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B.J. Rolfzen: A legacy of words and dreams

HIBBING, Minn. — I share a unique experience with many, if such a thing is possible. One day a while back I was invited to the home of B.J. and Leona Rolfzen to talk about preparations for Dylan Days that particular year. B.J. Rolfzen, as many in Hibbing know, was a longtime English and literature teacher for Hibbing High School and Hibbing Community College.

The visit began with a taste of Leona’s homemade cake and coffee in the kitchen. After a time B.J. and I adjourned to his furnace room office in the basement, to the desk where he graded thousands of papers, essays and tests produced by two generations of Iron Range students. Older and more fatalistic than he was during his teaching days, Rolfzen played a song on his CD player. The tune was “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan.

“I was born here and I’ll die here against my will. … It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sings Dylan.

Dylan, the music legend known in his hometown of Hibbing by his original name, Robert Zimmerman, was Rolfzen’s student in 1957 at Hibbing High School. This happenstance of history is why the Google search “Bob Dylan teacher” generates the name B.J. Rolfzen at #1. For decades, Rolfzen and everyone else who knew anything about Dylan’s time in Hibbing was hounded by the national press and fans for interviews. For decades, Rolfzen declined. He didn’t want his comments about a past student to be misconstrued, not for Dylan or any other student. Eventually, as the fullness of Dylan’s impact on American music and writing began to be realized, he agreed to talk to reporters and fans.

In service to great literature
Always referring to Dylan as “Robert,” Rolfzen described the misunderstood Hibbing boy who showed an unusual interest in literature to dozens of writers and hundreds of fans. He didn’t do so for money or his own fame, but to acknowledge the power of great literature to propel anyone to fame and to recognize the talent of a student for whom he still felt pride. More than anything involving Dylan, Rolfzen enveloped the conversation in talk of poetry.

This talk in B.J.’s basement will always be a special memory for me but it is made, perhaps ironically, somehow more special by the fact that countless others — writers, Dylan fans, and former students — enjoyed a similar experience with Rolfzen. The stories are perhaps not identical, but always focused on sharing a life lesson (with poetry) with any person who wandered to his doorstep.

Just over a week ago Rolfzen passed away at the age of 86. His well-attended funeral was held last Saturday. The speakers at the funeral and Dan Bergan’s fine column in the Hibbing Daily Tribune last week all properly expressed the way many who knew B.J. felt about his loss, his inspiration to others and his impact on local education.

Saw potential in all students
Looking back it can safely be said that Rolfzen was the right man to be teaching English on the Iron Range during the years he taught. Not just because he happened to catch a young Bobby Zimmerman in his class and open his mind to the power of words and poetry, but because he did so for all Iron Rangers regardless of who they were or where they were from.

I spoke with another of Rolfzen’s students, State Rep. Tom Anzelc, who represents eastern and northern Itasca County. “Genteel” and “polite, almost to a fault” were his initial words.

“He always saw the potential in all the students from the locations, the working class kids, and the ability of the arts and the written word to change their lives,” said Anzelc. “Beyond the confines of Hibbing Junior College one would never have expected to meet a teacher like B.J. Rolfzen in Hibbing. He was first class.”

As we watch yet another economic cloud furrow around the Iron Range, just as was the case in the late 1950s, remember that the spirit of the Iron Range has always been augmented by the work of people like B.J. Rolfzen, a good man doing great work to expand the opportunities and understanding of men and women of all means. His loss will be felt deeply by many. The need to continue his work is tantamount. To quote one of B.J.’s favorite William Carlos Williams poems: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. You can read more or contact him at his blog, Minnesota Brown. His book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range,” recently won this year’s Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Brown offers these relevant disclosures: “Tom Anzelc is a personal friend and I run his campaigns. I am also a co-organizer of Dylan Days.”

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