My phone rang on my way back from the doctor in early March. It was the daughter of one of the vice principals I had while a student at East High School in Des Moines.
She cheerfully told me I had been selected to the East High School Alumni Hall of Fame. Somehow the car remained on the road.
It reminded me of a joke I used to tell at reunions before I stopped going. I was voted “Mr. Congeniality” by the Class of 1993. I always wondered if my classmates had a profound sense of irony or they just didn’t know what the word meant.
See? I can be a real jerk. I try not to be, but it happens. What business do I have in the East High Alumni Hall of Fame? That’s a real honor. Eastsiders take that stuff seriously.
The alumni association and the thousands of dollars they give each year to help East kids go on to college is the true pride of the east side.
Putting me into their hall of fame must be an error. I could think of a half dozen people more deserving than me.
I’m just a simple paragraph stacker trying to make his way in the digital world. What’s more, I’ve made more mistakes in my life than I care to admit to.
I’m an anxiety-riddled, depression-prone morbidly obese straight white guy who still reads comic books and collects Funko Pop! figures.
What have I ever done?
A woman from the Class of 1948 nominated me. I met her 28 years ago when I interviewed for an alumni scholarship. She apparently saw something in me that I don’t.
That’s sort of my East High story. Parents 1.0 died by the time I was 14. I ended up at East after leaving Winterset under unhappy circumstances.
The reason I landed there was a couple members of the Class of 1967 decided to remake their lives at ages 41 and invite an orphaned teenager into their home in the spring of 1991.
They became Parents 2.0 and they provided the stable home I’d never really had.
I had given up on family by the time I met them. I was prepared to go back into the foster care system. I didn’t care anymore and I wasn’t going to love anyone or let anyone love me.
Parents 2.0 met my every aggressive rejection with an unrelenting onslaught of love. And so we learned to love each other and I became a better person.
There were East alums Ric Powell and the late Bill Carlson, then the school’s baseball and football coaches, along with East basketball coach Chuck Sutherland, who took mercy on my uncoordinated, slow-footed soul and let me tape knees and ankles for the football and basketball teams and keep the scorebook for the baseball team.
I could not help these men win games, but they still saw value in having me around. It fostered a love of sports and sports writing.
Ed Kelly, in first or second year as advisor, let my writing loose on the pages of the Scroll. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be a master of something and I got a bunch of those reps writing for the East High Scroll.
I was no photographer, but I learned a lot about perseverance and dedication from the late John Lethcoe, whose rare blood disease made climbing the steps to his classroom multiple times a day a painful chore.
Yet John covered more ground than most teachers in a day, setting up group shots for the yearbook with his famed “One, two — CLICK” shutter press.
I never would have survived to a third day at East had it not been for my classmate and future friend, Tyler Teske.
I transferred in from Winterset, pop. 4,500. There were about 1,800 kids at East when I attended. The office gave me a schedule card that told me where my classes were and when.
They dropped me off in speech class. There was a sub. She didn’t know what to do with me, so she just told me to sit in the back.
The bell rang. I stood in hallway as chaos erupted and the crush of humanity clattered through the basement.
My next class was Algebra II in room B12. That could have been on the moon for all I knew. I felt overwhelmed, lost and very alone. I was going to cry.
Tyler, tall and gangly with big glasses and a friendly face, said to me, “You look like you could use a friend.”
He took my schedule card, showed me to my next class and met me after that class to show me the rest. He lived a few blocks away from Parents 2.0.
Soon we were riding the bus — and later driving in his parents’ Camry — to school everyday. We played basketball after school and talked about the things teenage boys talk about late into the night.
The woman who interviewed me for an alumni scholarship all those years ago helped me receive the Tom Luthens Memorial Scholarship, named after proud East alum and longtime Des Moines school board member Sue Luthens’ late son.
That money helped me attend Drake University where I learned my craft. My first summer job was writing high school baseball and softball game stories for the Register’s sports section. The first doubleheader I was assigned was Hoover at East.
I came into the Register newsroom one day to learn the computer system. I asked a copy editor — one I would later learn was one of the grumpiest men to ever live — where I could sit. He didn’t answer.
But an East alum, Randy Peterson did. Pete said, “Hey kid, he’s an asshole. Sit wherever you want.” And I’ve been stacking paragraphs ever since.
So they’re inducting me to the East High School Alumni Hall of Fame. But that’s not really true. They’re inducting all the people who helped make it possible for me to be there.
It was the teachers and coaches and everyday people of East who embraced the motto “For the Service of Humanity.” They made me better. I can’t possibly ever see myself as worthy of this honor.
But I’ll accept it on their behalf.
Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.
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