Late last week, Mike Rohde was honored with a portrait in Meriden City Hall for his years of consecutive service in elective office to that city. Mike served on the City Council for 19 years, and then went on to serve five years as mayor. During the ceremony, Mike said: “As my father used to say, ‘Always leave a place better than you found it.’ I hope in some small way I have been up to that challenge.”
Those words are a testament to Mike Rohde’s life well-lived. Mike was my wrestling coach in school at a place called Mount Saint Johns in Deep River, a small town on the Connecticut River. In those days, back in 1969, the school housed just under 200 teenage boys who simply had nowhere to go.
All of us were from badly broken homes. Most of us were veterans of the foster care system and virtually all of us were from the worst parts of Bridgeport, Hartford, Waterbury, and New Haven. Mike, just out of college, newly married, and looking for a summer job working with disadvantaged children, had taken a position at the school as a child care worker. He was quickly promoted to special education teacher, and then child care director.
Mt. St. John
It was during his term as child care director, an executive position, that a boy named Mike Guertin, a slightly built, soft spoken and good natured kid, had been complaining to Mike that he was constantly being pushed and bullied in his dorm. “That’s when it dawned on me,” Rohde said, “that a wrestling program might be the answer to the problem for Mike and a lot of other boys going through the same treatment. As it turned out, it was.” As for Mike Guertin: “He became quite a formidable wrestler. He gained confidence and never came to me and complained about bullying again.”
He wasn’t the only one. Wrestling taught every boy on the team about discipline, an important lesson since most of us came from backgrounds that were completely void of any sort of discipline. We weren’t bad kids but we were rough kids—street-wise, tough in different ways, and largely undereducated. We were also lost in the system and mostly forgotten. Mike saw that and took us under his wing. He redirected our anger, bad attitudes, and aggressions into the sport of wrestling. Along the way, he taught us to behave like gentlemen, to have fun, and most importantly he gave us a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. The lessons we learned on the wrestling matt could be carried through life: “You will get knocked flat on your keister. When that happens, get up again. Have confidence.” Even the boys who never won a match took on an air of confidence because we knew it took a special kind of courage to step onto the matt. Win or lose, wrestling ain’t for sissies.
The first wrestling team, 1969. That's Mike on the far left
We learned quickly that our opponents were as strong as we were but we could still beat them if we stayed calm and remembered what we had learned. “Work hard but work smart.” For every move in wrestling, there is a counter-move. Same thing in life, really. Wrestling gave us an understanding of how to develop physical strength and how to stay strong through lifting weights and calisthenics. And the beauty was, anybody could do it. Size didn’t matter because that particular training didn’t require the ability to throw straight, run fast, or dunk a basket. However it did require commitment again, something most of lacked in our personnel lives because no one had ever taught us what a work ethic was.
Rohde said: “My main thrust at (St. John) was to impart the skills and activities that I engaged in when I was a teenager….I taught the boys how to fish, practiced baiting hooks with rubber worms, and started an archery program. My wife, an art major, came in to do drawings and painting with the boys. I think most of the boys came away with a sense of fun, accomplishment and enjoyment.”
I can tell you, as one for those boys, it was fun; but it was a lot more therapeutic than the so-called “therapy sessions” we were forced to sit through with the school’s social workers. When he had to, Mike could lay down the law. With a group of kids like us, he really didn’t have any choice every now and then. But he could be remarkably inspiring and understanding as well.
Once when we went up against a wealthy prep school, I got pinned three times. At the end of the match I said to Mike, “I’m sorry” He asked, “For what?” “For losing,” I said. He said, “Did you give it your best?” I told him I had. He said, “Then, the heck with it. That’s all I want from you. Your best effort. You never lose when you give it your all, John.”
I have carried that simple message with me through my entire life. And on those occasions when I lose but didn’t try, I go back, lose again but retreat with the satisfaction of having at least tried.
That summer turned into a career for Mike Rohdes, spanning four decades of work with the state’s disadvantaged and socially challenged. From St. John’s, he went on to become the Director of the Curtis Home for Children and helped to establish an adoption and foster care program that recruited only appropriate and well-motivated families suitable to be good foster parents. The program provided training, ongoing oversight, and support for the families as well. Because of those efforts, a lot of kids in desperate need were able to finally find a loving, stable home after years of bouncing around in the Foster Care system.
At about that same time, in the mid-Seventies, Mike also pushed to successfully sue the State (Juan F. vs. State of CT) over grossly inadequate resources for children. As a long term survivor of that system, I can tell you first hand, it was a long time coming. Thankfully, Mike and his group won the federal lawsuit and that resulted in a Federal Consent Decree that is still in effect to this day. Because of that suit, DCF workers are getting better training, have lowers caseloads, and have instituted more community-based services as well as a restructuring of services that closed all the big group care institutions like Mt. St. John in favor of community-based services. Many more efforts were made to support and rehabilitate birth families and maintain the family connection if at all possible. So, there has been progress in the system but it took a federal lawsuit to make this happen.
I’m proud to know Mike Rohde. Because of him, my life, and the lives of countless other desperate children, is better. He left us better than he found us. I wish every kid in America had a Mike Rohde to look up to.
I want to leave you with the remarks Mike made to a graduation class of Middlesex High School in Connecticut when he was mayor of Meriden.
He said: “Several years ago, I was an avid mountain biker. Three times a week I would set out early in the morning on my 14-mile ride. Early in the ride there was a monster hill that I would fly down screaming at the top of my lungs, peddling as fast as I could. Always, as I reached the bottom, I would think about having to ride up this hill coming back home.
One day, as I turned to ride back up this hill, I spotted a frail elderly man, on an old three speed bike, slowly peddling up the hill. He was at the halfway point. I said to myself, ‘He will never make it all the way; for sure he will be walking his bike.’ So I start the ascent with my 20-speed mountain bike, peddling in the lowest gear, my legs and thighs straining for every inch. I’m huffing and puffing and bemoaning how tough this hill is.
I look up and see that the old man is still slowly peddling up ahead (thinking that) surely he will start walking his bike at any second. I put my head down and dug for the energy to make the summit, quietly still moaning how tough this hill is. When I finally look up, I have reached the summit just as the old man reaches it still peddling his rickety old bike. I am amazed that he made it. I’m completely worn out, sweating, thighs burning and gasping for air.
As I passed him he turned to me, smiled and said, ‘This is my favorite hill.’ I thought to myself, ‘You son of a gun, I’m dying here and you’re treating this hill like a walk in the park. I’m younger, in good shape, on my fancy mountain bike. You’re on your on antique bike grinding it out with a smile on your face.’
But what a message, what a lesson.
We were both on the same hill. I chose to treat this like a painful obstacle and moan and complain about how hard it was. He saw this as a joyful challenge to be embraced and happily conquered. So here it is. We have choices in our lives how we will react and respond to difficult challenges. The choices are clear. We can view them as horribly difficult and demanding, while feeling sorry for ourselves and complaining as we plow our way through, begrudging every step. Or, we can be like the elderly bike rider, joyfully accepting the inevitable difficulties we encounter in life with a happy acceptance. And bring the attitude that we have the ability to accomplish difficult challenges and then triumph in these successes. The choice is yours. I wish you all best on your life’s journey.”