With ALS at semester's end, a teaching career reframed

Kramer and his co-instructor Deb DeMeester
Dr. Bruce Kramer, Dean of the College of Applied and Professional Studies at the University of St. Thomas, and his co-instructor Deb DeMeester.
MPR News/Jim Bickall

Editor's note: This is part of our continuing series of stories about Bruce Kramer, the former dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas, as he copes with life after being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. You can read all the stories in the series by clicking here.

It's summer. School's out. Graduates have been urged to step out into the world with confidence in themselves and their dreams. And teachers tend to look back on the year just completed. Bruce Kramer is among them.

Despite the slow encroachment of ALS on his body, the dean of the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas kept up a full schedule as the academic year drew to a close, aided by co-instructor Deb McMeester, teaching a doctoral-level course in ethical leadership.

"I started out as a teacher, and my own family, they were teachers. I love education, love high school kids. I taught high school and was a principal in high schools. When I came to St. Thomas I started adult teaching," he said recently. "That's a whole different animal."

And it's not easy, as he copes with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"It's probably the hardest thing I do. We teach our core courses in our doctorate on weekends, so it's a Friday night and a Saturday. There's just not a lot of recovery time in that space. So even when I was able-bodied, I'd come off of a cohort weekend, and I'd just be blasted from it," he said. "But now I've had to work out with my colleague that she really has to take the lead. So what I will do is, we kind of identify areas where she feels like it's critical that I be there, or I feel like it's critical I be there. I never had to do that before."

On top of his teaching duties, Kramer is also the public face of the College of Education.

Kramer teaching ethics in leadership
While Kramer finds teaching in the classroom energizing, the ALS that is slowly creeping through his body forces him to plan for the energy he will need.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickall

"I do the welcomes and the closures and the things like that. We have a lot of programs in our college. And I like to do that. I like to be a part of it. I like to bring people in. So I do a lot of public speaking still," he said. But now with ALS, and getting around in a wheelchair, "It's different from striding in and taking the mic and taking the room. Rolling in and taking the mic and figuring out how you're going to take the room. It's a very different experience."

It can also be exhausting if he doesn't manage his time carefully.

"I can schedule a meeting, I can make it a finite amount of time. I can go back to my office, I can recover. And then I go back out," he said. "That's the one accommodation that I have asked for from my university, is that they understand that a couple times a day, I need to close my eyes. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and I'm like new, and I'm OK. But I have to have that time."

The fatigue also gives him a different perspective on how he used to order his priorities.

"I don't know if impatience is the right word. There are things that we do that are really important. I mean, we're talking about the ability for a person to get an education that will affect their lives. But how we do a room set-up and who's going to do it? That just doesn't seem that important to me anymore." Why is he putting himself through all this? Why not just try and relax?

"One of the things I found out when I got my diagnosis was I really love my colleagues. I really do. I really like being with them. And I feel like there is a sense of purpose that we embrace for the most part, and that is life-giving. So that's part of it," he said. "And part of it is that deans don't grow on trees. It's not that they won't be able to find another dean. They will. I've been at St. Thomas for 16 years, and I at some point will happily turn it over, but right now between the energy I get just being with these wonderful people and the responsibility I feel, to them and to myself, to do it and leave it right keeps me wanting to work."

Kramer chats with a guest
Kramer chats with a guest at the College of Applied and Professional Studies' Doctoral Reception at Opus Hall on Friday, May 18, 2012.
Courtesy Kate Kollmann, University of St. Thomas

During spring commencement, Kramer and his colleagues conferred degrees on another batch of freshly-minted graduates. The moment drew Kramer to reflect on his blog about the meaning of his professional life now that it has become framed by ALS.

A good friend had brought his administrative team to campus and asked him to say a few words of welcome. if I would say a few words of welcome. "ALS doesn't allow you to be so flippant as to toss off a few ideas about policy," wrote "Instead, I spoke from the naked core of what I know best--failure."

Today, as you discuss your successes and failures of the past year, challenge yourself that every child in your sphere will be deeply known, loved, fostered, and cared for by someone in your school. Yes, intervene, improve, tutor, school, teach syllables and numbers and sounds and knowledge and the civil responsibility that defines the difference between the educated and the ignorant. But in that time, do not lose sight of the fact that we are, each one of us, failing; and we have been given a great gift in this insight-- the choice to energize our collective failures into the emergence of a beautiful human child educated to be persistent, resilient, squeezing that failure, until it yields, and in the yielding, learning success.

For more conversations with Bruce Kramer, click on the audio links above, or on the story links below.


You can read all the stories in this series by clicking here.