I started high school a couple of months after my father died, and his absence was keenly felt. Heading toward manhood, I needed male mentors more than ever. Luckily, I still had a grandfather and older brothers. I also had my high school principal, A.J. Bodker, who died last month at 92.
Mr. Bodker, as everyone called him because his stature demanded it, had definite ideas about what manhood should be. One of his heroes was Bear Bryant, the legendary coach at the University of Alabama. Mr. Bodker had written him a fan letter, and Bear had returned the favor with a reply, which was framed on the wall behind Mr. Bodker’s desk.
No one seemed to think it a sacrilege that Mr. Bodker, an LSU grad, would lionize an Alabama coach. Bryant, though not without personal demons, had mellowed by that time into a kind of national uncle, affable but resolute in the field of life. They were qualities Mr. Bodker embraced in his long career as principal of Ponchatoula High.
Nor far from his mind was the idea that “principal” was meant to describe a school’s principal teacher. Though he loved athletics, Mr. Bodker kept his eye on the school’s core mission of learning. In assembling a faculty of star teachers, he showed a recruiting genius any coach would envy.
That was a big plus for students like me, a bookish kid with zero promise on any gridiron and little interest in Bear Bryant. There was nothing clubbish or bullying about Mr. Bodker’s passions, which included football, fishing, and homemade milkshakes. In so openly celebrating his enthusiasms, he was quietly nudging us to find our own.
My enthusiasm was writing, which led me to the school newspaper. Mr. Bodker encouraged me to work hard, and he gave me the sense that I could dream a large future for myself. It meant a lot to a teenager still trying to find whatever modest gifts life had brought him.
That encouragement continued long after I graduated. Mr. Bodker championed his students for decades after they left campus. His presence at class reunions was a centerpiece of the evening. He was a father to four children at home, but he counted thousands of alumni as extensions of his family.
As high school commencement approached, Mr. Bodker gave me a personalized nameplate for my desk as a graduation present. He’d guessed by then that my interest in journalism would stick, meaning I’d spend much of my life in an office. For nearly 40 years, the nameplate has followed me from job to job. It would not have escaped Mr. Bodker that I would be the first person to spot my name each morning as I began my work.
Quietly, he was giving me the lesson of a lifetime: Don’t forget who you are and where you came from.
In a long and important life, A.J. Bodker never did.