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Tom Neiman

James Lileks, Star Tribune

Meet Tom Neiman, the brain behind Southwest High's Super Summer Program

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • July 13, 2013 - 5:56 PM

Hundreds of parents looked at the picture and thought: Oh, sure. That guy!

Southwest Minneapolis parents know drill: You enter the clamorous madhouse of the Super Summer Program at Southwest High School, try to find the meet-up point for the class, entrust your wee one to a cheerful student and leave, thinking, “Now perhaps I can get something done.”

“Parents are kindly requested,” says a voice on the loudspeaker, “not to dance, sing or do cartwheels as they exit.”

That would be Tom, of course, Southwest’s community education coordinator, among other things — the quiet presence in the straw boater behind the name-tag table, smiling to all as they enter, calling out the names of kids. He’s quick to credit the Southwest staff for all they do for the program, but it was his idea.

So how’d this get rolling?

In the summer of 1984, he came up with a new model for summer-school programs, but the pooh-bahs nixed it, opting for “sports-arts,” which was … a combination of sports and arts. Like painting while broad-jumping? No. But he persisted.

“The new model would be something my own children would like,” he said. “Shorter, with a lot of variety. They let me try it in 1985, and in our first year we had 487 children sign up.”

Now it’s thousands — and a lot of the kids who were in the program as tots are back as teachers.

“Probably 80 percent of the staff was once in the program,” Tom said. “It adds tradition. It’s a tradition, to ruin as may lives as we can.” Tom grinned.

The program’s reputation is wide: “We’ve had people who live on the East Coast, they have grandparents who live in the neighborhood, they want their kids to be part of it.” And the reputation is enduring:

“I was on a bike trip in Michigan, in a small town, sitting on a curb drinking coffee, wearing a nondescript hat. A kid walks by and starts singing the ice cream song.”

Ah, yes. The song. It’s an old Mickey Mouse Club melody, with lyrics announcing the imminence of free ice cream, and it closes every Thursday session. Anyone who grew up in Southwest in the last quarter-century probably has a memory of standing in a line a-quiver with anticipation, broiling hot, hoping they still have Push-Ups. “What day is it?” Tom asks over the PA, and the reply can be heard at the airport.

Many parents probably remember it, too. Trying to find your kid in the chaos that makes the evacuation Paris in World War II look like models on a catwalk. But you find them. You hold their sticky hand and walk back to the car. How was it? Fun!

It’s hardly the only thing Tom helps arrange. “We have our full-moon bike trip, Family Halloween Carnival, community cleanup day. It’s hard to imagine not doing it, but time marches on. This has been a 40-year run; I will have to recognize it must come to an end.”

Alas. But how do you feel now, when the week is over and the hallways empty out and it’s done?

He grinned and threw up his hands for joy.

 

James Lileks

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