One Person CAN Make A Difference

IMG_2426(L-R: Father Steve Miles (QC’s son), QC Miles, your author)

Last night I watched a documentary about the 50th Anniversary of the Rucker Summer Basketball League in Harlem, NYC. It was the first of the summer leagues where people from kids to NBA pros come together physically and spiritually through the game of basketball. The motto of the tournament is “Each One Teach One”, which is a great description of the mentoring process. I firmly believe there are few things more powerful in steering lives down the right path than a positive relationship with a true mentor, especially for those kids who have few if any of the family ties and creature comforts most of us enjoy.

On Labor Day I had a rare encounter with a man who has spent a lifetime as a mentor and influenced hundreds and thousands of lives in South Dakota.  Among those he influenced was my late father.  That mentor? Quentin C. Miles, age 96.

Q.C. Miles was a teacher, school superintendent and basketball coach for decades in several small school districts across South Dakota.  A decorated combat pilot in WWII, Q.C. returned to SD and became a teacher and coach.  In the early-mid 1950’s Q.C. found himself superintendent and basketball coach at tiny Gann Valley SD at a time when the nearby reservation high school at Ft. Thompson closed and sent students…and players…to Gann Valley. There was conflict, much of it racial. Some wise person once told me, in so many words, “If you want to cause trouble in a small town, mess with the school and the kids.  Parents will respond with lighted torches and cans of gas”.  The first couple of years were tough, but Q.C. soon had the team at the State “B” tournament (nothing like winning to bring people together!).   Q. C. went on to successfully coach, teach and lead at schools across East River, and became an influential legend in all matters of High School Sports.

In 1957, after four years of college sandwiched between two  years in the Army, and a year teaching in De Smet, my Dad, Mom and older brother Mike (then a toddler)  headed back to Forestburg SD to teach at the same school my parents, grandparents and many relatives had all attended.. The position paid a whopping $2,450.00 (a few hundred short of the cost of a basic ’56 Chevy).  As many did to make ends meet, my parents also raised a big bunch of chickens for eggs, a bunch of calves to finish out, and sold Dekalb Seed Corn on the side.  The superintendent who hired Dad at Forestburg? Q. C. Miles. Throughout my life I heard my Dad talk about Q. C. many, many times, and how much of a mentor and teacher Q.C. was to him while starting out in his career. A few years in, Dad was offered HIS first superintendent’s job at neighboring Artesian. Where did he go for advice? To Q. C. Miles, who said while he was sad to let such a good teacher and man go, Dad would be a fool to not take the job. That started a 30+ year career for my dad, leading small town school districts in SD and MN.  I have to believe Dad’s story was just one of hundreds influenced by Mr. Miles.

Now being on the planet for 96 years, and teaching and coaching his entire working life in SD communities, Q.C. must have come in contact with tens of thousands of students, parents and teachers.  Yet he could recount interviewing my Dad.  He asked about my Mom, and even remembered her maiden name and the names of her parents.  Q.C. told me he hoped I knew.how lucky I was to have the intelligence genes from both the Tlustos and Matthews gene pools running around in me (I told him I did).  He told me stories of my Grandpa Clarence (Dad’s dad) and his tenure on the Forestburg School Board. It was my grandpa who upon meeting Q.C. told him how unimpressed he was with him, yet after the interview told his fellow board members that “We CAN’T let this one get away”. Q. C., just like my Dad, gave a lot of the credit for his school’s successes to the quality school board members he worked with.

With decades working in all those towns with all those people, Quentin C. Miles has positively influenced countless lives and communities.  On Labor Day 2017 he touched mine, and reminded me by example that however rudderless, reckless and discouraging our times appear today, there’s living proof in Watertown, SD that one person CAN make a positive difference, if he or she is willing to put in the time and effort, and inspire individual eople to become a community.

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Lookin’ Out My Front Door. Vol 2

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I work across the street from a large car dealership in Sioux Falls, SD.  The block on the left houses hundreds of late-model Hondas.  The block in front of my work window has its own lot and showroom, much smaller than Big Dad across the street, and houses a much more eccentric collection of two and four-wheel vehicles.  I ventured across the lot and entered the show room for the first time today.  Inside there were vehicles stacked front to back and side to side with only enough room between them to open a door.  Among the “weird kids” this day (a term I use with great affection and respect with both cars and human beings) were six…count ‘em, six…spotless 1970’s Pontiac Trans Am muscle cars.  Three of the five were 1979 models, each sporting the iconic “Firebird” decal. The word “Iconic” seems to fit, as it is inclusive of those who love the ‘Bird’ as the talisman of auto muscle, and those who find it quite possibly the most grotesque piece of car decoration ever.  While historically I’ve leaned closer to  the latter, time has taught me that like people, you deal with automobiles where you find them, not where you’d like them to be.

 

IMG_2387 A salesperson rushed over to me, apparently not used to having some dude walk in off the street and immediately start snapping photos. Seeing I wasn’t a disgruntled customer, a private investigator or a burglar casing the joint, he was quick to add information on the three ‘79’s.  He said one of them was originally sold in Deadwood.  I replied with the dumbest question of the day: “So Deadwood once has a Pontiac dealer?”  “Apparently”, he deadpanned.IMG_2380

IMG_2379 On the opposite side of the showroom was something, well, opposite.  Next to each othere were a 1947 and 1948 Indian motorcycles.  The salesman said what made them interesting is that while they had been completely refurbished on the inside, the outsides hadn’t been touched.  In fact, they hadn’t even been washed.  On the outside you had two dusty, slightly oily and rode hard Indians, while on the inside you had two completely refreshed bikes.  Yes, by today’s standards they are primitive (and with suicide clutches quite dangerous), they remain the real deal. More cool old stuff from lot soon. 

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Eclipse in South Dakota: Dark, Loud, Wet

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Fresh from a night’s dreams filled with enough coronas to fill a large Yeti cooler, eclipse followers in Sioux Falls, SD were stunned and even a bit frightened Tuesday when at the appointed hour of 1:01pm CDT the skies turned dark, winds whipped, and large booming noises preceded a biblically-sized, seemingly non-stop deluge.  Many automobiles suddenly stopped running, roadways were blocked, and leaves, branches and thoroughly confused squirrels were ripped from tree limbs.  Several of the observers fell to their knees, screaming “I told you so!”, referring to their predictions that the eclipse was actually the beginning of the Apocalypse.   Not far away, another group was observed manically laughing and dancing nude in a circle around what had been a bon fire. One rather large dancer wearing only a full-body tattoo of  the  “Keep On Truckin'” guy explained that members of the group had been planning for the End of Times for months by running credit cards up to the $25,000 limit, buying $5000 bottles of tequila, King Cab diesel dually pickups and Powerball tickets, knowing the end of the World as We Know It would make their hedonistic debts uncollectible.

Many were later observed walking around stunned and confused (and in some cases naked, cold and crying) after receiving news that what they thought was the Rapture and/or the first No Interest Or Payments For An Eternity Visa Card was actually a thunderstorm. T shirt sales, however, were said to be brisk.

Why Treatment Beats Prison, and Why A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

What a sweet surprise today.  While opening Facebook I saw the following piece from Today’s City Pages website.  For those who don’t know, City Pages is the long-time surviving and leading alternative weekly in the Twin Cities.  The young lady in the story is Jenny, who happens to be the daughter of my oldest pal Jerry.  I know he’s proud of her, as are the rest of her family and friends.  And with very good reason.

http://www.citypages.com/arts/adventures-in-recovery-jennys-journey-from-addiction-to-law-school/437706493

To me, Jenny is a wonderful example of the great things that can happen when the stigma of addiction is broken.  Addiction is not a moral failing or weakness any more than are cancer or a broken arm.  Addiction is an illness that can be cured.  It is also one of the most devastating public health crises in the country today, costing us all billions of dollars, and costing us the lives of those we love most.  It’s also overwhelmingly common, touching just about everyone in one way or another. Yet in far too many cases it is treated  either like the proverbial crazy  aunt living in the attic; hidden away, not to be talked about, and something to be feared and ashamed of.,,or as a moral failure, a lack of character, and a sin.

Full disclosure:  I’ve been in recovery a few months short of 9 years, and am currently working as an Addiction Peer Recovery Coach at Face It TOGETHER-Sioux Fall   Every day I see broken people and families devastated by addiction.  I also see these same people and families get well and live remarkable lives. Unfortunately, there are still millions who want to punish addicts instead of helping them, and jail addicts instead of getting them the help than can make them well again  Jenny is a great example of what can and does happen when we work hard and have the support of those around us. She’s already changing lives.  And she’s just getting started.

Looking’ Out My Front Door

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Our work office features a wall of windows facing west.  That wall of windows looks upon Vern Eide Honda.  More precisely, it looks upon Eide’s side lot where the wonderful odd ball vehicles reside.  Here you’ll find vintage cars, late-model high performance special edition cars…basically anything that they take in on trade that doesn’t fit nicely into the traditional “used vehicle” category.IMG_2311

Today I couldn’t help but see these three beauties.  I’ve always wondered what it would be like to own an International Scout like these two, or an International Travel All, IH’s answer to the Chevy Suburban.  Back in the day, these, and IH pickups, could be purchased at your local International Harvester Tractor dealer. Farm operators might live many miles from an actual late-model car dealer, but your home-town IH dealer let you purchase and service your tractor, corn picker, haying accessories and your truck, pickup or in these two your Cro Magnon 4 wheel drive SUV.   I’ve always figured if you owned an old Scout you’d better know how to source scare parts and possess the knowledge (and perverse joy) in constantly fixing the vehicle, which pretty much put me out of the running from the start. Yet, the dream dies hard, and the lack of all that doesn’t kill the fun of imagining one of these parked outside.

The car below (and sitting about 5 spots away from the IH’s) is an early 70’s Mercury Comet.  I don’t know the official Ford name for that paint color. Calf Scour Yellow-Green is probably most accurate, although I can imagine the difficulty of getting that one through Marketing.  I’m not your go-to classic Ford encyclopedia.  (Frankly I don’t have to be, because I have friends who know as much or more detail of anything FoMoCo this side of Dearborn).  I think I’m safe in thinking the Mercury Comet of this era is the twin of the Ford Maverick.  Two doors are neat, but I’m guessing there’s little else about this model which evoked the word “COOL” back in the day.  Regardless, I like ’em, and I had a lot of fun in Comets/Mavericks, and as a teen in the 70’s, that Comet was infinitely cooler than…walking everywhere you wanted to go.,,

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The Movie House Which Refused to Die

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More from our trip to Sonoma CA:  As the days of the Mexican war came to an end and California was annexed into the US, the square where Spanish soldiers once drilled was turned into a lovely park, with businesses along the the perimeter. As white settlers and immigrants from Europe and the Far East  poured into California, the rich soils yielded great fortunes in cattle, crops and eventually the vineyards which would one day be among the worlds best. Among the families who prospered in the wine business were the Italians family  Sebastiani. Civic-minded Samuele Sebastiani, the patriarch of the successful family winery, thought there should be an entertainment facility on the square befitting Sonoma’s growing status and prosperity. In the early 1930’s he built the Sebastiani Theater, designed by famed theater designer James W. Reid. The show house featured a stunningly colorful neon marque which proudly trumpeted the talkie showing that week, or an upcoming stage show or musical review. The interior was ornately decorated, and all in all it was quite a showplace.

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However, as the decades went by, television and other diversions lessened the demand for a theater, which in the 60’s closed on Monday and Tuesday, and would cancel an evening’s presentation if there were less than seven paying customers in the house. The building began to crumble, and was eventually saved from demolition by local devotion and the now corporate Sebastiani Winery’s generous financial support. We went to see a movie at this historic venue (The current release “A United Kingdom”, which I recommend highly) and were very blown away by the new, state of the art sound and digital picture.

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We learned the theater regularly shows classic movies using the old 35MM projectors, along with quality live music presentation. You can even purchase three strands of either red or black licorice for just 25 cents (mix and match if you wish). The lobby was also covered by hand-drawn color portraits of the great movie stars of the 20s-30’s by a local artist during the depression, but not discovered until recently. We followed the moving with a knock-out dinner at The Plaza Bistro (theplazabistro.com) just a few doors down on the Square. I think that’s one of the reasons I like Sonoma so much. It’s a farm town with class, but little pretense.

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The Valley of the Moon

A few days ago Joan, my mom Joyce and I returned from visiting family in Sonoma California.   Sonoma is nestled in a spectacularly fertile, rolling and green patch of the planet roughly 45 minutes north and east of San Francisco. The indigenous Miwok Indians called the land the “Valley of the Moon” for the way each full moon lit like day the entire Sonoma Valley.  The photo above is of bro-in-law and host Steve and my mother in front of Sonoma’s famous “Valley of the Moon” mural just off the Square). The Spanish entered the area in 1835 looking for treasure, land and “heathen souls”to convert. Unfortunately for the proud and peaceful Miwok the Spanish proved most adept at spreading small pox, resulting in the convertion of a large number of the Miwok into corpses.

The Spanish made Sonoma the northernmost of their string of California missions.  Today the Sonoma Valley produces some of the finest wines in the world and welcomes tens of thousands of visitors for year-round fun and frolic. Napa, Sonoma’s neighbor to the east, is the more famous of the two. but that popularity has turned Napa into a city with city-type problems, an outlet mall, and, shall we say, a crabby disposition towards the tourists who park in their spots, take the good seats at the restaurants and generally make the place Wine Disney World. Sonoma, however, is still at heart a farm town of around 10,000 where feed stores and fantastic restaurants live comfortably side-by-side and just about anyone you meet while walking the town still smiles and says “hello”.  You also won’t  find a fast-food restaurant or Walmart, and the only chain store is Williams Sonoma because the famed kitchen and home store was founding in, well, Sonoma.  Although I no longer get to enjoy the fruit of the vine, I remember Sonoma wine as every bit as good as those in Napa, and in many cases, better.

IMG_2088 Joan and Mom, boarding at FSD

I’ve often said that the older I get, the fewer things I know “for sure”, meaning that as time rambles on, the know-it-all black and white brashness of youth gives way to the reality that life is constructed mostly of gray. I’m in my 56th year, and I can state with certainty I know the following to be true: 1) People hate change. 2) It’s never too cold for ice cream. 3) There is always room for a little pie. And 4) If you are ever given the option of having loving family live in Sonoma, have the good sense to say “yes” and visit them often. More bits of Sonoma history and trip tales to come.

Of Farm Shows, Gorillas and Life

deluxe-mountain-gorilla-costume.jpgIt’s January in South Dakota, which means its time for The Sioux Empire Farm Show, where for decades the makers and sellers of all things Ag put winter on the back burner and get together indoors to put on a show for those who farm and ranch for a living. For an afternoon you can leave winter and enter a world of machinery makers, seed dealers, tire merchants, makers of the latest hardware and software. Even if you’re not involved in production agriculture it’s a potent environment for learning.

The Farm Show has special meaning for me. It was 1984. The unemployment rate was somewhere between 8 and 10%. I had graduated college with honors the previous summer with no idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. Both of my brothers had coincidently found their way back to South Dakota that January, so I said “what the heck” and headed there myself with no job and no clue of where to start.

When I was 17 I worked weekends at a tiny radio station in Wabasha, MN. I hadn’t given radio another thought for several years, but while in college a string of circumstances found me as both a full-time student and a full-time commercial DJ. The radio job was open only because guy named Reid Holsen had left it. Reid ended up a few years later in Sioux Falls as Program Director at KIOV-FM 104.7. Reid knew a little bit about me from those Mankato days, and for whatever reason he saw something in me and gave me a shot on weekends. However, before I stepped foot in the studio I learned sister station KXRB had another opening of sorts at the Sioux Empire Farm Show. The gig was five days of wandering the Farm Show in…a gorilla suit. I don’t remember why the station had a gorilla suit, or how the gorilla fit into the promotional strategy of a pair of country radio stations, but there it was. It probably wasn’t much of a suit when it was new, and in January 1984 it was anything but new. The “hair” was matted, the rubber mask smelled something awful and the whole getup was HOT. My job was to walk around the show floor with my best primate amble, mess with people, hand out yardsticks with the station logos, and do it all without making a sound. For five straight days.

Here I was, a college grad with degrees in labor relations and economics, two successful years of full-time experience as an on-air radio personality on a #1 FM hit music station…in a gorilla suit for 5 days. I sweated off 5-10 pounds a day. I smelled. People verbally abused me. Someone actually taped a “Kick me” sign on my back. I was paid around $3 an hour. And I worked my butt off trying to be the best Farm Show gorilla I could be. I could have said no, been insulted, flat-out refused or quit… but I didn’t. I had agreed to do the gig for five days, and I did it in as professional manner as I could muster. If I was going to be a Farm Show gorilla, I was going to be the greatest Farm Show gorilla in costumed primate history.

The next week I started doing weekends on-air. In a few months I was hired full time, eventually took over the station’s morning show, and before leaving helped take that station to #1 in the market. At 25 I turned myself into a successful talk show host and program director in Rochester, MN, then moved to the Twin Cities and programmed one of the most celebrated talk radio stations in the US.  I left the glitz and money behind to return to South Dakota and a job in public service. I loved the work, and I know I made a lasting impact, but learned too late that challenging the status quo is not the path to longevity in public employment. At age 55 I found myself looking to start over.

Despite laws to the contrary, many people facing the job market in their 50’s or 60’s can tell you the soul-crushing frustration of being covertly considered too old, too expensive, over-qualified, under-qualified, etc. When I was doing the hiring I cared much less about age in favor of finding out whether or not a candidate had a little “Farm Show Gorilla” in them. If they did, it told me they’ll do whatever needed to be done, and do it with creativity and good cheer. Now I’m the one looking for an opportunity. If you have bananas that need peeling, I know my “Farm Show Gorilla” is still alive and kicking.