Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sixty Seconds' Worth Of Distance Run

In the course of my education, I had countless teachers. And among that relatively large number, there was a smaller sub-set comprised of those who not only taught me but from whom I learned something. Usually not just something confined to the four corners of the textbook we used in that particular class. Usually it was something far beyond the jurisdictional limits of the classroom.

What seems now to have been a lifetime ago - and was in truth close to thirty years ago - I was among the students at W-H who learned something from Les Rudnyanszky - a good Irish guy (by way of Hungary, which the Irish never quite got around to annexing) who I and everyone else got to know simply as, "Doc Rud". I am lucky I suppose in that the avenues available to me to learn from Doc were many, including as a coach and as a teacher. I knew him long before I ever actually interacted with him in any of those capacities. My older sisters Kara and Jill each had him for one American History class or another prior to my reaching 9th grade at W-H. Also, he and my mom worked in the same building. He and Dad were members of the same faculty and they were both frighteningly passionate Notre Dame football fans. Come to think of it, I have known him for so long that I am hard-pressed to recall either (a) a time when I have not; or (b) how exactly I first met him. Thirty years or so up the road, neither seems to matter much.

The funniest conversation I ever had with Doc was shortly before the season-opening match of my 9th grade wrestling season, which turned out to be (much to the disappointment of wrestlers like Al Schnur and Frank Riggio in my weight class) my only season on the mats. Doc announced that me - one of his newbies - would not have to compete in a "wrestle-off" (think "bake off" with fewer brownies and more black and blues) against the projected starter at my weight class, which declaration was wholly consistent with my thinking on the issue since I had no intention of challenging him. The funny part was when Doc told me that I would not have to challenge him because on the eve of the season-opener our projected starter had decided not to wrestle. Suddenly, I was no longer just the newbie but the newbie who would go out there every match as the varsity starter at 108 pounds.

After starting my career with the flukiest, luckiest win in the history of scholastic wrestling, I - much like water - found my level. Sadly, my level was usually in immediate proximity to the mat while I kissed my own knees, ankles, ass or some other body part. To say I was terrible would be an understatement of Herculean proportions. Doc had a plaque on which he had a laminated copy of Kipling's "IF" that each of us would read prior to taking the mat for our match. I doubt Tom Byleckie at 115 pounds ever had time to make it through the first line or two of that poem. My matches ended that quickly.

Yet when I quietly opted to play basketball in 10th grade, I did so without telling Doc of my plans. Candidly, I thought both he and the school's insurance carrier would greet such news with much relief and the thought of sharing my decision with him never occurred to me. It never occurred to me right up until the point he sat down in the locker room with me the first day of Winter Sports practice and asked me not why I was not wrestling that year (he had the videos from the previous season) but why I had not taken the time to talk to him about it. He made no effort to talk me out of it. He simply made me "man up" as it were and extend him the courtesy that I most certainly owed him of telling him I was not going to wrestle. A man stands up. I am embarrassed to say that until I got a little good-natured paternal nudging to do so, I fully intended to remain seated. That conversation took place in November 1982. Almost twenty-eight years later I recall it as if it was yesterday.

I still use today the lessons I learned from Doc in A.P. American History my junior year. I still laugh when I think of how my fellow Republican stalwart Dave Russ and my soccer teammate and supposed good friend Cesar Capio sold me out the 2nd day of school, telling Doc that they knew that I had left my textbook in my locker. The penalty for no textbook? A crash, which carried with it the responsibility of bringing in Dunkin' Donuts for the whole class on Friday. For years thereafter Doc used to bust my chops that I held the record for the quickest crash in the history of any of his classes. Considering mine occurred on the second day of school, I suspect that unless PEDs invade the world of A.P. American History my record shall indeed stand the test of time.

Doc used to sometimes survey the class assembled before him when we were 11th graders and remark how much sense the seats we had chosen made to him. Dave and I sat to his right while to his far left sat the only member of our class who proclaimed himself to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. There is no communist quite like the son of two immensely successful, rolling in money physicians but while I doubted the sincerity of Erick's claimed political belief system, I never doubted the amount of energy he expended trying to convince all of us. And I never doubted the manner in which Doc taught us about American History. When I was a father of two school-age kids there were too many occasions to count when I shared with one or both of them a nugget of information that I had first learned years earlier from Doc.

I read somewhere once that the hallmark of education is not short-term memorization but long-term retention. It is not enough to simply recall facts or figures or the like for the purpose of passing one test. Rather, it is to absorb the information being taught to you with sufficient breadth and depth that once inside of your mind, it belongs to you to take it out and share with others at any point further along life's highway. Irrespective of the distance between the point of absorption and the present.

Dad died when I was in 8th grade. I did not necessarily adjust effortlessly or smoothly to life without him in larger part due to him having died with a lot left unsaid between us than due to the "absence" of him in my day-to-day. I was truly fortunate that while I was tripping the light fantastic thru W-H from 9th grade through 12th grade and from time-to-time doing something that made me less than popular with the man who at the time ran the school, I had Doc as one of my principal protectors. Between Doc, Evan Peterson and the late, great Bob Vietor I got extended just enough rope to cut off the circulation to a finger or two perhaps but never enough to hang myself. No matter where you are in your life, you reach that point only by walking the journey you have walked to get there. We may not live life in reverse but we should never forget from whence we came.

Some years after I graduated from W-H, Doc took his talents and his passion for teaching south from Edison to Pennington. It is a testament to the man that he is and to the teacher that he was that he never lost contact with those of us whose lives he helped shape a generation ago, still coming back to W-H for Alumni events and catching up with his students, whether those from my era at school or those who preceded me or followed me. He has embraced the whole "Facebook" world and I think - conservatively speaking - has about 1,000 friends. That number includes a sizable percentage of us who once upon a lifetime ago were his pupils.

I am pleased that over the course of the past three decades or so, Doc and I have become friends. From time-to-time I used to pop in on one of his classes to talk to his students about one thing or the other in law. I loved doing it because it gave me a chance to spend a bit of time with Doc in his favorite environment - the classroom. I miss that I have not done it in several years. Perhaps one day again in the not-too-distant future.

I know it shall not be this coming school year. Doc is going to spend this year in China. China! He will be doing what it is he does best and loves the most. He will be teaching. It is my understanding that the gig is for this school year only but if his students there take to him like his students here have for countless years, we may have one hell of a lot of trouble getting them to let him come home. I admire his courage in making this journey. Hell, I am so adverse to change that my system practically shut down in early 2009 and all I did was move 5 miles up the road from one job to another. Not so with Doc.

I hope that I have the chance to see him, buy him a beer and wish him well between now and when he leaves in late August. He will be very busy between now and then with a lot of people tugging at his sleeves looking for just a moment of his time. If we cannot get together, while it will bum me out a bit, I shall understand. Time is a funny thing. We waste so much of it trying to figure out what to do with it all.....until that day when we realize just how little we have. The day when we can see the cap on the jar as it were.

Good luck Doc. Safe journey and much success. And just in case you are in need of something to read on the plane might I suggest a little Kipling......


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