I am a confirmed people watcher. They fascinate me: the ones I know well, those I merely recognize, even absolute strangers. From my observations, I form opinions about them and am occasionally able to predict their behavior.
Just when I believe I have a person “figured out,” however, he or she unexpectedly goes against type, piquing my interest and fascinating me to no end.
Discovering the unexpected in people undoubtedly began during my childhood. A favorite, oft-told family story involved my mother, an often-pesky little sister to my aunt, thirteen years older. They often sat on the pulled-down oven door of the cook stove to look at the funny papers. Once my pre-school mother replicated what my aunt was reading aloud by whacking her older sister over the head with a rolling pin – just what Maggie did to husband Jiggs in the cartoon strip. To this day, it is hard to align those wildly-divergent images of my mother: the care-taking parent and the rolling-pin-attacker of yesteryear!
Eventually Mother redefined herself again when she began helping my dad in the field. The diaper-changing-cake-baking-laundry-hanging-reading-queen of the kitchen traded her apron for a straw hat and climbed on the tractor to plow and bale hay. What an unexpected turn of events!
My father was not without his own surprises, regularly insisting he could not read. Compared to my mother – the lifelong bookworm – his statement seemed plausible, although he inexplicably read the UDC every day and subscribed to Hoard’s Dairyman and Farm Journal. Then came the day I had never imagined: my father in the rocking chair by the coal stove in the kitchen, a copy of Papa Married a Mormon in his hand. Now that was a moment: Daddy reading a book!
Family legend also confused me about my naval officer uncle. I was suitably impressed and often intimidated by Uncle Bill in his uniform as he towered over me with ramrod-straight posture and a stern countenance. As the story goes, however, on his first day in the first grade at Concord School, he failed to answer each time the teacher called his name: William Robert Scott. Upon inquiry, Uncle Bill matter-of-factly replied his name was Billy Bob. Accepting Chief Petty Officer William Robert Scott and Billy Bob as the same person took some doing!
Individuals outside my family also fascinated me with some less-than-obvious talent, some characteristic not exactly in sync with my mental portrait, as in the case of a high school principal.
Harold Shank was principal at Concord, moving on to the principalship at the newly-opened Graham High School. In stark contrast to the grandfatherly Mr. Shank, successor Ronald Pawlowski scared the bejeebers out of me my senior year and still scared me silly when I returned as a teacher on his staff. He was brusque and intimidating, but I finally found an interesting little quirk that slightly humanized his larger-than-life persona. Mr. Pawlowski’s habit was to check school monies – from the pop machine in the teacher’s lounge or the ballgame’s ticket sales. He collected wheat pennies; when he spied one in the school coins, he traded it with one of the many regular pennies he carried in his pocket. More than once he explained way more than I ever wanted to know about wheat pennies.
During my college years, I came to know the Dean of Students quite well. Joanne Van Sant – Dean Van to most of us – was an incredible individual, her Otterbein career spanning 44 years. She was formidable but kind, respected and respectful, conscientiously aware of her influence among students, staff, and alumni. It was quite the experience, then, to watch her plop herself down behind a drum set. Yes, Dean Van could more than hold her own providing the beat for whatever college group needed percussion assistance. What a lady! What a drummer!
Through the years, folks beyond my circle of acquaintanceship also surprised me with unpredicted talents or character traits. For example, several years ago when the basketball Buckeyes played deep into the national tournament, I was impressed that Aaron Craft – outstanding player and student – could solve the Rubik’s cube in 65 seconds.
I also discovered another side to another athlete, this time in person. At a foreign language conference, I sat in the hotel lobby where I engaged in casual conversation with a nearby gentleman. A quarter hour later when we parted company after thought-provoking dialog on the state of American education, he identified himself as Larry Csonka. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever expected such a thoughtful discussion with a professional football player!
Such discoveries have always been part of my life. I find it simply fascinating to know that Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White and Rosey Grier of the NFL like to knit; that Hilary Swank is an airplane pilot; that Tony Dow of Leave It to Beaver fame is a sculptor; that auto-racing’s Mario Andretti sings opera; that nutty Ashton Kutcher invests serious money on the Shark Tank. It is equally interesting to picture my grandmothers as younger ladies driving wagons pulled by horses during their automobile-less years and my millennial nephew cooking gourmet meals after hours from his day job. And I still miss seeing another side of my classroom students on the stage or the athletic field.
I just love watching the predictable become unpredictable. I hope the surprises keep coming!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.