Kurt J. Kolka
ROBERT WOODLAND: FINDING A LITTLE BIT OF WALDEN IN GRAYLING
2017 / By Kurt J. Kolka
GRAYLING -- “Home. I was born to be here,” says retired school teacher, Robert Woodland, as he tries to describe what Grayling means to him.
He notes, that on social media, many people like to recall memories of their hometown. What makes Grayling unique as a hometown is former residents keep wanting to come back to it.
“You just don't see people saying that about other places.”
Rob grew up in Alma, but loved spending time at a family cottage near Traverse City. A friend's father taught him how to fish and he's loved spending time in the water ever since.
“As a junior in high school, I encountered Thoreau for the first time. It made all the difference. Walden [Pond]. It spoke to me.”
Rob loved to travel. During his college summers, he traveled all around, often hitchhiking.
“One summer when I was in California [as a young man], my buddy and I and another high school buddy drove up to Yosemite one weekend. It was jam-packed. There were no camp sites so we threw our sleeping bags down by the Merced River, looking up at El Capitan and slept out in the open.
“Well, there were teenage types and college types all over partying. My buddies took off to one of them parties. I just sat there and I watched the river, watched the trout dimple and I could smell the pines. I thought, no, this living in urban environments is not for me. I can't. I won't. I knew then I'm going home, I'm going to live in the north country and, I may starve, but that's what I'm going to do.”
On his way back from California, he was reminded again of the pitfalls of urban living. He caught a ride with a fellow who was heading back to Michigan and posted a want ad for a rider in the newspaper. For $40, he got his ride back home. To his surprise, however, a third passenger was added to the party who was on his way to Chicago. After a long and adventurous ride, the three arrived at the south side of Chicago, around the Cicero area. They let their passenger out. He told them he'd be right back with their money. He never returned.
They began to scour the neighborhood in search of him and his share of the expenses. After a time, a police car pulled them over, noticing their California license plates. When they described their situation, the police told them to forget about the money and leave immediately.
They were riding around in gangland territory.
When Rob came to teach in Grayling in 1970, after four years in Ionia, it was the AuSable which lured he and his wife here.
Rob spent 29 years in Grayling as a literature, writing and reading teacher, and another few years as an alternative education instructor.
“Teaching is just a good memory, let's put it that way. I guess what you remember most as a teacher are those kids who looked like they weren't going to make it. When they can pull it together with a little assistance and move on, those are good memories.
“My theory is education is the individual's responsibility. I am there to help in any possible way I can. I'll break my back to help you get there, but you do the work.”
Former student Lorraine Ball remembers being in writing class with Bob Woodland. She says “I will say that Mr. Woodland was one of my favorite teachers, but it didn't start out that way. I mean, he was a writing teacher. Ugh . Not my strong point at all; never has been never will be. But Mr. Woodland, God bless him, had the patience to work kindly with students like me. I'm sure he had many, but he always made me feel like he was giving me full attention. I thank him for that. I was a challenge for sure. Hated the class, but got through thanks to him.”
Rob says, back before social media, schools were like an assembly line. Teachers would have students for one, maybe two years and they were gone. Teachers had no idea what happened to them. That frustrated him.
“You develop an attachment to kids. They're your kids. Some don't understand that relationship but its there.”
Rob says he now enjoys using social media where around 300 former students have found him again.
While teaching, Rob spent his summers working at local canoe liveries and being a river guide. These jobs allowed him to spend more time on the AuSable.
He especially loved guiding old-timers down the AuSable. They were a fountain of information and shared many favorite stories with him. Among the many interesting people he guided were actor Jim Varney (“Ernest”) and William Faulkner's cousin.
Rob says retirement wasn't easy to adapt to. He alludes to a door which swings back hard on the way out. After a few attempts at part-time employment, he has finally settled into a life pattern he can enjoy to its fullest.
These days he enjoys quiet days with his wife Judy at a house in Beaver Creek. He fishes as often as he can out on the AuSable. And he tries to keep up with friends and former students on Facebook.
While he may have retired from public school teaching, his love of literature and fishing has followed him online. At least once a day, he posts a video reading of some kind and once again his “kids” get to hear his familiar voice echoing fiction writers and poets alike. And, once again, both he and his former students are transported back to some great memories.