Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dick Hanson....Teacher and Coach: The Best I Ever Saw!

     Dick Hanson (1936- 2016)

Coach and Teacher. 
He was superb at both.  Some would say, and rightly so, he was more coach than teacher. When you're a learner, why that's even better!

My friend of 55 years, Dick Hanson, passed away to his eternal reward on January 26, 2016. I don't know how we get welcomed to heaven, but in Dick's case I think the committee was led by his lifetime love and dancing partner, Phyllis, and a host of heavenly choir singing the "Anniversary Waltz" while they circled the floor.

He touched so many lives as a beloved math teacher extraordinaire, a caring, perfectionist football coach who focused on his players first, and an all-around wonderful person with whom to spend quality time. How lucky I have been to call him "friend."

How have I loved him? Let me count the ways:

In 1961, fresh out of college and smack, dab in the middle of my first year of teaching, and I am lucky enough to be chose for the NSF Summer Institute on Computing at the College of St. Thomas. Fearful I was about the esoteric math, but the instructor was Dick Hanson. 'Nuff said. He always knew a way to make it clear, and possessed the patience to help those of us who needed more "clear." I knew I had found a mentor in life.

On the lookout to keep improving my teaching skills, I attended the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics conferences, every year. And every time, I looked up Dick Hanson on the Conference agenda and made sure I got their early to find a seat. Dick passed on more nuggets of wisdom to an audience than a gold-miner panned. Most gifts were centered around his humorous tips: engage the learners, smile often, take it one step at a time, inject humor, take pregnant pauses, inject some more humor, and let the students make the conclusions so they can own it.

Dick was so good at teaching mathematics, the most difficult of all subjects (just ask any of his students if you don't believe me) that he was chosen MN Teacher of the Year and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. As runner-up, he was too self-effacing to have won that title, but it's hard to imagine anyone who could teach better than he did. I've seen thousands of teachers over the years and never saw one better.

My wife, Ruth, and I enjoyed many wonderful times with Dick and Phyl, laughs and loves, poetry and music, jokes and stories about friends and family. All the things in life that truly matter. They would even take the time to drive all the way from Burnsville to visit Ruth's Art Show.

No teacher I've known, let alone a math teacher, had a following like Dick Hanson did. If you were in his class, you never forgot him, and you likely remembered some of the math. Here's one of them:

John Seipp was a student of mine at the University of St. Thomas a few years back. We became good friends, and when we shared some of our memories one day we found Dick Hanson was among them. John wrote a wonderful memorial to Dick on Facebook. I'll share it here:
A legend. I was fortunate enough to have him for Calculus. Best math teacher I ever had, and not even sure who would be second. Also one of the kindest, gentlest men I ever met. 
I will never forget his habit of muttering "Idiot!" at himself when he would make a small mistake on the white board in his impossibly neat writing, before brushing it off and correcting it. One time in class I noticed a plus where there should have been a minus or vice versa, and pointed it out to Mr. Hanson (sorry, even though I later worked with him at Burnsville Sr. High, he will ALWAYS be Mr. Hanson...I respect him too much to think of calling him anything else.)
As he went to fix it something came over me and I mumbled "Idiot!" loud enough for him and the class to hear. It was offered in the spirit of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, but I instantly feared it would not be taken that way, and the hush that fell over the class told me I was not alone. 
I remember Mr. Hanson's back stiffening for just a moment, then him fixing his mistake, turning back to the class, and arching one eyebrow at me with a tiny smile curling the corner of his lips. Those who knew him will remember that wry grin. Then he continued as if nothing had happened.
I learned not take myself too seriously as a teacher from Mr. Hanson. I learned to check my ego at the door. I learned to try to look into the heart of students and believe their words and actions are driven by good, and not by malice. And I learned the power of a teacher's passion for his subject and his students.
Tom Mraz, Ron Ronning, Dick Hanson, Ted Seidel, Craig Stoneberg, Carlene McDowell, Dave Griffith, Penny Damlo, Don Gerlach...I was at Burnsville when giants walked the Earth, and I stand on their shoulders.
Godspeed, Mr. Hanson."
We met another succesful person once at a dinner who had been in Dick's classes. A young woman who took calculus from Dick back in the days when few girls took math. Dick encouraged her and she graduated from college with a degree in mathematics and has been a succesful actuarian ever since. She's still grateful to him. 
My orthopedist, Peter Daly M.D., was one of his students too. I saw him at the funeral. He must have taken geometry from Dick as  the angle of my new knee is perfect. Dr. Daly also played football for Dick and counts it all among his treasured memories.
I'm certain there are hundreds of other such stories. Local TV anchor Randy Shaver announced this on his show the day Dick passed away:
"One of Minnesota's greatest high school football coaches passed away today. Dick Hanson of Burnsville was 80 years old.
Coach won 5 state titles for Burnsville in 1972, 1980, 1985, 1989 and 1991. He was not only an outstanding coach but an award-winning teacher.
I first met Dick in 1983 and watched him win three of those titles.
A great coach, but a better man.
I know the Burnsville community is mourning his loss, but so are thousands others, like me, who were lucky enough to cross his path. RIP Coach Hanson."
Dick and I stayed close over the years. I'd get a call that started with, "Did you see that show last night on PBS?" and I'd counter with a recent book I had trouble putting down.  Even though he was a brilliant teacher and coach, I was so bad at golf that we decided to play tennis instead. I loved listening to the click of Dick's golf balls as he launched them, and in return, tried to show him the advantage of a well-placed dropshot or lob over the head of an aging opponent on the tennis court. We met regularly for my golf lessons until his Parkinson's worsened enough that he claimed that Lucy, from "Peanuts", kept moving the ball on his tee. We moved on to sharing lunches where the conversations ranged from art, to poetry, to football, to math, to Carnac the Magnificent, to music, to....well, it had no limits
Like me, Dick loved to play the piano. He was the far better at it, and loved to take a fistful of sheet music into a nursing home and sit and play the old tunes for the old folks. He continued that until he was one of them, and stopped only when Parkinson prevented the right note from being where it was supposed to be. He then went into his comedy routine of David Lettermen's Top Ten, Johnny Carson's Worst Jokes, and for those of us who go back a ways, some of the Bob and Ray routines. He loved to make folks laugh. 
Upper Whitefish Lake Sailboat Lesson
We both loved the Whitefish chain of lakes, he and Phyl and family on Upper Whitefish, and Ruth and I and our kids on Trout Lake to the east. We loved to share visits, and a glass of wine or iced tea, a pontoon trip to Manhattan Beach for lunch, a sail on his boat. He even gave our kids a lesson on the basics of sailing. Being at the lake in the summer was about as close to paradise as you can get on this earth, and we all believed that. 
When his Parkinson's worsened he still kept up the regimen of doing what he was able to do, making light of his Parkinson herky-jerkies and his runny nose. There were still lots of eyes to light and burdens to lessen. He never missed a chance to make someone smile or laugh.
Coach Hanson greets the 2015 Blaze Team
Dick never quit coaching, even to the end. At the invitation of their coach, he was still meeting with the Burnsville Blaze football players and sharing with them the why's and the wherefore's of commitment, betterment, and wonderment both on the field and off. If you walked into the middle of one of those huddles, you'd hear Paverotti in the background, and Coach Hanson urging those kids to listen for genius, so they could work on their own.
We had the best of times with Dick and Phyl, lunch, coffee, dinner, sharing the many likings we had in common and the love we had for our kids and "grands", as they called them. It was the best of times. And as life can do, these were taken away when Phyl's illness took her away. Two people more in love than Dick and Phyl I've never seen. It was a tragic loss, but Dick went on, sharing his gifts until his Parkinson's finally stopped it all. But only in this life. 

We were kindred spirits, Dick and I. He was my Coach in trying to get to be a better man, like him, even though he didn’t know it. "Carpe diem!” he’d remind me. And I’d recall that quote from Robert Browning:

“Ah, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for."

He's now back on the dance floor, with the love of his life. When he's not on the dance floor, he's playing those wonderful Gershwin and Porter ballads, telling jokes to anyone who will listen, or at the chalkboard showing us that a well-lived life equals infinity in the divine number system.
Rest In Peace my friend.....Tom 
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Dick Velner said...

Hi Tom,
Sorry to hear about Dick Hanson. I met him when I started my own journey in teaching in 1990 (when you and I met) and enjoyed his style and philosophy, especially his joy of technology.
I'm still fooling around with the education thing but am frustrated with the lack of enthusiasm by math people who do not seem to be inspired by the software coming to market. The ones I know are still in love with chalk and chalk-board. I'm trying to learn Mathematica (it is difficult) but am afraid it will be long after I'm gone that a real inroad will be seen.
Hope you are doing well and in good shape. Thanks for the note.

R.E.(Dick) Velner
Director, Russian School of Mathematics
(Home of the Northeast Elite Team 7)
Teacher and Curriculum Principal

Owner IRIS
Delta School of Investing
Cultivating the Financial Garden

Tom King said...

Thanks, Dick....I appreciate your comments. Dick Hanson loved the software apps and wrote some of his own.

All the best, Tom