ROCHESTER, Minn. — When Mel Dickie turned 98, he was feted with a schoolwide birthday party at Lincoln K-8 School.
Not many substitute teachers get treated with such fanfare and acclaim. But then, no one is quite like Mel Dickie. At the school party, Dickie was awarded the key to the city by the Rochester mayor. The day was also proclaimed "Mel Dickie Day."
"All the kids were cheering. They all sang 'Happy Birthday' to him. They all knew who he was," said Karen Foster, an Autumn Ridge Church retired pastor who attended the school party in Dickie's honor.
It's not the only award bestowed on Dickie during a decade-long substitute teaching career.
At Mayo High School, he was elected by students to be grand marshal and lead the homecoming parade. When Dickie suffered a heart attack and was forced to miss school for a couple months, students took up a collection and gave him and his wife, Marilyn, a bunch of restaurant gift cards.
"Who does that for a substitute teacher?" said Tim Dickie, his son.
It's a mystery to everyone except those who know him and have been taught by him. Dickie is not only the oldest, but the most celebrated substitute teacher in Rochester Public Schools history.
Dickie was in his late 80s when he began substitute teaching. He would be teaching today, and at age 100 (his birthday is Dec. 11), were it not for the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Teaching and working with kids was always my hobby. It was just a natural for me," he said.
What is this extraordinary hold that Dickie has on students? Jessi Johnston, a 2018 Mayo High School graduate, was a student at Willow Creek Middle School when she first had Mr. Dickie. The classroom can be a battleground for some substitute teachers, but with Dickie, "everyone always treated him with respect," Johnston said.
A born storyteller, Dickie would regale students with tales about his life over the past century. It might not always have been the assigned "content of the day," but students would be enraptured.
"Everyone always hada big smile in class when he was there. They knew it was going to be a pretty good day," Johnston said.
Said Rishi Sharma, a 2016 Mayo graduate: "He was easily everyone's favorite sub."
Jim Sonju, the current Lincoln principal, described Dickie as a "grandfatherly figure" who makes kids feel valuable by giving them his time. There isn't a single time he can recall Dickie making the slightest negative comment about a student. Nor was there a grade level he wasn't willing to tackle.
"Every time he would check out of the building and turn in his keys, he would say, 'Oh, those kids are just wonderful, just wonderful.' He brings the best out of people," Sonju said.
Always a teacher
This gift for teaching has been a thread that has run through Dickie's life. It was present as a flight instructor during World War Il. Dickie's specialty was teaching young pilots fresh from battle how to find their way home by "instrument flying." Dickie is also an expert maker of custom fishing rods, a skill that he has taught to hundreds of students.
Dickie's early ambition was to be a teacher. He was born in Cleveland, Minn., north of Mankato, and lived about 2 miles from his high school in town. Instead of just idly walking to school, he and other students would take their shotguns, hunting along the way. They would put the guns in the school cloakroom with their coats. On the return home, they would hunt some more.
"You think you could get away with that today?" Dickie said.
After graduating from Mankato State Teachers College in 1942, he had a brief six-month teaching stint before entering the service. (His contract at the time stipulated that teachers had to be home by midnight on school nights.)
When the war ended, he tried to get back into teaching. But the pay was so poor — $150 a month for nine months — that he couldn't raise a family on it.
Instead, he went to work as a personnel manager for Green Canning Co., then later opened his own insurance agency in Rochester. But even away from teaching, Dickie found avenues to teach, organizing fishing trips for IBM employees.
"He would run the show and do the cooking and be their fishing guide," Tim Dickie said. "He would teach people how to fish. They would go along with him on these trips, even if they didn't know what they were doing."
Sonju said he can recall only a single time when he saw Dickie in a somber mood. It was soon after his wife died three years ago. They had been married for 72 years. He was in a grocery store buying strawberries because she loved strawberries.
"The guy is just a tender heart. Any time you'd see him, you just want to spend time with him. That's the way the kids are, too," Sonju said.
Tim Dickie recalled talking to his dad soon after he began substitute teaching, warning him that kids might be different today than he remembered when he was younger — possibly more smart-mouthed, more challenging. But Dickie disagreed.
"They are no different than they were when I was teaching," Tim recalled his dad saying. "If you treat a kid with respect, he will treat you with respect back."