Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Let me tell you about Dale

My future wife warned me as I was headed to meet her folks for the first time, during Easter weekend in 1986.

“Don't worry if my Dad doesn't talk to you much,” she said. “He's kind of quiet.”

That was an understatement. Dad could make Calvin Coolidge seem chatty. But it didn't take long for me to realize that his actions spoke volumes, revealing the wonderful person he was.

We lost Dad early Tuesday to pneumonia. He was 76.

I learned much about Dale Nelson from his friends and family over the years because he clearly was not one to boast.

Born to a family of Norwegian farmers, Dad was the youngest of four children and the first to head off, going to veterinary school at Iowa State University.

After serving in the U.S. Army, and short stays in New Orleans – where an elderly neighbor taught him how to make a perfect gin and tonic – Pennsylvania and Iowa, Dad went to the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine to teach and work with large animals.

Dad was humble. Covering schools for years, I've encountered many administrators with doctorates in education who insisted on being addressed as “doctor.” Dad was a gifted veterinary surgeon. A staff member told me Tuesday that one of his evaluations referenced "golden hands." But in the 26 years I knew Dad, never once did I hear him introduce himself as “doctor.”

He didn't need titles, and didn't seek out attention or credit. For years he resisted promotions, fearing they would mean more meetings and time away from what he enjoyed most, working with students and the animals.

He was a tough professor, requiring surgical students to write essay exams. Doctors, he believed, needed to learn how to communicate better. He also required that each of his children take a speech class in high school.

When working on big research projects, he insisted that younger doctors starting their careers got the credit, which he said they needed to advance in the “publish or perish” world of academia.

He was respected by his peers. Groups invited him around the world to help people in developing countries learn how to care for their livestock.

Dad enjoyed working with large animals, but had a soft spot for small creatures. It wasn't long after constructing an out building on the property in Monticello, two stray cats found their way inside to escape the cold. Dad soon created a shelf under windows with baskets, pillows and heat lamps so the two kitties could stay warm and still have a view.

Dad was a gentleman. I can't recall him saying an unkind word about anyone, except maybe University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. I heard him swear only once, after we broke a chainsaw blade while cutting down a tree in my backyard. I don't know what scared me more, the sight of the sharp blade flying off or the sound of Dad cussing.

Dad was generous. If help was needed, it would arrive, quietly, of course – and without the beneficiary having to ask for it.

He loved his three grandchildren, taking delight in hearing about the latest school projects or activities. They were, perhaps, the subject of Dad's only boasting.

And he took great joy in family gatherings, always sitting on the fringe, peeking over the newspaper, listening to the banter as a smile peeked out from under his bushy mustache.

Dad loved a good book, the morning paper, Illini football, cowboy boots, tending to his apple trees, and most of all, his wife of 53 years, Alberta.

Dad was quiet, but after that first Easter weekend gathering, I quickly learned that when he had something to say, it was important. And I listened.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Whitecaps help look at autism a little differently

I used to lead my church's middle school youth group, and one of the kids in the group was diagnosed as autistic when he was a toddler.

You wouldn't have known it at first. He was just a little more challenging than the other middle school kids, which, of course, is saying something.

But I grew to understand – and appreciate – that he saw the world a little differently.

One night I planned a lesson to show that we can't see God, but we can see the effects of God. To illustrate the concept I set out on the table several scenes.

One had a apple with a bite taken out, another had a broken piece of glass and a opened Band-Aid wrapper, and another had my portable CD player next to an opened package of AA batteries with two missing.

The idea is that we didn't see someone take a bite of the apple, cut their finger or replace the batteries, but we can guess what happened based on what we found and what we know. And we don't have to see God to know what he has done.

I gave each of the students a reporters notebook and told them to write down what they thought occurred at each scene.

Most of them wrote down was you would expect. But my autistic member's explanations were a little different.

“Wasteful teenager leaves behind a perfectly good apple.”

“Careless person leaves his expensive CD player unattended.”

The middle-schooler, I realized, saw things just a little bit differently.

I thought of the boy Sunday when I attended Autism Awareness Day with the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Detroit Tigers' Midwest-A affiliate.

The team does a great job supporting some causes. We almost always attend Breast Cancer Awareness Day, when the Caps wear pink jerseys. They have special Star Wars jerseys, too, advocating for the defeat of the Evil Empire.

Sunday's special jerseys were covered in colorful puzzle pieces, intended to represent the ambiguity and mystery around the causes of the condition. Many early Autism Awareness campaigns used the slogan “Help Solve the Puzzle”

The Whitecaps had no problem solving the Cedar Rapids Kernels this day, a 10-3 pounding to complete a three-game sweep.