Note: This is a pretty long article so put your feet up and grab a snack. It isn't our most hardcore football article ever, but it is about how a Hall of Fame former Viking gives back to the people of Minnesota.
Of all the things I thought I might end up doing when I started writing for the Daily Norseman, I think it's safe to say putting on a pretty dress and going to a swanky gala was not one of them. But Saturday night that's just what I did.
In his interview with Hall of Fame former Minnesota Viking and current Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, Eric touched on Page's Education Foundation and the work it does. The Foundation, founded in 1988, exists to enable students of color to achieve their dreams of pursuing post-secondary degrees. Saturday night marked the Foundation's 24th annual gala, a chance to celebrate the Foundation's success and to shake a bit more cash out of the attendees' designer pockets.
Unlike my trip to Winter Park last year with Eric, or training camp in Mankato with Ted, this time I was walking into Target Field's Metropolitan Club sans literary compatriot and in an uncomfortable pair of heels. This was new territory.
Join me after the jump for a rundown of the evening and interviews with two Hall of Fame former Vikings.
"Hi, I'm with the Daily Norseman..."
The Metropolitan Club, even an hour before the gala really started, was a flurry of activity as auction items were displayed, volunteers were directed, and bowtie-themed cakes glowed under warm lights. As soon as I presented myself to the registration table, somewhat ironically, as a member of the media, I was ushered to the contact people who had invited DN to attend the gala. In turn, they promptly introduced me to one of the night's guests of honor, Dhani Jones.
Jones, a former linebacker who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals and starred in the Travel Channel show Dhani Tackles the Globe, has created Bow Tie Cause as a way to help others in their goal of supporting a cause and creating awareness for that cause. What initially started as a way to show support to a close friend had become not only a signature look for Jones, but also a means to help others. Because the bow tie is an uncommon fashion statement, it's almost as if those who wear them are seen as kindred spirits, and one day, while watching a televised game of his alma mater the University of Michigan, Jones saw a video segment about another man who rocked a bow tie-Alan Page. The segment highlighted Page's Education Foundation work, something that resonated with Jones experience growing up in a home that deeply valued education, and it inspired him to reach out to Page and forge a connection that eventually led to him attending Saturday night's Page Education Foundation gala.
Later in the evening, Jones would transform himself from laid back gala guest to dynamic and entertaining speaker, using the odd quirk of wearing a bow tie as an elegant metaphor for finding and following whatever your passion to help others may be. However, at the time I was shaking his hand I wasn't thinking of any of those worthy and cool things he's helped to support through his bow ties. Mostly, I was worried that I looked like a rather frightened flasher because I hadn't yet found a place to hang up my trench coat. Yeah, I'm smooth.
Mingle, baby, mingle.
The Page Education Foundation awards grants to Minnesota students of color who are pursuing a post-secondary education, dubbing them Page Scholars. In order for a Page Scholar to receive a grant there is no academic requirement. Instead, Page Scholars are required to tutor/mentor children of color through a Service-to-Children project. I found that an intriguing and somewhat unique scholarship requirement and, since many Page Scholars were present at the gala mixing with the crowd, I had several opportunities to ask them about it.
One Scholar told me her Service-to-Children project involved tutoring children who were recent immigrants to the United States and were working to learn English. It echoed her own experience when she came to the United States as a small child and had to learn a new language in a strange place. As we talked the emotion lit up her face as she described that moment when a child who has been struggling with English begins to get it and this new, foreign place becomes a little less scary.
If it was strange for one of the gala attendees to ask about their Service-to-Children projects, the Page Scholars I talked to didn't let on. They spoke as easily about the kids they were working with and the challenges of dealing with 7-year-olds with attitudes as they did about their degree programs. In the course of a conversation with a biomedical engineering student enrolled at the University of Minnesota, I learned that the Page Education Foundation doesn't simply provide scholarships for students, but it also helps students make professional connections that enable them to get experience and internships with companies in their field of study. Especially in a struggling economy, practical experience and professional connections can make the difference for recent graduates looking for jobs in their chosen careers.
I probably could have chatted about education, stadium politics, and the show The Big Bang Theory with that supposedly shy biomedical engineering student half the night, but there was an auction about to take place and I had interview questions to review.
Going once, going twice...
The Metropolitan Club, with its glass walls on three sides, felt like a sporty aquarium as guests floated around listening to mellow music and the hum of conversation while eating walleye cakes, mini donuts, and salad bites. Lined up along one entire wall were auction items for gala guests to bid on. Everything from artwork to designer handbags to activities to jewelry, wine, and sports memorabilia vied for attention and disposable income. Some of the bigger items were saved for the live auction, like a one-on-one lesson in tying a bow tie with Justice Page, or a four-day vacation in the Apostle Islands, or dinner for eight with Page's wife, Diane Sims Page.
As the crowd swelled I began to notice some of the local celebs and politicos. Governor Mark Dayton and Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak may have always intended to attend the gala, but for those of us nervously watching the stadium bill's struggles in the Minnesota Legislature, it seemed very timely for them to attend a gala hosted by a former Viking a day after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell visited Minnesota.
Looking for justice
But there was one person strangely absent from the folks who were armed with microphones so they could address the gala crowd, Justice Page.
One of the event organizers, a woman who was cheerfully determined to help me get a few words with Page, led me through the crowd on an expedition to find him. We located him at the back of the room chatting with Randall McDaniel. Now, I knew that I was considerably smaller than both Page and McDaniel, but there's a difference between knowing something like that and teetering on high-heels and still feeling like you're standing in a hole when you're standing next to them. Fortunately, I maintained my balance long enough to ask them a few questions.
"Our goal is to pull people along, not filter them out," Page said in response to my question about the Foundation's scholarships. "Everybody, no matter who you are or where you come from, no matter what your background can be a productive member of society. Not everybody's gotta be a lawyer or a doctor. We need plumbers, we need everybody. And creating that opportunity for everybody is what it's all about."
When I asked about the Service-to-Children mentoring aspect of his Education Foundation's scholarships, Page explained, "It sends a two-fold message: that education is important and that the person who is working with them is getting an education, and that the person is working with me [the mentored child] so I can get an education. It's a way to multiply the benefit. And it's somebody you who looks like them, somebody who has some shared experience with them, somebody who comes from their background-because we're influenced by people we know. That's just the reality. So if somebody that's a few years older than you, that comes from your neighborhood...it's a natural."
So what's Justice Page planning for the future? "I was just about to explain to Randall my fantasy is to create a reading and writing seminar for first, second, and third graders, particularly African American boys... I think that if you could generate an interest in reading and in writing what you're going to do is teach people how to think critically. And once you learn how to think critically, the rest of it's a piece of cake. But it's that first step.
"One and one is two, right? But you look at the way some young people think, one and one is anything but two. Once you figure out how and why one and one is two, then you can go on to any number you want-it's a pretty powerful tool. [he smiles] That's my fantasy."
Want to know the funny thing about that fantasy? That's what Justice Page wants to do when he retires from the Minnesota Supreme Court. Most people say they want to relax during their retirement, maybe travel. Justice Page wants to help more kids in Minnesota learn to read and write.
Before I had a chance to wimp out and before he had a chance to wander off, I pointed my recorder at Randall McDaniel and asked him a few questions too. This was actually a slightly more nervy for me because both Ted and Kyle have interviewed McDaniel. The prospect of being the first DN person to botch an interview with one of the nicest guys ever to maul an opposing defense is concerning. But those worries were completely unfounded because, as Kyle said, Randall McDaniel is even cooler than you think he is.
It probably isn't an interviewing technique that will get the attention of the Pulitzer people, but I couldn't resist asking McDaniel whether facing fellow Hall of Famer and former Viking John Randle in practice had been good preparation for being a teacher after he retired from football. He gave me a funny look, then gamely dug into the question with this, "You know what, playing on an offensive line you have to figure out that there's a lot of different personalities that play on that offensive line and you gotta find a way to work together as one, those five guys playing as one. And doing that did make working in the classroom a lot easier because you learn to get along with other people, to appreciate what they are bringing to the table. Like I said, I love being in the classroom. Every kid is a puzzle and I love puzzles. If you can solve that puzzle and find a way to get them interested...yeah, football did prepare me for that."
Because mentorship is so key to the Page Education Foundation's mission, I asked McDaniel to weigh in on the topic. "My wife and I run a middle school program taking middle school kids out doing community service work. We're in the schools those kids came from, so they get to go back to their elementary school, walk in and be that mentor to young kids that lets them know school is important, giving back is important. And to have that young person tell them that rather than the old guy [he smiles] it means that much more to them.
"Some kids, tell me that they want to become teachers," he said of the middle school students' reaction to mentoring in elementary schools. "It's nice to hear when they come back from the work with young kids and say, ‘I get it now why you like doing this!' and the light bulb goes on after working with the kids. It's like ‘I helped them get to that moment!'"
That's all she wrote
Resting my feet later that night and reviewing the conversations I'd had, it seemed like there was a recurring theme in the work Dhani Jones, Alan Page, and Randall McDaniel do. They might approach it differently, but they're all in the business of creating opportunities to make things better. While a lot of us football fans might be tempted to pigeonhole them because they played a sport we love, they took that experience as players and used it to create opportunities to make things better in the future. That attitude of constant and never ending improvement that set them apart on the football field, and made Page and McDaniel Hall of Famers, continues to drive them long after their playing days. It's an attitude McDaniel encapsulated as he talked about why he loved being a teacher.
"Even the worst day of school for me is a great day because you're always learning what could I have done better, what could I have seen coming before it got to that situation that I could have intervened and changed it."
Here's how you can help them create opportunities to make things better.
- Men, Randall McDaniel wants you to set an example of reading for your children. Boys in particular need to see male role models reading. Show the children in your life that reading is important by taking the time to read with them every day. It doesn't matter what it is, a story, the newspaper, the Daily Norseman, but what is important is that children develop a habit and a love for reading. As McDaniel says, "A book can take you anywhere."
- One of Dhani Jones' friends challenged him saying, "If you want to be anybody, you gotta rock the bow tie." If you're up to the challenge of rocking the bow tie, there are a variety of causes you can support at http://bowtiecause.org/
- The gala is all over and the band has gone home, but if you'd like to contribute to the Page Education Foundation I'm pretty sure they'll still take your money. As the economy continues to struggle, students need all the help they can get to achieve their educational goals. http://www.page-ed.org/
My thanks to Sara Blood, Steve Solmonson, Justice Page, Randall McDaniel, Dhani Jones, and to all the Page Scholars I spoke to.