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Bob Dylan’s English Teacher

Posted on Friday, September 26th, 2008.

“Walking through the snow with half a shoe, searching for William Shakespeare.” - A Six Word Autobiography by B.J. Rolfzen.

Bob Dylan grew up as Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota – 30 minutes away from Grand Rapids. B.J. Rolfzen was his high school English teacher for 2 years. I went on a very special visit to B.J. Rolfzen’s home in Hibbing with Heidi Holtan of KAXE. (I brought the muffins. Heidi brought the recording equipment). B.J. is well known around town for his long career as an English teacher and his special connection to Bob. He speaks annually at “Dylan Days,” a local event to celebrate the life of the musician.

B.J. remembers one of the rare visits Bob made to Hibbing several years ago. “I remember distinctly. He told me, You’ve taught me everything I know.’ I dispute that. I’ve taught him half of what he knows.”

B.J. Rolfzen in His Office“When I was young, I was a bum,” he says. “I lived in the Great Depression. I slept in a bed of straw with my three brothers. It smelled like urine. There was no heat,” B.J. says with the same slow rhythm that he uses to read his favorite poems.

“My life changed overnight when I joined the Navy,” he continues. “I found out that I had to know something if I was going to survive in this world. So I started reading and I’ve been reading ever since.” B.J. went to college on the GI Bill and eventually got his Masters in English.

B.J. Rolfzen Looks for a Poem

There’s a pamphlet in front of B.J.’s breakfast plate with poems from a symposium he read at in Minneapolis. “Are these your favorite poems?” I ask.

“Not all of them, but you have to cut it off somewhere.” He reads John Donne and then Alfred Lord Tennyson, reciting The Eagle: “And like a thunderbolt he falls,” he finishes with prolonged cadence.

B.J. believes in work. “Don’t be afraid to work. It’s not easy, but you have to work.” He repeats the word “work” several more times. “You work until the job is done,” BJ says, letting the done resonate at the roof of his mouth like a gong.

Leona Rolfzen in the Bob Dylan Museum

He met his wife, Leona, on a Greyhound bus going to St. Cloud. He stood next to her seat in the aisle. They have been married for 60 years and have 4 children. Leona has set up a Bob Dylan museum in the basement next to the laundry room. There are Bob Dylan records, a Bob Dylan pillow, and a photograph of Echo Helstrom (Bob’s high school girlfriend). Everything is in a brown plastic frame.

B.J. describes Bob in his class. “Robert was shy. I can see him coming through the door of classroom 204. I remember it distinctly because he was always doing the same thing. He always came in to class alone. He always sat in the same chair, three seats from the door in the first row. Right under my nose for two years.”

B.J. and His Textbook

B.J.’s basement office is the warmest room in the house. The walls are cinderblock painted in pistachio green. When we first sit down, he plays “With God on Our Side,” closing his eyes, letting his reading glasses slide to the tip of his nose. He taps his socked feet on the carpet.

“Did you have any expectations for what Bob Dylan would do with his life?” I ask.

“I have expectations for all my students, because they all worked hard. It is impossible to predict what will happen to people. Human nature is so unpredictable and that is the pleasure of being human because you never know what is going to happen to you. You might become a Bob Dylan. You might become a Shakespeare. You might become a B.J. Rolfzen.”

10 Responses to “Bob Dylan’s English Teacher”

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  • Thanks for this insight. I love the photos. So incredible that a boy who didnt even go to college acheived a pullitzer prize (among other honors). Must be great for you to say you were a part of his life.

    Comment from pufmama on November 16, 2009 at 3:18 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • I really love this story !!
    thanks for sharing this amazing story :)

    UNC Charlotee
    international student

    Comment from .. on June 6, 2009 at 12:39 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Very moving and interesting —-My wife Denise is a teacher, too….and she is thoughtful and kind—-much as you. Thank you for sharing your friendship
    with Bob with all of us.

    Warm regards

    Comment from Keith D Kulper on January 10, 2009 at 2:44 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • You make this come alive. You make me feel like I’m there and it’s exciting!!


    Comment from Dorothy Johnson on September 28, 2008 at 2:44 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Surely you mean John Donne.

    Comment from Liuzhou Laowai on September 27, 2008 at 10:17 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • This is a great story Alex. I love the Bob-museum in the basement. People like the Rolfzens are the backbone of this country. Who knows where Dylan would have ended up if he’d had a different English teacher.

    Comment from Steve on September 27, 2008 at 10:15 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • I heard B.J. speak at Dylan Days in Hibbing a few years ago. He was inspiring and his wife was wonderful. Bob was lucky to have had him for a teacher. Good to hear they’re still doing well.

    Thank you both for helping propel Bob Dylan, who has so enriched our lives, into the world

    Comment from Bertha on September 27, 2008 at 4:28 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • I love the six word memoir! and the photos.

    Comment from Whitney on September 27, 2008 at 10:15 am - Reply to this Comment
  • great story Alex! It was so much fun going with you to BJ’s house….though in a lot of ways we were there because of his ties to Bob Dylan, it ended up to be so much more! Can’t wait to read the extended dance version! Come back to Minnesota – we miss you guys!

    Comment from Heidi Holtan on September 26, 2008 at 8:18 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • that is a Great story, thanks for sharing it. I love reading about peoples lives. He sounds like a wonderful man.

    Comment from Lisa on September 26, 2008 at 12:09 pm - Reply to this Comment

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