Whatever happened to Spritsma!

By Dr. Gene Kerstiens, Ed. D.

Like so many students, both then and now, I had never entertained the notion of going to college. Nor had anyone in my family. Nor, as far as I know, had any of my schoolmates. At least they never talked about it. I had learned that if one were to show up, look alert, and not cause too much trouble, he could get passing grades while not allowing school to interfere too much with important lifetime experiences. Other than a course in general science and four semesters in typing classes, I was unable to identify any instructional occurrence of significance while being schooled.

In 1943, I was attending my fourth high school, a small, parochial boys' school of 250 souls, where my mother thought my character might enjoy improvement. In Arizona, that a male high school senior would drink, smoke, chase girls, and play football was normal expectation. I majored in drinking and cutting classes, and proved to be a problem football player chiefly because the game was not suited to the ethical inclination of my personality. I'm a devout coward. But I made the second team and was playing regularly only because Louis Spritsma, first-string tackle and honor student, was injured. The day before the state championship game with Phoenix Union High School, the largest high school in the nation (10,000 students), Spritsma returned, hale and hardy. In a fit of understandable disgust and relief, the coach ordered me to turn in my suit.

Should you think I digress and meander, be assured this sketch has a thematic thread.

Now it's important to get the historical perspective. This game was a sports page hyped David-and-Goliath event that would be broadcast on radio statewide. In those days there was neither television nor were there transistor radios that stadium fans could listen to while observing the game. Consequently, even though I attended the game, I was oblivious to the radio account. And Spritsma's performance was epic. With broken nose and blood soaked uniform, he nevertheless performed spectacular sacks, countless tackles, any number of downfield blocks, and he recovered two fumbles. There was just one problem. On the radio announcer's program roster, the name of the left tackle had never been revised to reflect Spritsma's return.

This blunder was revealed to me while buying cigarettes at the drugstore the next morning. There I was overwhelmed with praise and spirited congratulations, which I learned quickly to acknowledge while dissimulating humility and not too artfully dodging questions about specifics of the previous evening's game and the remarkable recovery of my broken nose. At the pool hall that afternoon, I continued to accept acclamations and handshakes. Returning home that evening from applauding encounters, I found a telegram offering me a full scholarship at the University of Santa Clara, a small but capable football entity that had played in the Cotton Bowl a few years earlier. This numbingly ironic stroke of fortune seemed both exceptional and farcical to the offspring of a race car building father and stenographer mother who moonlighted as a night club singer. Speaking of irony, I do sometimes wonder whatever happened to Spritsma.

In the fall, the University of Santa Clara enrolled its first authentic, severely at-risk student, at best a marginal athlete. The school has not fielded a football team since. During my second semester of dismal academic and athletic performance, I was, perhaps mercifully for the school, selected by the draft board, inducted into the infantry, and after basic training was shipped to the Pacific Theater of Operations. Nervously awaiting participation in my first armed patrol, I was approached by a sergeant who took me to regimental headquarters, where I was assigned the comparatively safe and even enviable duty as a typist. It gets better. A few months later, and with armed conflict officially over, an order arrived directing anyone who could type 100 words a minute and could also take dictation on a typewriter to reassignment at General Headquarters. Close to qualifying for the requirements, I was quickly spirited to Tokyo and given an appointment in an office directly under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.

Working in the world renowned Dai Ichi Building, with a top-secret security clearance, for high level officers, with staff who had professional experience in civilian life (lawyers, teachers, executives), and on projects of national and international significance was exciting for a nineteen-year-old. But it soon became painfully evident that I was out of my element. Reading the GI newspaper Stars and Stripes, I learned that some universities in Japan offered instruction in English and German. At least one of them had no entrance requirements. Enrolled in weekend and late afternoon meetings at Sophia University, I took instruction (not classes) in a system based upon the European model: reading assignments followed up with recitation and Socratic exchange with a professor. It was here that I reached a level of intellectual discernment that William Perry identifies as "realizing how much one does not know." This state of awareness had a profoundly sobering effect that seemed to be influencing my judgment. 

Upon discharge from the service and with the enablement of the GI Bill, I entered the University of Portland, a school purposefully chosen for three reasons: it was geographically separated by 1200 miles from my youthful environment; it would allow my matriculation, albeit on probation; and twenty percent of its significant faculty was made up of notable Europeans who, I presumed, might employ methods with which I was familiar. Because I appeared on the dean's list the first semester, the school registrar allowed me to take all the courses I could cram into a class schedule during succeeding semesters. Course listings in the school catalog became a delicious menu of potentially enriching opportunities readily available only in the groves of academe. The library became a garden of delights which could be accessed through an ingenious system of referencing and indexing. Faculty and fellow students represented a rich and fertile repository to be consulted and cultivated to make learning more enjoyable and profitable. For the first time I experienced academic confidence, what Rotter has termed inner locus of control. During the next three years I earned a BA with majors in English and philosophy and minors in drama and behavioral science, perhaps the only student to enter school on probation and graduate cum laude

At times I ponder about what might have happened had I been mandated to a program in developmental studies to prepare me for the academic experience. And I still wonder whatever happened to Spritsma.


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