Sunday, March 18, 2012

Remembering John Dyer-Bennet

Out of the blue (and maize) I was recently pulled into the thread of an email conversation about raising money to fund the creation of shelters for soccer players and officials at Carleton College, in honor of John Dyer-Bennet who was the long time coach of that sport. It brought back a flood of memories that had quietly been collecting dust in the attic of my consciousness.

• • •
I was at Carleton during the years 1967-71, having gone there straight—and I mean that in every sense of the word—out of high school, and my homogenous Father Knows Best upbringing in La Grange IL, a bedroom suburb of Chicago. College was a time of expanding perspectives and breathtaking lifestyle experimentation. In the four short years I was there the college went from freshman year rules where women were allowed in men's dorm rooms twice a week for two-hour stretches (with the door cracked and at least three feet on the floor at all times—though I never figured out who was counting), to the complete collapse of in loco parentis by the time I was senior, when I was an RA on a co-ed dorm floor.

Amidst this social barnstorming, my school life intersected with Dyer-Bennet (whom everyone referred to, with his blessing, as DB) in two ways. I played soccer all four years and I was a math major. My final year I was one of the team captions and DB was my adviser for my senior comps. In consequence, I had occasion to spend more time in his presence than most, which has turned out to be something I've cherished.

He inspired me in many ways (not all of them as linear as the algebra he taught):

o To value precision (to the extent that it was possible to achieve). To this day, I am a fanatic about punctuation and word selection. Though this didn't start with DB (the roots go back to my father and my high school newspaper adviser, Kay Keefe) I was unquestioningly encouraged along this path by him.

o To enjoy the pleasure of a well-constructed proof (which included the discernment to know when you had one and when you didn't).

o To savor amateur sports, played for the thrill of the game, for understanding the inner game of being tested by the challenge of physical performance, and for appreciating the choreography of coordinating your actions with others in team efforts (lessons from which have carried surprisingly far). There was a purity about Carleton soccer that helped. It was a club sport that received minimal backing from the athletic department. We played on a field that was embellished with little more than chalk lines, goals with oft-mended nets, and simple benches. Crowds were sparse and the rewards were camaraderie and personal satisfaction—not fame on campus or the chance to see your picture in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd.

o To smoke good cigars (through DB I learned of a source of per-embargo Cuban stogies, from which I'd occasionally buy a box of Fonsecas). It is now 40 years later and there is a clutch of maduro-wrapped Hoyo de Monterreys nestled in a foil pouch in my suitcase on the bed next to me.

DB didn't categorize easily. In many ways he was an oddity:
—As a coach he was a gangly math professor with a hawk nose; not a jock.
—Living in rural Northfield MN (home of cows, colleges, and contentment) he retained a pronounced British accent that didn't exactly blend in.
—When he spoke he often closed his eyes, perhaps the better to see the purity that math professors aspire to when not distracted by the messy world around them.
—He drove an old Mercedes and I still recall my shock at this prudent Brit's willingness to demonstrate to a carload of over-testosteroned teenagers how good it could corner on a rare occasion when his sedan had been pressed into service for transportation to an away game.
—One of the ironies about his having the nickname DB was that those initials were also shorthand for "douche bag," a general purpose pejorative that was, for some reason, extremely popular at the time. (As the man was anything but improper or coarse, this overlay was amusing in the same way that one might smile at encountering an emaciated chihuahua named Stud Muffin.)

Dyer-Bennet started the soccer program at Carleton in 1963, and served as volunteer coach for 19 seasons. Thus, I experienced him mid-stride. He lived to be 86, and tomorrow will be the tenth anniversary of his passing.

The last time I saw him was in 1972, when I visited the Carleton campus to visit my girlfriend, Ann Shrader (with whom I would start Sandhill Farm two years later). She was a year behind me in school, and at least once it made sense to visit her and my alma mater at the same time. I recall DB coming up to me in the library on that visit and making a joke about why I hadn't been able to make more progress in sorting out the nation's transportation issues, thereby demonstrating that he not only recalled me, he knew where I'd settled two months after graduating (I worked as a junior bureaucrat for the US Dept of Transportation during the span 1971-73). In that one brief exchange—it probably lasted no more than two minutes—it sunk in how much he cared about the people he had coached, not just the soccer players and math students he had guided.

At the same time, he was also a private person. I recall the fall sports banquet held at the conclusion of my final season, where we celebrated the year just ended (we were 8-1 that year, losing only to an undefeated Gustavus Adolphus squad), and the captains for the succeeding year were announced. Bruce Tully and I (co-captains that year) had collaborated to give DB a pair of leather gloves as a token of appreciation for his tireless efforts on our behalf. Going up to him afterwards to savor a final moment with my coach, he was embarrassed by the gift, and begged off to say a few words of encouragement to the newly elected captions. While I had wanted more, I needed to let him go and not extend his discomfort.
• • •
So here I am being solicited by friends who's names I haven't seen, whose voices I haven't heard, and whose backsides I haven't slapped in more than 40 years, to honor the memory of a man who meant a lot to all of us.

As I have chosen a life that has not been focused on material acquisition, I am not in a position to contribute to the memorial shelters (fortunately others among our number have done better and the necessary funds have been fully pledged). Still, as I am rich in words, I offer this eulogy from that strength and am thankful for the nudge to do so.

Interestingly, the email thread that stirred my memories and inspired this blog had started with the a subject line that read: "John Dyer-Bennet Memorial," only to morph into: "Update on Dyer-Bennett Memorial!" Ahem. His name was spelled with only one "t," fellas. Somewhere, DB is up there with a #2 pencil poised above our virtual blue book, ready to imprecate us for our imprecision. Some things never change.

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