Dale & Mark: Growing up, not apart

Dale Hulme and Mark Zingerman have been swimming together for 38 years. Their story began when a spiritual drifter found direction with the help of an autistic boy.

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Dale Hulme and Mark Zingerman have been swimming together for 38 years.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Dale Hulme was a young man wracked by grief when his pastor suggested a unique kind of therapy.

Dale was partnered for monthly outings with Mark Zingerman, a 7-year-old boy with autism. Thirty-eight years later, Dale, 62, and Mark, 46, still are partnered.

"He'll never let me forget that we have a monthly date," Dale said, smiling.

Dale, a biochemistry major, was drifting and considering the Peace Corps when he traveled to Chicago to visit his older sister, who was eight months pregnant. He knew nothing about depression but, days later, she took her life, sending Dale reeling.

His spiritual leader, the late Rev. William A. Smith, was pioneering a program through the Wilder Foundation matching wounded souls with children with autism. Dale grabbed the lifeline.

"I'm not saying that Dale saved Mark, but Mark may have saved Dale," says Dale's wife, Sue Quist.

She laughs recalling an early date with Dale -- and Mark, Mark's mother (now deceased) and Mark's brother, Neil, at a retreat center near Afton.

Mark didn't talk until he was 5. He lived at home until his late teens, when he moved into his first group home. His father lives in Florida, but is very supportive as is Neil, who is his guardian.

Dale and Mark meet monthly for swimming, skiing, birthdays, holiday celebrations, Twins games and the Minnesota State Fair. When Mark was younger, they'd ride escalators and elevators, and go camping.

"He had his moments, but he's settled down," Dale says. "He always says, 'You have to get mad at me sometimes, but you're still my best friend.'"

Dale is pastor of St. Olaf Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis, a vocation allowing him to heal others in pain. Mark works as a janitor, riding the bus to meet his friend.

"He's very bus-savvy," Dale says.

On a recent Saturday, the two swam at the Brooklyn Center Civic Center, but Mark was focused on what comes next.

"I love Old Country Buffet!" he shouted from the water.

Dale and Sue's children, Rumen, 17, and Rumyana, 18, view Mark like family, too, which pleases their father.

"Mark helps them understand that life is more than just what you can get for yourself," Dale says.

It's his favorite lesson, too.

"People from Wilder say, 'Are you kidding me? You still know this guy?'" Dale says. "Love trumps everything. And Mark's love for me is just overwhelming."

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