Back-to-school time takes me back a whole year to the first photo I snapped as a reporter covering this county, It captured Jasmyn Johnson, 6 years old and ready to take on the world, or at least West Elementary in Knoxville.
Fast-forward 51 weeks to a cemetery in Pella, where I met an octogenarian who rekindled my love of learning. Sometimes we’re too busy living life to think there’s anything new to know. Professor Ron Rietveld reminded me that we all need to be lifelong learners.
Standing near the grave of Pella founder Hendrik Scholte, he whisked me back to his youth — and mine. Rietveld has taught history at California State University - Fullerton for nearly 50 years, but he achieved an amazing claim to fame when he was just 14.
That’s when the young history buff discovered a photo of Abraham Lincoln lying in state, nine days after his death. The startling find — Lincoln’s secretary of war had ordered the image destroyed — put the kid from Iowa into the national spotlight.
My love of history emerged in my teens, though in far less dramatic ways. I was inspired by an incredible teacher, Dr. James Robinson. We called Doc Robby for short, and short he was. Maybe five-foot-three, but long on wisdom and the art of storytelling. Among other topics, he sparked my interest in, as Doc himself might say, that Lincoln fellow.
I rarely pass up a book on Lincoln or that Kennedy fellow. I’ve visited the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and trotted past Ford’s Theatre — where Lincoln was assassinated — on many running pilgrimages through Washington, D.C. And I’ve dwelt often on the somber image that Rietveld tripped across among obscure historical papers, never aware that it was found by some Iowa kid.
So it was surreal to meet him in a graveyard on a misty August morning, 66 years later. As he shared his story, his gasp was as fresh as the day he plucked that needle from history’s haystack.
He went on to share stories of Strawtown, the settlement that became Pella, where snakes and cattle were known to drop through the straw ceilings of primitive homes dug into the hills. I found myself envying students he’d taught over the past half century. He mentioned that his Lincoln find earned him mentions on wall displays at both the Lincoln Library and Ford’s Theatre.
My students say “The Doc’s not off-the-wall. He’s on the wall!” Rietveld chuckled.
It’s amazing how much easier education is to swallow when mixed with good humor. In February, I joined 20 folks from around the county at a Stop the Bleed training. Knoxville Fire Chief Jim Mitchell jumped in with both hands and a quick wit during a wound-packing exercise. The blood was fake, but his focus was real. He was there to learn, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t make us smile in the process.
The very next morning, Mitchell and I met again on the scene of a gruesome mishap. The victim had lost a lot of blood, and the chief had his game face on. He was there to support his guys and offer a well-trained set of hands.
I’ve learned a lot from Chief Mitchell and I’m sad to see him move on to a new job. I’ve seen him mentor his crews, whether in a fire simulation trailer or on the scene of a real blaze. He’s also a great guide in quiet moments around the firehouse, making the most of the teachable moments life brings. Like the people on his crew, I’m blessed to know the guy.
Some of life’s greatest lessons aren’t learned in classrooms, but in places we least expect. Every day can be back-to-school if we’re open to the people we encounter and the lessons they share.