Taking Big Steps

 I was raised on a farm near a small-town named Kerkhoven, located in the rural heart of Minnesota. Approximately 40 miles south of the Lake Wobegon area, this town of population 300 was my world. It took some big personal steps to go beyond it.

A first step beyond was prompted by my Senior Class Trip in 1966. Most schools and students do something exotic, and perhaps we did as well. Our graduating class of 35+ students got on a bus and trekked 110 miles east to a shopping center in south Minneapolis. The sole goal was to not only experience a shopping center, but to also see and ride an escalator. What a trip…up and down between three floors with no effort!

Smitten by the options in a larger city, my next big step was going away to Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Actually, this was a bigger step than I realized, but was comforted by the fact that most of my classmates were also from small rural towns in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. My room-mate was Bruce Johnson, a recruited basketball player from Wisconsin. On a dare, in the first week of classes, he and I ran for the position of Vice-President and President of the Freshman Class, respectiovely. Oddly, neither one of us had held any political office in our respective high schools. Our entire campaign was based on handing out Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids to other freshman. We won by a landslide, and my new world had just expanded further.

A third step occurred after getting my mathematics degree at Augsburg College—moving to Los Angeles in 1970 to be a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. In fact, this was a huge step, as life in Los Angeles and at Cal Tech was far different from my life in Minneapolis and at Augsburg College…and it has no intersection with the world in a small town named Kerkhoven.

Leaving Minnesota for California, I glibly promised friends that I would get on television’s The Dating Game. At that time, the show was a big hit amongst college students, and an even bigger promised step. In the late fall, I applied at the television studio office. After a two week wait, I was called in for a sequence of interviews and practice shows in a Dating Show context. About thirty—male and female—had been called in for this round. Two weeks later, I got the special call. I was to be on The Dating Game in the spring!

The show, taped in February of 1971, was an interesting process, as six half-hour shows were taped that afternoon.  I could bring three friends, seated in the audience. All contestants were cloistered in two bunkers, separated by sex. One television monitor showed the taping process as they called up three “bachelors” at a time. It was a long wait as I was in the final show being taped.

The show began with us first meeting the host Jim Lange (who passed away in 2014). Then we heard the voice of our female questioner, who we could not see nor could she see us. I was competing against two students from USC and UCLA. I was Bachelor Number Two, if you are familiar with the show format. Much of the show is now a blur, but remember one question asked by the female questioner (and decider of our fate): “Bachelor Number Two, if I was a road sign, what would it say?” My first reaction was to blurt out “Curves Ahead” but rejected that as perhaps too provocative, especially for a rural farm boy from Minnesota. So, I replied: “Soft Shoulders Ahead.” The audience applauded and I felt great.

Once the interview process was over (twenty minutes of anxiety for me!), the female questioner had to pick one Bachelor and state her reasoning. She picked Bachelor Number Three, the USC student. And her reason—because she liked his answer of “soft shoulders” to the “road sign” question. I was appalled…actually an understatement! I wanted to yell out: “That was my answer!”  But I did nothing of the sort.

Next, the losing bachelors stepped around the screen to meet the girl who had not selected us. On seeing the girl, I was relieved as she was not attractive, perhaps due to a quick defense mechanism on my part. My consolation gift— a men’s hair dryer, which I used until it broke. The trip missed out on with the girl—a weekend in San Diego.

But the story does not end here. The show was scheduled to be aired on a midweek afternoon in early May of 1971. My home town of Kerkhoven was in a tizzy…one of their own was going to be on television…on The Dating Game no less. The entire K-12 Kerkhoven School closed at noon and the few town stores shut down, allowing everyone to be home to watch, including my parents and younger siblings. Due to a signed contract, I could not reveal the results.

In June, after the showing, I returned home to Kerkhoven for a family visit. Everywhere I went, people asked for my autograph. My father had the best reaction however, stating he was glad I lost as he just didn’t get the feeling that the “girl questioner” was the right mate for me. Unfortunately, I have no video tape of the show, but I do have an audio tape of it and my older brother took a few pictures off the television screen.

This is what life is about, reflecting on the big steps we have taken. When I wake up tomorrow, I will remember another connected sequence of steps. Aren’t memories great?


I have known Jerry – and his wife Millie – Johnson for decades.  Jerry and Millie have been (Jerry is officially retired)  mathematics educators at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA for almost as long as I’ve known them.  I have worked with Jerry on several projects over the years – he’s got a great sense of humor and a variety of interests (of which we’ve just scratched the surface)!!

As a side note, the Johnsons live just outside of Bellingham on Lake Samish, now the subject of at least FOUR of my shared photos over the past year.  I was visiting the Johnsons when the shots were taken!

To re-read Jerry’s first Guest Voice, from March 2015, see Cookbook Olio.