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Day: July 20, 2012

We need leaders, not dunkers

To the Editor:

This business with the dunk tank and whether or not city councilors and the mayor should sit in the tank is silly. Of course they should have the right to say “no thanks.” Shouldn’t you? How would you like to feel pressured to do something you thought was demeaning or uncomfortable?

Those elected officials who are saying so, and declining to make a spectacle of themselves are quite correct and we should thank them for maintaining their dignity and propriety. We elect them to lead the community, not to entertain us in clownish fashion.

Eric L. Meurer

Summer vacation… sort of

Class Dismissed
by Susanne Stefani

Confession time. I check my work e-mail during the summer.

Rather than indicating a hyper-dedication to the profession, I believe that logging in when campus is closed is actually a symptom of a larger issue: it’s tough to completely disconnect from teaching. About 250 students cycle through my classes each year, and those relationships spark constant memories for me long after they’re gone. Even during summer, which is, ideally, a mental hiatus from all things school, I’m reminded daily of students with whom I’ve crossed paths.

When fortune cookies accompany my Chinese take-out, I think of Sherry, who gave me a fortune cookie constructed of foam and puff paint. Whenever I see a cat-related comic, I think of Ian; he’s a cat lover, so I’d post pro-dog cartoons just to taunt him. On a comedy show last night, the comedienne’s voice and demeanor made me think of Ellen, who greeted me daily with an affable “Good morrow!” Thus, I can’t make it through a summer day without a student-related recollection. And that’s a good thing, mostly, but the last couple of summers conjure up memories of two students who have passed away.

Ben and I had a rocky start, to put it far too gently, his sophomore year. In one heated moment, he yelled something including the f-word at me and slammed the classroom door louder than I’ve ever heard a door slam (and I was once an experienced door-slammer myself). I won some respect when, at conferences, I told his father I liked Ben (it was a lie at the time), thought he was smart, and wished that we could get along better. After that, we did. Ben had an easy smile and was one of many kids who, I felt, was just in high school at the wrong time; perhaps if he could come back when he was forty, he’d get the hang of it. Fast forward to graduation: he smiled and pumped his fist at me on his way up to the stage, and seeing him having made it—despite myriad obstacles—made all of our early clashes worthwhile.

Shayla was a junior among many freshmen in my Intro to Peer Mentoring class. Initially out of her element, she won over her peers with humor and a straightforward, no-nonsense personality. Shayla let her guard down, eventually sharing her deepest regrets and her driving passions. For a presentation, the object she chose to represent herself was a set of car keys with a deeply personal story; her honesty and vulnerability held us all rapt that day. And I’ll always remember Shayla as the first student who made me feel old. During a project, she and her classmate were trying to figure out how to bring in a rap song they were going to record. “If you put it on a CD, I can play it for you,” I offered, trying to be accommodating. “A CD, Ms. Stefani? Seriously?!” She and her partner giggled for several minutes at my expense, while I excused myself to go chisel some notes on a stone tablet.

Ben died in a motorcycle crash; Shayla, in an all-terrain vehicle accident. I remember Ben whenever conferences roll around, and there’s a popular country song that reminds me of Shayla. But I think the summers will bring them to mind for a while as well.

The break from school is halfway over. Sure, I’ve organized my dresser drawers, seriously contemplated yard work, and have even re-learned how to drink coffee without gulping, but a little slice of my head is always swarming with students. And sometimes, someone pops into my mind and stays awhile, bringing my thoughts back to the classroom and tugging me a little closer to fall.

Susanne Stefani is a writer and creative writing teacher at McNary High School.

Ernest Borgnine


For years I had been trying to snag an interview with veteran actor, Ernest Borgnine. But each time I nagged his long-time publicist, Harry Flynn, Harry always had good excuses: “Ernie’s away filming.” “He’s overseas on holiday.” “He’s out of state on business.” “He’s off doing a book tour… Ask me again in a few months.”

My hopes for a chat with the aging Borgnine began to dim. But then, in December of 2011, our paths crossed in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

I was sailing on the first Turner Classic Movies film cruise with some 2,000 other passengers, along with several celebrity shipmates, including Borgnine. We got our first glimpse while boarding the ship.

As we stood in line to proceed through security, my wife noticed a motorized scooter pulling alongside us, inching its way to the head of the line. But I didn’t give it much thought. “Look,” my observant wife said to me, “it’s Ernest Borgnine!”

“Everywhere you go now you have to wait,” said a very cheerful Borgnine.

He was wearing a baseball cap and glasses, which I offered as a somewhat feeble explanation for failing to recognize the then 94-year-old Hollywood legend. In his characteristic booming, gravelly, voice, he added with a broad grin, “except when they want to take your money! See you all aboard!”

And see him we did, many times.

Just a few hours later, there was a compulsory safety drill. But the folks demonstrating the emergency procedures had to compete for the crowd’s attention when Borgnine came in and was mobbed by well-wishers. Had the signal to man the lifeboats come through then, I suspect many passengers would have gone down with the ship, still straining to get a glimpse of Ernie (he always preferred fans to call him Ernie).

Hardly a day went by when we didn’t see him moving through the ship, smiling and waving at passengers, pausing for a handshake, posing for a photograph, or giving an autograph or hug to a fan. I can’t imagine too many of today’s self-absorbed stars being so gracious.

During the cruise, TCM arranged for me to sit down one-on-one with Borgnine for a 20 minute interview. He was just a delight – such a gentleman, so graceful, and down to earth.

Although he was clearly a showman and enjoyed interacting with the fans, their admiration seemed to overwhelm him a bit. “It’s one thing to like an actor, but the kind of love people have shown me is amazing. I don’t know why, because I certainly don’t deserve it,” he said humbly. I naturally suggested he was being too modest.

“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “To me, acting is just a job I do for a living. I’m just a working stiff and want to get along with everyone. I don’t go in for all that adulation stuff.”

At the same time, Borgnine admitted that recognition is also a measure of an actor’s success. He recounted an earlier time in his life as a struggling young actor when he emerged from a LA restaurant one day, wondering if people would ever recognize him.

He got his answer, he told me, years later when traveling on another, smaller boat, this time around Easter Island. “I put my head up out of the boat to look for the statues on the island and a woman on the dock nearby saw me. ‘Oh my God, Ernest Borgnine!’ she yelled. And I said to myself, ‘You’ve made it!’”

There’s no doubt that he “made it.” Along these lines in the past decade alone, Borgnine appeared in almost 30 films and many TV shows, a number that could be considered a career for some actors.

I suspect many of us classic movie fans hoped that Borgnine would live and continue to work “forever.” But nature is uncompromising on that subject. He passed away earlier this month, quite unexpectedly, after a lifetime of good health.

Borgnine could play the heavy, as in From Here to Eternity or 1973’s Emperor of the North. But he was also a great “good guy” on film (Escape From New York), TV (McHale’s Navy), and in real life (unwavering support for our military). TCM will present a 24-hour memorial tribute on July 26 including 1955’s Marty, for which Borgnine won the best actor Oscar playing a good-natured but shy butcher.

Clearly, he was proud of his success. “Wow, if mom could see me now!” he told me towards the end of our interview.

Now she can, Ernie.

Nick Thomas has written for more than 200 magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected]