With nearly two months to spend before starting the Luther admissions job, I hung out at home musing about the future and doing a bit of maintenance running. By early July, I was restless and jumped into a 15K stretching from Crystal Lake to McHenry. “Felt smooth and strong,” I wrote in the journal. “51:51.”
I wasn’t doing big mileage that summer with the biggest week at 56 miles. But two weeks later, I raced against the Luther boys at Nordic Fest in Decorah, taking 4th on the hilly Elvelopet course in 50:30. I’d just turned 22 years old. Then I took a trip to Grinnell, Iowa with my girlfriend, and returned to Decorah for the first day of work as an admissions counselor.
The changes were coming thick and fast by that point. “Looked at the apartment,” I wrote. “It’s nice enough. I think I should see if Elly will split the rent and live with me. (She) was of great help to me. She buffered me from all my blundering with other people. I bought two suits, two shirts, and a short-sleeve shirt. I put $500 in my savings account, $500 in my checking. I still have to buy more clothes, and have another $100 in my wallet. $30 more coming from my painting for Kim Haugen. They liked it, I guess. Maybe I should sell a few more at Nordic Fest.”
My running mileage went up and down with all the commitments coming at me. I was learning the hard way that the sport I’d done to anchor to my existence the previous eight years often took a back seat to the realities of life.
August 3 “Third day of work. Learning this job takes concentration, which I have, but I’ll have to fight the yawns! The people in the office are all very human and seem to function well. The job has some inherent contradictions or paradoxes, most them based on money! But I think I can motivate well enough. All of Illinois, go get ’em!”
At home with little else to do in the rented upstairs apartment, I sat down with the running journal to do some figuring. “August 4. Ok. Get this. My 6 month total mileage from 1978 January to June is exactly the same for both years. Talk about consistency!”
These two days of observation actually revealed key aspects of my personality. One: I recognized my challenges with the consistency of concentration required to get things done. Two: I also recognized the value of running in helping me feel actualized and stable over periods of great change.
By August 9 I was feeling out of sorts. “Little sick from stress of job. (She’s) staying with me on this.”
That week I went out to lunch with the boss of Admissions. We piled into the crampled little Chevy Monza the college had given me to drive. The car was a claptrap in many ways. Stuff was hanging off the sides and the stick knob was loose. As we left a stoplight and turned up a hill in downtown Decorah, traffic came to a stop and I was stuck riding the clutch on the uphill. I still wasn’t that adept at driving a stick-shift vehicle, and I couldn’t get the car going frontward again. My boss looked over at me anxiously from the passenger seat and my girlfriend sat rigid in the back. Finally, I lurched the thing into gear and we got going again.
That little episode seemed to impact his trust in me. From then on, I was always getting questioned about what I was doing. He wasn’t the only one. On August 16, I wrote, “Job is going well, but. There’s always buts. I have to learn to function and discern the intentions of people around me!”
What I sensed in myself was a struggle with what modern psychology calls “emotional intelligence.” Between the trouble staying focused during the long stretches of boring office work, the doubts cast my way and a native lack of self-esteem, the Ch-ch-ch-changes were not coming easily.
Decades later I’d learn that my troubles all fell under the category of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD. I didn’t deal with it back then in the most constructive ways. To entertain my mind and win perceived approval from others, I drew cartoons about our work and posted them on the bulletin board in the office. People found them funny, for sure. But there were also some really talented and serious folks with whom I worked. They didn’t need to draw cartoons to get their jobs done. They’d sit there and send out stacks of student appointment cards with hopes of attracting kids during school visits, and I could only handle that repetitious work for an hour or two before going mentally bonkers.
A former co-worker told me decades later that she and my former roommate Keith Ellingson, who sat facing each other in the Admissions office, would often look up at each other when I flaked out and say, “There goes Cud again.”
For all my distraction, I also did some keen homework on what lay ahead. I understood the process of recruiting students in Chicago and Illinois because I’d met with the recruiter that had worked the territory before me. We’d become close over those four years after helping me sign up for Luther. Sometimes we’d collaborated on talking with kids visiting Luther from Illinois. So I knew the admissions routine. But I also knew that he’d been allowed to live in the market full-time, and had built up a healthy market of contacts throughout the state.
By contrast, I was being required to commute to the territory from Decorah every weekend to reach the high schools and college fairs where students could be found.
There was also background noise. The college made the decision to move that successful counselor out of his territory during a period of deep concern over enrollment numbers. When I first interviewed, I did not know that it would be my job to replace him. Once I got the position, I was instructed to resource with him and tap into his network of high school guidance counselors, pastors and Luther Alumni that he used to find and recruit students.
I knew enough to realize he was not all that happy about those changes. In fact, he was legitimately a bit bitter in some respects. So it was tough to ask him to share the knowledge he’d worked so long to accrue as if it was something to be handed over like a book of magic. I learned all that I could those first few weeks and would check in from time to time, but it was clear that he was ready to leave it all behind if he wasn’t appreciated.
I used the information to reach out to some of his contacts, who received me warmly enough. Yet those long-distance phone calls were awkward given our office situation with everyone sitting within earshot of each other in a single room. Whenever folks on the other end of the line asked what happened to the former counselor (whom they really liked) I offered some cloistered line about how there were positive changes in his future and I was taking over. Sometimes there was cool silence on the other end. People aren’t stupid. They can read between the lines. Within a few weeks, I’d be heading on the road to meet some of those people in person. That’s when the real questions got asked, and I told the truth the best I could. “The college made some changes. I’m here to do the best I can.” People seemed to respect that.
Toward the middle of August, I entered and won a road race down in West Union, Iowa. I’d purchased a set of Tiger racing flats and was excited to run in them. But they had pretty thin soles, and they just didn’t feel that fast. During the first four miles, the lead between another runner and I see-sawed back and forth, but as we turned down the last hill I pulled ahead to win in 26:22 for five miles. Ever quick with the wry comment, my former teammate and friend Keith Ellingson who watched the race said, “It looked like both of you were trying to lose.”
I remember thinking, “Fuck you. I did my best…” But honestly, none of us were too commiserative in our racing days. Friends or not, we didn’t go easy on each other much of the time.
The one thing that kept us sane through those dull office days was knowing that we could play Frisbee Golf at the end of the day. I’d gather with Kirk Neubauer, Mike Kust and Keith Ellingson, and a few other guys on alternating days. We’d create ad hoc “holes” around the campus, including one in which we threw our Frisbees from the deck of the Union down to the goalpost on the football field below. Perhaps we didn’t invent the game of Disc Golf back then, but we certainly celebrated it in our own way. The Luther campus with its giant oak trees and rolling topography was a perfect venue. It was an hour or two filled with jokes and teasing with guys that were quick-witted and hilarious. That helped me feel normal during that period of intense change.
That whole summer was a grand experiment in Welcome to the Real World. Adapting to the schedule of a full-time job was admittedly tough for me. In 1979 and ’80, we earned $9500 a year in Admissions, plus travel expenses, which we all tried to pad a little. There were definite limits to that. We even had daily limits on hotel costs, which made it tough at times to find decent accommodations in the Chicago area, where a $50 hotel could turn out to be pretty seedy.
Throughout that summer, I clung to my relationship with my girlfriend. We spent as much time together as possible when she was in town. She had one more semester to finish up at Luther, then she’d be graduating too. Ch-ch-ch-changes were still afoot.
Still don’t know what I was waitin’ for
And my time was runnin’ wild
A million dead end streets and
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
How the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
Turn and face the strange
Soon it would come time for me to go on the road with recruiting trips to Chicago and the rest of Illinois. I was about to learn about the strange world of windshield time, cheap hotels, and meals on the run. All with the goal of recruiting 70 students to attend Luther College the following year.