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The Hibbing high school teacher who mentored Bob Dylan, Nobel literature prize winner

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B.J. Rolfzen
Retired Hibbing, Minn., English teacher Boniface "B.J." Rolfzen, who taught Bob Dylan at Hibbing High School, before going on to teach at Hibbing Community College.
Courtesy KAXE/KBXE

Bob Dylan's literary roots may be as tangled as the Nobel Prize winner's famously enigmatic lyrics, but at some point they invariably end up in the Hibbing High School classroom of B.J. Rolfzen. 

"Early in his career, [Rolfzen] had a student, named Robert Zimmerman, who sat in the front row, right in front of where he taught," said Aaron Brown, who teaches communications at Hibbing Community College and for 13 years co-chaired the Dylan Days festival in Hibbing. "He was this gentle man who loved poetry, and preached poetry almost like a religion."

Robert Zimmerman, who of course changed his name to Bob Dylan, caught that religion in Rolfzen's 10th grade English class. 

B.J. Rolfzen
Boniface "B.J." Rolfzen pictured here in the early 1960s.
Courtesy of Hibbing Community College

Linda Stroback was a friend of Rolfzen, who died in 2009. For nearly 30 years she owned the restaurant Zimmy's in Hibbing. 

"He was just magic," she said. "You could see where someone like a young Robert Zimmerman coming from here, to have B.J. teaching him poetry and literature, he'd be inspired and create his own language and poetry." 

Rolfzen taught English in Hibbing for 30 years, first at the high school, then at the community college. 

For years, he would politely speak to journalists, filmmakers and fans who yearned to hear stories of a young Dylan. 

"When people would come here and say aren't you proud of Bob Dylan, he would say I'm proud of all my students," Stroback said. "And he meant that, but right now if he knew, and hopefully he does know that this happened, that this Nobel prize was awarded to Bob Zimmerman, he would be beyond tickled, he wouldn't believe that it could happen and he'd be thrilled." 

High school photo
Bob Zimmerman's 1959 Hibbing High School senior yearbook photograph, including his stated goal to "join Little Richard."
Courtesy of Barry and Judy Ollman

Dylan considered Rolfzen a mentor and would visit him when he came back through Hibbing, says Nelson French, who grew up in Hibbing just a block away from the Zimmermans. 

French now lives in Duluth, where Dylan was born and a place apparently referenced in some of his lyrics. 

"You start off Desolation Row with 'They're selling postcards of the hanging...'," said French. "And I think all of us in Duluth now know what that was about. There was a lynching in the 1920 of three black men who were traveling with the circus just off of Superior Street."

Duluth and Hibbing have long had a complicated relationship with the famous musician. 

He's rarely spoken of his childhood. So local fans cling to references such as those in Desolation Row, or Highway 61 Revisited. 

Duluth has designated a Bob Dylan cultural pathway through the city, and hosts Dylan Fest, but in Hibbing there's little to indicate Dylan's past there. Zimmy's closed two years ago, and Dylan Days disbanded the following year. 

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan performs at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 9, 201.
Clint Austin | AP via Duluth News Tribune file

But Aaron Brown hopes the Nobel Prize may spark a renewed interest in the homegrown musical icon. 

"Really what this award is, is just an acknowledgement of the global impact of this guy from Hibbing, who really changed the music industry, changed the act of songwriting, made it more personal, made it more artistic, and just a very great opportunity for the Iron Range and Duluth to claim their most famous son," Brown said.

Or as Linda Stroback puts it, the award shows how out of somewhere very unexpected came someone who could put words to all our feelings.