The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 4, 2009

GED recipient moves audience

60-year-old had long road

By Tanner Kent

MANKATO — Jul Engelby had 60 years to write his graduation speech.

Apparently, his time was well spent.

During last week’s graduation ceremony for those earning GEDs through Mankato Area Public Schools’ adult basic education program, Engelby was chosen to give a keynote address.

Chosen because the gregarious school bus driver had charmed his classmates with spry wit and youthful determination. Chosen because Engelby’s speech may never have been written at all without the help of a granddaughter who encouraged him to join her in GED class. Chosen because the story of this lifelong Mankato resident represents the very core mission of Mankato schools:

To develop lifelong learners.

When Engelby was chosen to give last week’s graduation address, folks had a hunch his words would inspire. But no one predicted this:

“It was the first time a student speaker ever received a standing ovation,” said Marilyn Solberg, a GED teacher in Mankato for the better part of three decades. “It was the most fun graduation we’ve ever had.”

But when Engelby finally began putting his graduation speech on paper last week, he was unsatisfied with the result.

“It was too much about me,” Engelby said.

Too much about the mysterious growth on a lower vertebrae that prompted a string of surgeries beginning at 16 years old. Too much about the listless days at school after the surgeries, behind in his homework and down on his luck. Too much about the lifetime of pain, the label of disabled by age 30, the regret and disappointment of never finishing school.

So Engelby trashed it and started over.

He wrote about the granddaughter, Kylie Engelby, who gave him the courage to face a challenge. He wrote about his longtime partner, Barb, whose abiding belief in his abilities kept him motivated. He wrote about the part-time job he found five years ago as a school bus driver; and three particular mothers whose children were on his route and encouraged him to return to school.

When Engelby wrote out the last words of his speech — “... and after 43 years I am damn proud of myself” — he knew he’d found the right message.

And when those words rang through the loudspeakers to a crowd of hundreds, people rose to their feet. Among them were Supt. Ed Waltman, who called Engelby’s success a great story; and Solberg, who said Engelby’s speech was affirmation that “We are touching lives.” Jul’s three bus-stop moms were clapping and cheering and so was Barb, Jul’s love of 27 years.

Engelby said he was lifted by the ovation.

“My feet still haven’t touched the ground,” he said.

Back at his home near Sibley Park, Engelby is probably tinkering with his custom Yamaha motorcycle. He might be telling a story or talking about the winding set of circumstances that brought him to the graduation stage.

It’s funny, he’ll say, how unexpected events produce unexpected results. And it’s strange, he’ll add, how some things come full circle.

Poet Robert Frost once said, when confronted with a road that diverged in a yellow wood, that “knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Well Engelby did come back. And he’s damn proud.

“It was something I needed to do,” he said.