Jim Gremmels

, courtesy of the Gremmels family

Dennis Anderson: A hard-court and chalkboard star

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • November 14, 2009 - 9:28 PM

English majors who can pop jumpers from the outside or drive the lane are rarities in college basketball. It could be recruiting bias among coaches worried about having their syntax corrected during heated timeouts. Also, the general flakiness of undergraduates who traffic in literary puffery posing as academic rigor does not in most instances a disciplined athlete make.

Jim Gremmels was that rare combination. A distinguished English professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris (UMM), he died Sept. 25 at age 82.

Jim was first and foremost a teacher who endeared himself for nearly 50 years to students now scattered worldwide. Decades ago, I was one of them. An academician in the best senses of that word, he focused not so much on research or publishing but on infusing classrooms with intellectual challenge, critical thinking and an appreciation for literacy, particularly in American writings, his specialty.

Jim also could "shoot the three,'' and when, as his student, I composed compound-complex sentences when simple declaratives would do, we would sometimes remove ourselves and our disagreements over writing to a basketball court -- our equivalent of two bar brawlers "taking it outside.''

Well into middle age at the time, Jim nonetheless often had the best of it. And in those days I could play a little basketball.

An irony of great teaching is that it's a rare gift students often don't appreciate until too much time has passed to acknowledge it graciously. For me, Jim's praises and criticisms, elocutions and inspirations have grown only more indelible over time. They accompany me everywhere, like tattoos.

We stayed in touch, sure. And I often wanted to say more than I did. Then, suddenly, he died.

Born in Chicago and raised by his grandparents, Jim enrolled at the University of Iowa on a basketball scholarship after being discharged from the Army. His uncles were engineers and wanted him to become one. But Jim soon transferred to South Dakota State University and then to Augustana, in Sioux Falls, where he majored in English and philosophy. And basketball.

On the hardwood Jim had a dancer's footwork, it was said. He could shoot the hook from either side, and he was as good facing the basket as with his back to it. He was a two-time North Central Conference MVP, an honor later earned in that league by North Dakota's Phil "Head 'n' Shoulders'' Jackson, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

But I suspect Jim would have been a challenge to coach. Smart as he was, he wouldn't have trucked too much silly rah-rah. And his coaches and teammates must soon have learned, as his students certainly did, that Jim could be a brutal critic.

Particularly with a red pen in his hand.

"Dickinson might have invented the dash but that doesn't give you the right to use it,'' he scribbled on one student's paper. On another, he bristled: "For God's sakes, when the thought is done go back halfway and end it with a period.''

"He was tough, but his enthusiasm for literature, for teaching and for students was infectious,'' said Jay Fier, a student of Jim's in the 1970s.

An English major, Fier, paradoxically, is now a Morris city engineer.

"I'm proud of being an English major,'' he said. "Jim nurtured in me and a lot of others a love of serious reading. He's the reason I read 'Moby Dick' at least once each year from 1978 to 1993. And the reason also, every year on my birthday, I read 'Leaves of Grass' in its entirety out loud.''

Jim could have been forgiven if he had leveraged his intellectual and athletic gifts to make a lot of money. And forgiven as well had he fashioned a worldview in which the spotlight more often found him. But he bore instead an outsider's empathy and compassion. Whether this was due to the breakup of his parents when he was an infant and his early adoption, I don't know. But his inclination always was to throw an arm around the underdog, whether it was a woman colleague passed over for promotion, a minority student feeling out of place on a prairie campus or a two-bit English major who couldn't even beat him in H-O-R-S-E.

It fairly can be said that during his 50 years on campus Jim advised some pretty strange characters as English majors, a fact never more true than when I was at Morris in the early '70s. Freak flags flew wildly then, and the American classics were often shunned for more contemporary stuff written by Brautigan, Ginsburg, McGuane, Harrison and others. It was a time when most who stared back at Jim in his Camden Hall office knew more about bongs than basketballs.

But Jim was OK with that. Life would endure. As would literature. And basketball.

Today, hook shots are out of fashion among most hoopsters. But you can still see one occasionally at UMM. A player fakes. Pivots. And arches the ball high overhead, hand outstretched, as he protects against the block with his off arm.

Cougar players who have scored this way in recent seasons have sometimes squinted toward the bleachers, looking for Jim, the old hook shot specialist and volunteer assistant coach. Slightly raised fists would follow, understated and irony-free, as the players simply, declaratively -- and in a timely manner -- thanked their teacher for the opportunity.

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