St. Thomas Academy and the Spirit of Minnesota

I love the smell of free coconut shrimp at Outback Steakhouse in the morning after the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It smells like…victory.

Like crazy Colonel Kilgore, zealotry infused this historic Minnesota football season. For me that stemmed from an unusually spiritual visit with clients at Saint Thomas Academy.

My travel to the Catholic, boys, military, college-prep school was timed for the final home football game of the season. The purpose was to gather material for future alumni magazine and website stories from, among others, Coach Dan O’Brien, whom I had interviewed by phone for an oral history of the football program.

That phone call with the former University of Minnesota assistant coach resonated. He’s old school, so we spoke of Vikings legend Dave Osborn and some of the Gophers we knew in common going back to my time at “the U” as sports editor of the Minnesota Daily. We also touched on the story of his son, Casey, who plays for the Gophers even as he fights cancer.

But before meeting O’Brien, there was other business and pleasure to pursue during this homecoming. First was a fantastic walleye dinner at Hazelwood with my friend Mary Hickey, who provided a primer in Catholicism during our childhood in a way that feeds my work with Saint Thomas Academy.

Life doesn’t get more Minnesota than a meal of the local lake delicacy and conversation spiced with Mary’s soulful, rooted values. That talk left me even more prepared for the next morning to finally set foot on the gorgeous grounds of the Academy.

Deborah Edwards — my direct client, and herself a former Gopher Sports marketer — had a full day of interviews and campus touring planned. Walking the halls of this institution, albeit in newer buildings on a different site than its 1885 founding, a sense of history and honor pervaded. You could see how kids would want to live out the Cadet Creed.

That also reflected in the “formation” ceremony, which the Cadets run with precision, formality and fun. They report their news, make announcements, present colors, pledge allegiance, accept competitive honors, receive the daily Senior Speech required of all graduating students, and exhibit the spirit expected on a Football Friday.

Interviews with Norma Gutierrez and Casey Erickson for a website feature article and with several young men for these Meet Our Students profiles led me to understand what distinguishes Saint Thomas Academy from so many other schools. The boys make their own beds and lie in them.

Even within the constraints of both the Catholic church and military hierarchy, many aspects of the Academy’s curriculum and social structure are very much of, by and for the students. Whatever else they learn, and that’s a lot, they learn how to make decisions and live with them.

Impressed by the History Room, with its century’s worth of medals and badges, the Innovation Center, with its student-built electric vehicles, the pool, the gym, the ceramics studio, the chapel, and most of all the people, I still welcomed the end of the school day. I wanted to roam the Academy’s acres in solitude and soak in more of its spirit, including a trail that contained the Stations of the Cross and led down to Rogers Lake.

Soon the sun set. The air chilled. The wind picked up. It started snowing sideways. It was a perfect night for football in Minnesota.

Mercifully, Deborah had arranged for a seat in the press box. That added yet another layer to my sense of homecoming and made the Cadets’ 40-3 defeat of Hill-Murray School even more enjoyable.

On my Lyft ride to campus Saturday morning to meet with Coach O’Brien, the driver’s chatter turned to football. Hearing of my years at the U, he asked if I knew Darrell Thompson, who still holds most of the major Gopher rushing records. Assured I’d interviewed Darrell several times back in the ’80s, the driver unspooled a string of his own memories about what a great guy Darrell was and still is and how they used to do non-profit work together to benefit youth in Minnesota.

That driver put me in the way-back machine, which may have been the best place for me, because the chat with Coach O’Brien (not to be revealed until the next article comes out), was even more old-school than the first. We concentrated on quality of character, covering every throwback value imaginable. Given that he was not quite two years removed from coaching for the Gophers, I came away confident that they would do what they did yesterday.

The rest of that day and night, I was walking on air, from hiking Minnehaha Falls to visiting David and Lori Fhima (a past partner in crime around the 1980s Gophers football scene) at their restaurant. It was October-in-Minnesota brisk outside, just as invigorating in the present as it was in the past.

Front Row at the Shitshow

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Athletes’ autographs long ago lost their meaning for me. But authors’ autographs still have value, as though the signature itself, and perhaps a personal note based on a moment’s discussion, affirms my connection to the writer’s work.

“There There” by Tommy Orange is such a work. You’ll never read anything else like the brilliant, brutal 10-page prologue, which alone stands as capital L Literature, crashing the canon with its naked depiction of all that has befallen Native Americans.

The San Francisco Public Library named “There There” its One City One Book selection for 2019. The library’s website says, “One City One Book: San Francisco Reads is an annual citywide literary event that encourages members of the San Francisco community to read the same book at the same time and then discuss it in book groups and at events throughout the City. By building bridges between communities and generations through the reading and, most importantly, the discussion of one book, we hope to help to make reading a lifelong pursuit and to build a more literate society.”

I couldn’t wait to discuss this book with Tommy Orange. He so thoroughly inhabited all dozen or so of his chapter-named protagonists that the chance to ask him how he did it could supplant a lifetime of learning how to write.

Held in conjunction with Litquake, the event was scheduled for the library’s main branch on Wednesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. Given the mass public’s appreciation for literature and concern with the Native American plight, plus the sidewalks near the library being littered with needles and human feces, I figured I could show up and get my book signed at 5:59.

But all seats were filled, and so were the aisles until the ushers said we could sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. After some pomp and circumstance, the MC introduced San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, herself a Cherokee citizen, “in conversation with Tommy Orange.”

Minutes later, it was apparent that this event was no book group writ large. Between long silences and Kim wondering aloud what to talk about, it was an awkward, meandering non-conversation, covering such topics as their discomfort on-stage.

An audience member raised her hand and was called upon. She rose from her seat to suggest they discuss the book. “That’s some privilege,” said a voice from over my shoulder.

Tommy Orange asked her what she wanted to know. She mentioned that the book’s prologue was hard to read and wondered why he chose to write it that way. His head collapsed into his open palm.

Someone else asked if he could repeat the question. “No,” he answered. “We don’t need to repeat the question. Her privilege is showing, and she just needs to cover it up.”

The woman who asked the question and some others who looked like her left the building. While we waited for what was next, another woman raised her hand and was called on. She chastised the author, saying he had “shat” on the first woman. Tommy Orange asked for a moment of silence in memory of those women’s shattered beliefs and “Please, no more white hands raised.”

A few more people walked out. I felt criminal for being white, which kept me mindful of how everyone red — or yellow or black or brown — had suffered so much more for their skin. I genuinely wanted to discuss the book, but if Tommy Orange did not, that was his privilege, and of course it should not be my privilege to determine his privilege. That was part of the point of his book.

For another forgettable hour, the authors muddled through until the MC mercifully called time. I learned little of what I’d hoped to know, but I thought a lot. I thanked Tommy Orange for that from my seat in the front row of the shitshow, and I asked him not what I wanted to know but simply to sign his book.

Film Debut in “The Request”

Making my film debut as Max the Gangster in The Request was a delightful collaboration with Dania Denise and Rob Carrera of Think Post Productions. Working with them gave great insight into the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail necessary for a quality film, even within the scrappy, bootstrapped indie world.

Rob’s direction matched the best coaching I’ve ever experienced. He provided calm, clear, patient advice that instantly put me at ease even as a rookie actor. I have been on all sides of cameras as a spokesperson and journalist, but acting is a different animal. I have a whole new understanding and respect for what goes into film-making, and I am grateful for the education and experience and what it will add to my future work.

A Day in the Park with Wolf Pack Ninjas and KaBOOM!

It was still dark when the Lyft driver dropped off me and Snowman at Pearsall Park and sped away. The driver hadn’t wanted to go there and looked at us funny when we climbed into his car with ten thousand dollars’ worth of video gear.

Although Pearsall Park transformed “from dump to destination” about three years ago, it still is in one of San Antonio’s poorer neighborhoods. With the Lyft car vanished, the only light came from an electric sign explaining why we were there.

Snowman and I were there not to volunteer but to gather storytelling material for our mutual client, Wolf Pack Ninjas, who would help KaBOOM! build an adventure course playground that would offer a Ninja Warrior-like experience.

Wolf Pack – a group of American Ninja Warrior competitors committed to “making the world healthier one kid at a time” – and KaBOOM!, the renowned non-profit playground developer, were joining forces to provide fun and fitness opportunities to youth in underserved communities.

Soon after meeting KaBOOM! teammates who had arrived even earlier than 0-dark-hundred, the San Antonio sunrise crept over the massive mulch-pile that would gradually diminish during the day as hundreds of volunteers raked, shoveled and wheelbarrowed it into the build.

Before the event kicked off, we already were interviewing participants on camera, including extraordinary, community-minded students from the JROTC program at Southwest High School and the basketball team at East Central High School.

When the volunteers started working, it was 91 degrees. The sun was grilling, and the work was grueling, from assembling the heavy playground equipment to moving mulch to mixing cement.

But the spirit of the volunteers was remarkable. The adult leaders gave their all with great patience, and every child out there defied the stereotype of screen-addicted teen slacker. They showed pride in their community, willing to work for its improvement. They worked longer, harder and more joyously than many paid employees in much more comfortable environments, undaunted by dust and dirt, unfazed by fatigue.

The KaBOOM! crew orchestrated the volunteers with an expertise borne of building or improving 17,000 playspaces. Their concern with safety meant frequent public address reminders about hydration and sunscreen. The only other interruptions in the motivational music came during an announcement that lunch was available or when Snowman and I were conducting our on-camera interviews atop the mulch pile. Wolf Pack Co-Founder and Ninja Warrior star Ian Dory was so happy with his that he flipped.

At lunch, Ian posed for photos and signed autographs for volunteers, then went back to work right alongside them. By about 3 p.m., pieces of adventure course equipment that took six people to carry were stood in place, the 22 tons of concrete were poured, and the dust began to settle. The build was finished.

The concrete had to cure, so the course was not immediately accessible. But Ian made a great offer to the crowd to come back and play when Wolf Pack and KaBOOM! reunite in San Antonio on November 16.

Inkflow’s Cool Summer

Summer – which I have defined not by solstice and equinox but by “school’s out” ever since attending kindergarten in 1969 – was cool this year. Inkflow’s workflow made it so.

Summer started with a Fit Kids event at Levi’s Stadium on the last day of school for the students we serve in East Palo Alto, continued with gaining new Inkflow clients, and ended with amazing back-to-school initiatives. As usual, returning to my roots in Chicago and Milwaukee nourished the blooms and fruits of these labors.

In early July, The 82 Project Foundation’s annual Swine Social pig roast and fundraiser reminded me why I love serving on the non-profit’s board. Named “82” for the year our board members graduated from Whitefish Bay High School, the organization funds a scholarship for a senior graduating from our alma mater and aids community members in need of financial and emotional support.

During that visit, Inkflow linked with the Milwaukee area’s Concord Chamber Orchestra and contracted to advise the non-profit classical musical group on marketing communications strategy. A slew of stakeholder interviews, an online survey, and observations in and around CCO’s community will inform Inkflow documents that provide the organization a map for its future outreach efforts.

Also while in Milwaukee, preliminary talks from earlier weeks with San Francisco-based real estate concern Andersen, Jung & Co. turned into a short-deadline assignment to write a 90-second speech that Principal Broker Monica Chung delivered to a group of business executives.

Back in the Bay, Inkflow sealed a deal to deliver writing coaching and marketing/business development consulting for Ferox Yoga, the brain-child of yoga instructor Claire Ngoon.

Soon after, the latest issue of Saint Thomas Academy’s Saber Magazine dropped, with several of my articles, including the cover story, “Profiles in Service.”

July closed out with the launch of a new promotional video for Fit Kids, including my first voice-over work…

…and August started with a return to Chicago as a panelist on the topic of “Telling Your Story: How to Engage Your Donor Base” at the inaugural Sports Philanthropy World Congress.

About 100 delegates gained information and inspiration from the panel, including moderator Nicole Fisher (Founder of Health & Human Rights Strategies, Co-Founder of Brain Treatment Foundation and a Forbes contributor), Katie Wilkes (Freeheart Creative), and Marianna Whitehurst (Board Member for Georgia Playworks, Foundation Board of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Chick Fil A Peach Bowl Advisory Board).

Back in the Bay, Inkflow forged an alliance between Fit Kids and Citizen Schools, which will have me leading Fit Kids classes for underserved middle-school students at Redwood City’s McKinley Institute of Technology. The chance to merge my passion for both non-profits into a single project that directly impacts youth and advances both organizations’ goals is a dream come true.

Then this other dream came true:

Minda, whom I informally and occasionally advised in the last several years, read from The Memo, sold and signed scores of copies, and led a rousing panel discussion with several other women of color that infused the packed room with equal parts anger and hope.

Twenty-four hours later, some of Minda’s “Memo” continued to hit home in another room of multi-culturalists, as “summer” ended with students back in school, including those who last night completed the class I teach at The Writing Salon, aptly titled — in light of Minda’s message — “On Point.”

Fit Kids on the Last Day of School

Remember the last day of elementary school before summer vacation? Your weather may have been spectacular, tantalizing you outside the classroom window, promising the freedom to run, jump, skip, throw, catch, and finally, comfortably collapse into sleep as your pent-up energy dwindles with the daylight.

There is nothing better than that mad dash out the door to the sound of the school year’s last bell. Unless you’re an East Palo Alto public school student participating in Fit Kids. Then, it does get better.

You board a bus headed to Levi’s Stadium. There, you get a t-shirt and run out the same tunnel as your football heroes, all courtesy of investment firm HGGC, the Forever Young Foundation, and the San Francisco 49ers, and then you meet Steve Young, who has led all three organizations.  

There are lessons in football and life from 49ers Youth Football head Jared Muela.


There are football drills, agility tests, music and dancing.


There are flying touchdown flops into foam endzones.

There is food and beverage and a gift bag. The ride home is much quieter. Many of the Fit Kids are fast asleep…and dreaming.

Collaborative Storytelling

Two great joys — collaboration and storytelling — recently came together on an Inkflow Communications project for Fit Kids, a non-profit client that provides structured fitness programs to underserved elementary school students. The challenge was to humanize Fit Kids’ impact, telling the story of one child to illustrate the organization’s broader value to the communities it serves.

Dramatizing a problem and its solution through the story of an archetypal individual is a go-to approach for many brands. This is especially true for non-profits that need compelling content to raise funds.

In theory, focus on a single face instead of mind-numbing numbers is the surer way to change hearts and minds. The story of one identifiable person is more moving than statistical statements about anonymous millions, which can overwhelm audiences to the point of turn-off and tune-out.

So, why doesn’t every brand take the individual storytelling approach? First, not everyone got the memo. Business leaders focused on the bottom line may fixate on figures. Also, telling an individual story in support of a brand is not an easy execution. That’s where the joy of collaboration comes in.

Telling the story of Briana in the video above took Fit Kids Founder Ashley Hunter’s commitment to this form of communications, Fit Kids Program Director Navita Wilson’s keen ear to the ground to identify Briana and her family as subjects, Inkflow’s work to bridge brand and journalism, and the extraordinary skill, emotional intelligence, storytelling instincts, and production chops of award-winning sports broadcaster Mindi Bach.

The video was a hit when it debuted at The Fit Kids Lunch fundraiser on April 30. Of course, collaboration also fueled that event’s success. But that’s a different story.