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WOODWORKING

BY DAVE WOOD

Never go to St. Paul

I’m pretty certain every small-town high school has a faculty member who students will never forget, because of the teacher’s longevity on the job, his or her physical or mental quirks or just because how could anyone ever forget the events that made them special.

My teacher in question was Joseph Emerson, who taught Industrial Arts at Whitehall from 1923 to 1958. He was a graduate of a place called The Stout Institute, which was known primarily as a school that taught students who would become teachers of either home economics or "shop." Emerson ran his shop like an army basic training camp. He was short of stature, fairly well put together, always wore a blue serge three-piece suit covered by a long black apron. His rimless spectacles made him look the part of an assistant principal, but he never got called to the top job. We knew he cherished the days when the real principal was out of town because he always called special assemblies at study hall, where he made needless announcements standing behind the piano on stage because he was, well, rather short. He was known by all male alums and current students by a vulgar nickname my father’s class pinned on him back in the Roaring Twenties. You might think of it, if you imagine a name frequently given to folks who cherish their own power too highly.

Oh, did I mention he was maddeningly meticulous, clad always in that blue serge. I well remember my first entry into the shop, when I was in eighth grade. Joe called ou our names.

"Sheldon Ivers. Simon's son?" Sheldon: "Yessir." "Class of '24. He's a fine dentist." "Roger Erickson. Sheriu Erickson's son?" "Yessir." "Class of '28. None of us thought he would ever run for political ovce." "George Quackenbush. Roy's boy, I pre sume. Roy should have graduated in the class of '28, but didn't." "Harold Wood, Class of '28. The bartend –

er at Hwy 53 Bar?" Joe snuued. "Yessir," said I. He droned on the list of parental scamps Joe would never forget. And we all knew what was coming, having heard our fathers describe how Joe’s class system of parents gave him room to treat most of us like hoo- ligans. Questions like, "Be so kind as to tell me who turned the glue pot on?" "I believe I can tell, Mr. Johnstad, that you smoke Cam- els, not Luckies. Am I right?" "Clean up and right away!" "Someone loan me a nickel, so I can have a Coca-Cola during lunch room?" Our first project was a bread board for our mother. Sand and water, until our pinkies were raw. Finally, at year’s end, Joe called me aside and asked me for a favor.

"I don't have a nickel, sir," I politely re plied.

"No, no. I want you to promise me you will not take Industrial Arts when you matriculate as a freshman. You’ve worked for weeks on the tin dustpan to no avail. I must say I was surprised because your father showed such promise when he made a six-foot long couee

table out of one solid piece of walnut…." I was more than happy to oblige, until I discovered that if I didn’t take the Industrial Arts class as a freshman, the only option remaining was a business training course for girls. Needless to say, Joe wasn't fond of my penmanship.

"Your father had a fine Spenserian hand, which he further polished at Whitewater Teacher’s College, until he made the mistake of eschewing a Higher Education." So why was Joe so determined to impose this class structure, which would have rivaled Eton and Sandhurst, at this lowly rural high school?

Probably because at home he wasn’t the top dog. His wife had that job. Every Wednesday, the Mrs. came to the shop window and rapped on it. Joe ran and opened the window, stuck his well-manicured paw out for her to drop into it one dime and one nickel. Just enough for Joe to go across the street after school to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where the Ladies' Aid ouered cof fee and goodies for 15 cents. Once we understood that routine, none us were reluctant to loan him a nickel for a Coke any time he asked.

Years later I found a job as a bartender at the Towne Room of the Ritzy Hotel Eau Claire, a wonderful place, now long gone from Barstow Street. One day I walked into the elegant lobby and who should be sitting on a leather sofa but Mr. Joseph Emerson?

"Mr. Emerson? What in the world are you doing here!" "Hello, David. Mrs. Emerson is at Samu elson’s shopping, so I’m here waiting for her. What are you doing here?" "I'm the day bartender here. We aren't very busy, so come and keep me company. I'll buy you a drink." "Like father, like son, as Homer might say. Ahem. I'll be right in." He took a seat at the bar and looked around at the accoutrements.

"What'll it be, Mr. Emerson? "I see you have Old Crow. I'd like one ounce with two ice cubes and three ounces of water. Oh! Is your Old Crow 86 or 100 proof?" "100 proof, Mr. Emerson." "In that case make it four ounces of tap water." Three 4-to-1 drinks later and a dia- tribe about the class of '28, Joe glanced at his watch and said, "My God – pardon the French – it's ten after one and I'm late to meet Mrs. Emerson!" He was gone in a flash to meet his spouse in the lobby.

Suddenly I remembered eighth grade. Mr. Emerson clapped his hands. We all gathered around his work bench for his daily bit of advice: "Listen up, young men: Never go to St. Paul. In nineteen and twenty-seven I went to visit St. Paul to see the Minnesota State Fair. It was on that day I met my wife- to-be. Ahem. Never go to St. Paul." Then he clapped his hands again and said "Now clean up and right away!"

April 26, 2022