Monday, December 5, 2016
A quiet life, a remarkable influence: On Bob Dylan’s English teacher, B.J. Rolfzen
Looking ahead to this weekend's Nobel prize ceremony, in which Bob Dylan, the 2016 laureate in literature, will likely not attend but will provide a speech.
BY COLLEEN SHEEHY
President and executive director, Public Art St. Paul
When I looked at my phone in the early morning of Thursday, October 13, I was stunned to discover that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. During years of wondering whether this would happen, of reading arguments for and against, of hearing that each year bookies in England would wager the odds of Dylan winning, I had given up thinking about Dylan and the Nobel.
On that morning, I also thought of B.J. Rolfzen, Robert Zimmerman’s high school English teacher in Hibbing, Minnesota, who had passed away in 2009. He would be overjoyed that one of his students had reached this pinnacle of worldwide recognition—in literature. (Dylan, of course, already had reached worldwide recognition many decades ago.)
During the years of my Dylan research in Hibbing, I got to be good friends with B.J. He was in his 80s and still burned with the flame of literature. He would host visitors at his home—and there were many who made the pilgrimage to B.J. and Leona’s house just a block from Hibbing High School and a couple blocks from Dylan’s childhood home. The lucky ones were invited into his inner sanctum—his basement study—to read poetry and converse. He had built his basement refuge in the furnace room. A desk, a chair at the desk, another chair for a visitor, a bookshelf, and a CD player were about all that was in there, positioned around the furnace. Several good windows brought sunlight into the room, making it a pleasant if spare space.
I began my pilgrimage to Hibbing carrying the questions that so many have asked: How did Bob Dylan come from northern Minnesota?
What mix of circumstance, conditions, gifts, personal talents, and motivation helped form this remarkable artist who spoke to audiences around the world?
The minute I met B.J. Rolfzen, I knew he was a key to this puzzle. At Dylan Days 2005, the poet Natalie Goldberg introduced B.J. from a small stage at Zimmy’s, a Dylan-themed bar and restaurant. B.J. came to the podium. He was frail, white-haired, and mostly bald. And then he blew me away. He talked about “the power of words.” He talked about how he would bike to one of the town’s graveyards just to read the names of the immigrants who had settled there. He spoke their names to us in poetic cadences. He read some of his favorite poems by Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath. He was not what I expected.
I was taken into B.J.’s orbit. I introduced myself and asked to visit him at home, which I did the next morning. When I arrived, Leona greeted me and sent me to the basement study, where B.J. had settled after returning from Sunday Mass. He was sitting at his desk, reading Paradise Lost. He read to me that morning.
B.J., who taught Robert Zimmerman American literature in his junior year and British lit in senior year at Hibbing High School, was a person devoted to the power of words, the skillful and mysterious ways that writers could assemble something powerful from them, and the truths and meanings embedded in that creation. He told us how the young Robert always sat right in front of him in the middle front row. B.J. would get so fired up teaching that he would be dripping with perspiration. His suit (he always wore a suit and tie to school) would be covered with chalk dust from his vigorously writing ideas and words on the blackboard. He never sat at his desk. In the tough world of Hibbing with its iron ore mining, its lumberjacks working in the surrounding pine forests, it streets lined with bars, and amid the arguments among capitalists, communists, socialists, and Trotskyites, the young Zimmerman surely took inspiration from this teacher. B.J. was admired by hundreds of students who kept up with him over the years. They had learned that poetry and literature keep you in touch with the marrow of life, the aliveness, the quandaries, the love and heartbreak, unrequited love, and death. And Dylan knew that, too. In one visit back to Hibbing after he found success, the singer told B.J., “You taught me a lot.”
In the four years I spent visiting Hibbing and B.J, getting to know the town and its history, I found the answer to my question about Dylan. As a boy, he had a stable family life, was well-loved, received a good education. His parents tolerated his interest in music. Hibbing was, in many ways, a northern version of Appalachia, the region so central to the evolution of American folk music. The town was a crucible of capitalism with Eastern steel companies and local unions and socialist-leaning immigrants and the power dynamics of boom and bust mining. It gave him material, and an understanding of power and agency. It also provided enough friction to push Robert Zimmerman out on his journey. And then, Dylan had his own crazy and creative spark, something innate, that drove him away to find his destiny.
Over those years, my question changed from focusing on Dylan to B.J. Rolfzen, the man who actually was the greater mystery. What accounted for him and his love of literature? He hadn’t had the fortunate childhood of Robert Zimmerman. B.J. Rolfzen was born in 1923 in Melrose, Minnesota, a smaller town than Hibbing, located in the central Minnesota farmlands. He was one of 10 children. His father was disabled in his childhood from a self-inflicted injury, and his mother struggled through the Great Depression. By his own accounts, B.J.’s was a difficult childhood. He reported that there were no books in the house during his childhood. He didn’t own a toothbrush until he entered the Navy at the age of 18. The nuns at his school were the corporal punishment kind.
He discovered books and classical music in the Navy, and that opened a huge door for him. After the war, he went to college on the G.I. Bill, majoring in English, then earned a master’s degree in the subject. He taught in two small towns in central Minnesota before moving in the mid-1950s to a job at Hibbing High School, which prided itself on paying teachers comparatively well. Later in life, Rolfzen wrote an account of his childhood in a slim self-published volume, The Spring of My Life. How remarkable that this man had found such passion for literature.
On that October morning as I took in the news about Dylan, I was mostly happy for B.J., feeling that this award recognized Dylan’s teacher with his love of words and his belief in the truths of poetry. I recalled a memory of B.J. that made me laugh. I often laughed with B.J.—he was very funny, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. I remembered telling him that many people thought that Dylan should win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Wouldn’t that be amazing? Our boy from the North Country?” I asked.
B.J. was astounded that his former student would be considered for the award. And then, despite a lifelong aversion to alcohol, he said, “If he ever does win the Nobel Prize, I’ll drink a whole bottle of champagne.”
We laughed—at both the unlikeliness that that day would ever come and at the prospect that B.J. would break his drinking ban for such a dramatic event.
B.J., now is the time to pop the cork.
Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World (coedited with Thomas Swiss) and Cabinet of Curiosities: Mark Dion and the University as Installation.