Greg Sellnow: Praise for my own 'light master'

One of the most touching things I've read in recent months was Kathleen Parker's April 15 column in the P-B about her 11th-grade English teacher.

Parker, who earlier this month was named winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, used the occasion to thank English teacher James Gasque for instilling in her the confidence she needed to pursue a career in journalism. She began her column by noting that President Obama frequently in speeches says it is his wish that "every child cross paths with that one teacher who hits the light switch and changes one's life."

"Each time (Obama) expresses some iteration of that thought," Parker wrote, "I suspect thousands or millions think briefly of the one person who held that distinction in their life. The light master."

My light master was Lloyd Duda, who taught sixth grade at Whittier Elementary School in Brainerd. I wondered about Mr. Duda the other day after reading Parker's column. I was saddened to learn that he'd died just days before, on April 10, at a nursing home just a few blocks from the school where he taught me and hundreds of other kids for more than 30 years.

Like Parker, I can track my light switch moment to one school day. It happened in 1968 when I was 11 years old. I was a small-for-his age, unassuming student who was too shy and awkward to fit in with the "popular" kids. I was too bad at math to fit in with the smart kids. And I was too well behaved to fit in with the renegades. So I almost never got recognized for much of anything — good or bad.


I earned decent grades in English and enjoyed writing. So, I'd already given some thought to maybe following in my talented father's footsteps and becoming a journalist. But I had little confidence in my intellect or writing ability.

Then, one day in class, Mr. Duda took it upon himself to announce those students who'd received the top scores in standardized tests given a couple of weeks before.

(If he did that today, he'd probably be called before the principal for violating privacy laws.)

He asked students to guess who their top scoring classmates were in several categories — math, science, and English. The class quickly and correctly picked the top students in science and math; they were the usual high-achieving suspects. But they finally gave up after about 10 guesses in the English category.

"That would be Mr. Sellnow," my teacher said. It was my first inkling that I might actually be good at something.

It wasn't until years later that I realized Mr. Duda had used those test scores not to praise for the umpteenth time the top students in my class, but to boost the confidence of a kid with potential.

There are other reasons I respected Mr. Duda. He treated us more like adults than the squirrely, pre-adolescent kids we were. He was tough on us, telling us over and over again that if we didn't study, do our homework and take school seriously we'd never survive in junior high and high school. But the thing I respected most about Mr. Duda was that he cared. He took an interest in each and every one of us. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War who wore a sport coat and tie to class every day, he could have been one of the most intimidating teachers in the district. Yet, he was one of the kindest and most nurturing educators I have ever met.

I share President Obama's wish that every child cross paths with their own Lloyd Duda or James Gasque. Believe me, there are lots of them out there.



Kudos to everyone in Rochester who took part in the annual A Litter Bit Better trash pickup over the last couple of weeks. This is a great example of a grassroots project that helps stimulate a sense of community in our town.

The jury is still out on whether this year's focus on cigarette butts will make a difference. I hope organizers are successful with their Litter Butt Better initiative, but they have an uphill battle. I picked up dozens of butts when I was out on my Litter Bit stint with Post-Bulletin colleagues last week. And I'm told that one co-worker had a butt thrown at her from a passing car.

Time will tell if this public awareness campaign works.

Greg Sellnow writes Tuesdays and Saturdays. He invites feedback at or 285-7703. Next, he offers an update on Rochester's outdoor concert squatter problem.

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