MOUNTAIN IRON, Minn. – Richard Roach retired from teaching 23 years ago. But in the dim light of this home office, he spends hours each day on an assignment his students long ago completed. Hundreds of their papers — some typewritten, many scrawled — sit in files on his desk.

"Dad is a carpenter and he plays in a band," one seventh-grader wrote.

"My plan for the future is to take up law and be a lawyer," one girl said.

"I am in the ninth grade and hate school," another declared.

The "autobiographies" were the first papers Roach ever assigned and, during his 34 years as a teacher, most in the Iron Range city of Gilbert, Minn., he collected more than 4,000 of them.

Now, decades later, he's finally passing them back.

"I don't know why I saved them all these years," Roach said. "I guess it was the memories — I didn't want to lose them."

For a while, Roach handed over stacks of the papers to class reunions. But at that pace, the 79-year-old realized, "I will never give them all back before I die." So this summer, he started posting lists of names on Facebook, asking for help reaching former students, many of whom are senior citizens as well. Hundreds of Minnesotans have sent him self-addressed stamped envelopes and, in exchange, have received glimpses of their younger selves.

Roach thought his task would be done in a few weeks, but the work is painstaking, with 3,000 or so papers to go. It doesn't help that he's sentimental. He rereads every essay ("I'm too darn nosy!") and often writes a short note.

"Some days I spend eight hours sitting here on this darn thing," he said. "But it's a labor of love."

The boy with a monkey

When he walked into his first classroom in Appleton, Minn., in 1959, Roach felt joyous, light. Growing up in Eden Valley, Minn., he had yearned to be a teacher one day.

But Roach also remembers the fear: "There were so many kids," he said. "I thought, how will I ever, ever learn their names?"

A faded sheet of paper — which Roach has also kept — outlines the assignment: Write about your home life, your plans for the future, your hobbies. Reading about the students' families and favorites helped the new teacher memorize their names. "There's one little boy that's got a monkey for a pet — well, you're going to remember that," he said, with a deep, rumbling laugh.

So Roach kept requiring the assignment, which he did not grade, year after year.

The students described the color of their houses, the frequency of their chores, the names and ages of their beloved pets. They complained about siblings and school lunches.

"My biggest problem is my brother," Heather Lillis wrote in 1987-88, when she was in seventh grade. "He cries when I get something, he listens on his phone when I'm talking on the phone. He always hits me, then when I hit back he cries and I get in trouble."

Taken together, the autobiographies reveal bits of the region's story, of small-town pleasures and pains, of mining's booms and busts. In the early 1980s, several of the young authors mentioned fathers laid off from the mines. "You could write a history book with them I suppose," said Roach, who mostly taught English, plus some geography and history.

For decades, the assignments sat in Roach's closet, beside boxes filled with magazines about bridge, which Roach has collected since the 1960s. But in June, Roach reached out to his few dozen Facebook friends. "Hey, ex-Gilbert students," he wrote. "I need your help with a project that I am starting."

You've got mail

Word spread quickly. Friends shared links, tagged relatives, posted photos of their crooked cursive. Within a month, Roach would open his green mailbox to find a dozen requests. One day, there were 40. He probably saved a mail carrier's job, he joked.

The stacks of student papers are shrinking, but a new pile has appeared: letters and thank-you notes.

"I can't wait to see what I wrote all those years ago," Margie Kent wrote earlier this month. "Thank you so much, not just for sending us a little part of our forgotten childhoods, but for being such an inspiration to all of us."

She and others shared memories of him — jumping on his desk, skipping up the aisles, trying to rap — that have left him believing he might have been a better teacher than he thought. "I told them and told them: If you don't stop, my head's going to be as big as my belly," he laughed.

Roach still misses the work. He plays bridge every Monday and sees live music several nights a week. But now more than ever, he has the time for this kind of project. His wife died eight years ago, and "it gets awful lonesome," he said.

He listens to country and gospel music as he posts on Facebook, where he now has more than 600 friends. One afternoon last week, Roach sifted through a few of the remaining papers, pulling out a typewritten piece by Lisa Samson, age 12.

"She's smarter than heck," Roach said, nudging up his glasses. Samson described her family's house ("on 40 acres in rural Gilbert"), her cat (named Serendipity) and her father ("a hard worker … who has done much to improve our land.") He was laid off from the mine in Eveleth, she wrote, but "is a harness maker … known all over the United States."

"We are not rich or anything," Lisa continued, "but he makes enough money so that we can have nice clothes, good food and extras at holidays."

Lisa, whose last name is now Leet, doesn't remember writing the paper. But the 44-year-old remembers Roach, she said, "a superb teacher."

"He cared about life and people, and about positively impacting our lives way back then. He is reaching back in time and pulling these people back into his life today."

Surprise guest

In the basement hall of the Sawmill Inn in Grand Rapids, Minn., men and women gathered for their 50th high school reunion, giving long hugs and joking about gray hair. As they lined up for a class photo, tallest to shortest, Roach sat alone at a round table, playing with the rubber band around a thick stack of envelopes.

"You feel kind of out of place," he said quietly, "when you come here and don't know anybody."

Roach had taught dozens of the students back in the early 1960s in Coleraine, Minn. On this night in early August, he was to be the reunion's "surprise guest." Others at his table figured out the surprise early, asking him whether their papers were within his stack. "Oh, there I am," said Marcella Southwick, 68, as he flipped through the envelopes. "Wow. What possessed you to save all these?"

After skits and speeches, Roach was called to the front of the room. One of the reunion's organizers, Susan Adamson, explained Roach's project and began reading the names off the envelopes. The former students came up, one by one.

"Can I get a hug?" one woman asked. "You bet," Roach replied. "You get two."

"An A student," Roach said as one man strode to the front.

"I now know what the object of a preposition is," another told him.

When the papers were all passed out, Roach headed back to his seat. "Thank you, Mr. Roach," Adamson said. The crowd applauded. A woman in the front stood up first, and then the whole room got to their feet.

Roach looked up, eyes wide, then smiled.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168