“The best teachers do more than instruct: they encourage and inspire us to be all that we can be” notes the introduction to My Favorite Teacher, a special feature of the AmericanProfile published this week as a supplement to the Tribune.
How true. And how fitting a testimony to “B.J.” Rolfzen (1923-2009), who died last week after enjoying a long retirement from inspiring generations of high school and community college students.
Those former students filled the church from which he was buried and in the days before the service crowded into his small home on East 24th Street — each with the same story to relate: “B.J. made a difference in my life.”
B.J. simply had that great an influence on generations of young people. To be in his classroom was to be in the presence of a man who loved literature, who loved those with a desire to learn, and who loved his profession.
Principally, Rolfzen loved poetry — its imagery, its subtleties, its power — and shared that love with his students.
“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe had B.J. in mind.
Kathy Meredith of Nine Mile Falls, Wash., in the Profile article — herself a teacher — noted, “Every teacher becomes a teacher because of a teacher.”
B.J. inspired dozens to follow in his path — including Tom Moeller, Ed Beckers, Linda (Christofferson) Shadiow — all of whom admitted to “drifting” towards some vague career until privileged to sit in B.J.’s classroom and witness his love for the profession.
An oft-repeated maxim about teaching, authored by American essayist Henry Adams, is that “A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops.”
Famed English physician Sir William Osler believed “No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”
Both of these quotes come at least close to giving some substance to the life of B.J. Rolfzen. Regardless of future chosen profession or life mandate, his students — to a person — spoke of the positive influence of B.J. as mentor, teacher, and friend.
My last words to him a week or so before his death as he lay surrounded by letters and cards from well-wishers, were “B.J. — you’re like a pebble cast in a pond with the ripples expanding for generations.”
He cocked his head to one side and replied, “That’s a good image, Dan. I’ll have to think about that.”
B.J. can rest in peace under a “yew-tree’s shade” in his own “narrow cell” in Spring Hill Cemetery — content with a life well lived and a career well spent.