooze.
Up at 6:15 Monday morning, cup of coffee with Peggy and Ken, then out the door to a Starbucks for another jolt and some work, then at 8:30 met another former AA colleague, Laura Einspanier, for breakfast. I had not seen her for five years, and it was great to catch up. Back then, she was already toiling in retirement, helping to organize a Catholic high school, Cristo Rey. Five years on, the school was open and indeed just graduated its first class of about 110. She’s doing God’s, and society’s, work for sure. We yakked about family, and her biggest news was her playwright daughter just had a breakthrough, with the premier of “Lunch Bunch” in New York.
I had more than an hour until the ad-alumni lunch, so Googled “Dallas Public Library” and found the Cedar Springs branch was three minutes from Avila’s, our Tex-Mex venue. Worked my email, did a bit of research, and enjoyed the spectrum of humanity in the reading room. The lunch was colossal, reuniting people across more than two decades. We were jabbering in all directions. A special time.
Never have I connected with more people from the past in less time than on those four days.
I returned the rental car a bit early, falling into a nice Talking-to-Strangers moment with the Hertz agent. She was from Kenya, and I asked where. “Near Lake Nakuru,” she replied, and she smiled broadly when I told her I visited the lake and its famous huge flock of pink flamingos “well before you were born.” Dropped the wheels early because the Transport Geek wanted to ride the new TEXRail commuter line from DFW Airport to downtown Fort Worth. A great ride on brand-new Stadler rolling stock. Along the way, a nice T-t-S with another T-Geek, a MIT-trained electrical engineer, who grew up in a West Virginia railroad family, and spent a long career at Texas Instruments.
At 7:30, I flew southeast to Buenos Aires for my 12th appearance at the South American Business Forum. Like every year, I was excited to be heading back to the student-organized conference that every year attracts 100+ motivated youngsters (half from Argentina, a quarter from the rest of Latin America, and a quarter from the rest of the world). Two volunteers from previous SABFs, Milagros and Guillermina, picked me up at the airport and we zipped into town. After a couple of wrong turns and some detours we arrived at our digs, the Art Factory Hostel. The room was not ready, so I trundled down to the basement café and voila, there sat my long amigo Rick Dow (last seen three days earlier in Minneapolis!), who like me has become a SABF stalwart. He arrived a day earlier. We yakked a bit, had a cup of coffee, worked, and headed out for a good walk. It was cool and overcast, and after hot summer days in the Northern Hemisphere, winter felt really good. We grabbed some lunch at Petit Colon, a traditional café behind the opera house, then ambled back to the hostel. Room was ready. It was, like the rest of the place, spartan.
There was less than zero time to relax, because I was due to give a talk on leadership at a startup online travel agency, where another SABF alumnus now worked. Rick tagged along, and we zipped in a taxi a few miles west to the offices of Avantrip. Hopping in the taxi, feeling a bit stressed for lack of time, I had my first “Thanks, Don Miguel” moment in Argentina when I told the taxi driver our destination, in near-perfect Spanish; every so often, the lessons of Howard Hathaway (Don Miguel), the man who taught us Spanish on “educational television” in the early 1960s, come back with total clarity!
Emiliano greeted us when we hopped out of the taxi. It was then time to stand and deliver. Rick chimed in from time to time, and the talk went really well. Said goodbye about 5:15, into a taxi and into rush hour, north to our dinner venue in the Palermo district. The way-popular steak restaurant, Don Julio, had already booked up (even in a Tuesday night), but you could line up at 6:45 and likely get a table. We were in the queue at 6:05, numbers two and three, right behind a friendly Argentine women who was a freelance producer of TV commercials. We had a good yak with her. The restaurant kindly provided free glasses of sparkling wine at 6:45, and by 7:00 we were seated, joined soon after by Jaime, a wonderful Argentine entrepreneur in his 70s (and the uncle of a 2018 SABF organizer), and Ary, a local director for United Airlines (our usual United host, Christoff Poppe, was in Chicago looking for a house, following reassignment to their corporate headquarters).
Dinner was long, ample, and as the Spanish say muy amable. We talked about families, jobs, and lot about the Argentine economic and political situation. All eyes are on Mauricio Macri, the center-right president up for re-election in a few months. He has done a remarkable job of beginning a turnaround after 70+ years of goofy rule by the Peronistas, most of whom still believe in Santa Claus, along with a lot of corruption. (As one practical example of Macri’s get-it-done approach, the city recently opened a truck tunnel on the edge of downtown that greatly reduced traffic congestion, noise, and smog; it was completed in a couple of years, and on budget, which never would have happened under the old regimes.)
The conference began Thursday morning, so Wednesday was a welcome “day off.” Stop one was a couple of hours at a start-up company, Mudafy, that Rick and I have unofficially and slightly advised for a couple of years (another project of former SABF organizers). Sort of like an Argentine Zillow, the company seems to hold promise, and it’s always fun to listen to youngsters building something with passion. At 12:45 we walked a few blocks to La Rural, the biggest livestock show in a country that raises a lot of animals. I had visited once before, in 2007, and was looking forward to a return. Rick, one of my compadres at the Minnesota State Fair, was game, and in we went.
It was awesome. We ambled through buildings filled mainly with beef cattle, but also saw some poultry (missed the sheep). High point was reconnecting with Antoinette Huffmann, Tony, who I met at La Rural 12 years earlier. She and her family raise a relatively rare French breed called Blonde d’Aquitaine, so it was easy to find her (the various breeds are all co-located). She didn’t remember me, but we three immediately fell into a long conversation about the economy, her story (she’s in her mid-70s, and emigrated from Belgium in 1946 at age 3), her early life as the only girl in the family, and animal husbandry – including a long graphic discussion of the reproductive biology of their breed. Country people are nicely matter of fact on such topics! We said goodbye, and headed to a late lunch outdoors. Tony appeared again as we were eating, and we yakked some more.
Hopped into a taxi, back into heavy traffic, and after an address snafu on my part arrived at the SABF launch party downtown, plunging into introductions and early discussion. At one of the several downtown buildings of the host institution, the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology (ITBA), we met students from Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Costa Rica, Lithuania, and more. Walked back to the hostel, washed my face, and Rick and I headed out to dinner with some other SABF alumni, 12 or 15 of us at a big table in a serviceable Italian restaurant. Last stop of the day was a bit of cheerleading for the 2019 organizers – as is the custom every year, Rick and I did our best to rev them up for the coming three days of hard work.
Up early Thursday morning, out the door, onto buses to the auditorium of Buenos Aires’ modern city hall, for a plenary day. To say the first speaker rocked it would be a huge understatement – every few years the SABF manages to land a superstar, and in 2019 it was Nicholas Negroponte, longtime director the future-wow Media Lab at MIT. As you would expect, he was a stellar and provocative speaker, and in retrospect we could have spent the rest of the day discussing the three main ideas he launched. But we didn’t, and of the remaining seven speakers, five were complete failures: pompous, off-topic, deceptive, or all of the above. Whew. Then again, as Rick and I have long understood, much of the genius of the event takes place in informal conversation between students and young adults who have fire in their bellies about improving the world. Rick’s job at the end of the day was to summarize and guide the conversation, and he did that masterfully.
We hopped on buses, back downtown to a simple restaurant for a group dinner. As in previous years, Rick and I ordered wine and beer for those at our big table; that night it was Sofia from Colombia, Pedro from Chile, Lucas from Argentina, and several others. We had a great time; high point and huge coincidence was that Lucas on my left and Pedro on my right were both volunteers at prisons, working to help people who most of society has forgotten or would like to throw away like garbage. Remarkable young people.
The Friday sessions were held at one of ITBA’s buildings not far from city hall, and were a mix of student presentations, group activities, and, at the end of the day, mentoring sessions (Jaime, Rick, and I joined several Argentine executives and leaders in hosting six or seven students). A few hours earlier, during lunch hour, I did something I had wanted to try for awhile: a “pop-up” 20-minute seminar, that day on crisis management. It was great fun, about 20 students piling into a small classroom.
That evening, Rick and I walked across downtown to one of our favorite restaurants, a simple parrilla (grill) called El Establo. Great service, fair prices, and food way better than Don Julio. We tucked into more steak (as I’ve written previously, I eat almost no steak back in the U.S.), and shared a nice bottle of Malbec. Fortified, we headed out to the SABF party at Honduras Hollywood, a nightclub in Palermo. The place was hopping, and Latins being Latins, Rick and I were on the dance floor in no time. My knees creaked, but I could move my other joints pretty well (the next day a youngster told me “you can dance better than I can!”). We only stayed about 45 minutes, but earned a lot of cred from the students.
Day 3, Saturday, back to city hall. Morning student activities were varied. Rick and I met a young city planner, Pablo, and after about 20 minutes of conversation about city progress (the new mayor is of the same party as the national president), he offered to show us the building, designed by the prominent Englishman, Sir Norman Foster. The afternoon sped past, and soon it was time for my annual (since 2011) big task, summarizing and closing the meeting. Check and done, hugs to people, and into a car to the airport. Flew to New York Kennedy, landing at dawn. Hopped train, train, and bus across Queens to LaGuardia. Took a needed shower in the Admirals Club, worked for several hours, and at noon flew home. A great trip.