Long before he published his first novel, teacher-turned-author Jon Hassler had gathered a loyal following among his students.
They were attracted by his "laid back teaching style," his gentle classroom demeanor and his positive disposition, according to several former students who enrolled in Hassler's courses at then-Brainerd Community College in the early 1970s.
One (and perhaps more) even adopted Hassler's teaching style when the student assumed her own classroom duties years later.
"I learned a lot by just observing Jon in the classroom, and when I went into teaching myself, I used a lot of his techniques," said Kathy Hauser, a now-retired Pequot Lakes High School English teacher.
Central Lakes College instructor Joe Plut's evening course on Jon Hassler's novels has been a major hit with many of the author's former students, including Kathy Hauser (top, left), Delores Nelson, Linda Gau Fields (bottom, left) and Marie Morgan. Hassler, one of the state's most popular authors, taught at Brainerd Community College, CLC's predecessor, from 1968 to 1980. Alvin Houle, who attended St. John's University at Collegeville with Hassler in the early 1950s, also is enrolled in the "Authors in Focus" class, along with about 30 regular students. Hassler will visit the class later this month. (Dispatch Photos by Steve Kohls)
In an interview this week, Hauser recalled her experiences as a BCC student in Hassler's poetry and "basic English" courses in 1970.
"For example, when he read poetry, he would always pause so people could absorb the meaning before going onto the next phase," she said, "and I used the same technique."
Hassler, one of Minnesota's most popular and most nationally recognized authors, taught at BCC (now Central Lakes College) from 1968-1980, before moving on to the faculty at St. John's University in Collegeville.
It was here, however, that Hassler began writing his own fiction, releasing "Staggerford" in 1977, "Four Miles to Pinecone" in 1978, "Simon's Night" in 1979 and "Jemmy" in 1980.
Since then, he has written seven other novels, as well as a journal of his personal struggle to write and publish "Staggerford" and a collection of short stories. Most of his works have been greeted with widespread critical acclaim, the loudest and most enduring of which has come perhaps from his former students and colleagues at BCC.
So it's no surprise that when CLC instructor Joe Plut -- one of Hassler's most vocal champions -- offered an evening course on the author's works this semester, several former students scrambled to enroll.
A roll call in the "Authors in Focus" course -- it meets every Tuesday night for three hours -- reveals four former BCC students, a former St. John's classmate, and two former BCC colleagues, including Plut.
The balance of the class of 36 students is made up of regular CLC students.
Linda Gau Fields
"I'm very enthusiastic about the class and so are they," Plut said in an interview this week. "Not every novel will strike them the same as others, but they have been impressed by his characterizations, his humor, the language he uses and his descriptions.
"For me, it's a veritable joy to be teaching it," said Plut, who first met Hassler when the aspiring author joined the BCC faculty.
Ironically, Plut and Hassler were classmates at St. John's in the early 1950s, but their paths never crossed on campus, the longtime CLC instructor said.
The same can be said about Alvin Houle, another St. John's grad who, Hassler once suggested, was the "first person I ever met on campus," the retired Crosby-Ironton teacher said this week.
Houle does not remember the meeting, nor any of the many events and circumstances Hassler has borrowed from his St. John's experiences for his fiction.
Houle -- and the other Hassler acolytes in the class -- has read all of Hassler's novels, but "I don't remember anything he writes about -- the freshman orientation, the green beanies, the run around the football field doused in gasoline.
"But Jon is so observant. He just sits back and observes, then writes everything down," Houle said.
The two firmed up their friendship during Hassler's teaching stint at BCC, exchanging birthday and holiday greetings over the years, Houle said.
"As far as Minnesota goes, Jon is very, very strong as a writer," he added. "He captures the Minnesota philosophy and feelings ... and weaves a beautiful story with good characters. He knows human nature."
Similar comments were trumpeted by Hauser, Linda Gau Fields and Delores Nelson, all former students.
Gau Fields took Hassler's literature, poetry and creative writing courses during her student days at BCC. She is a 1972 BCC grad who works in the human resources department at Brainerd Regional Human Services Center.
"The class is taught by my favorite instructor about another favorite instructor," she said, "and I love Jon's style of writing, his use of metaphor, the realism of his characters, the optimism and hopefulness of his stories."
Nelson and her husband, retired CLC math and computer sciences instructor Allyn Nelson, enrolled in the course because "we had read all his books and we know him well" as former colleagues.
"I appreciate him more than I did when I initially read his books," said Nelson, a Bemidji State University graduate who taught business at Brainerd Technical College from 1976 until retirement in 1997. BTC is now part of CLC.
"Some of the things that Joe (Plut) is telling us -- about the author and the origin of his stories -- have made the novels more enriching," she added.
Marie Morgan, another former Hassler student, could not be reached for her comments.
The course requires the students to read nine of Hassler's novels, some of which will be translated by student-devised and acted skits during Hassler's appearance at the class later this month.
The author and his wife, Gretchen, are expected to visit the classroom April 24. The event is reserved for students -- and former students -- only.
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