Cheryl Strayed and Came Back Wild

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Cheryl Strayed in 1995 on the Pacific Coast Trail
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Strayed
Talk about wild. In 1995 Cheryl Strayed (B.A. ’97) trekked solo nearly half the 2,650-mile Pacific Coast Trail, without experience and lugging an overloaded backpack. In December 2014, nearly 20 years later, her adventure flashed onto movie theater screens worldwide as Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.

Watching Witherspoon portray her onscreen was, she says, “moving and bizarre, not a normal experience. She gives a beautiful performance, and I feel honored by it,” says Strayed, 46, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with her filmmaker husband, Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.

It wasn’t until years after her trek that Strayed realized she had a story to tell, of grief and gratitude, each step of the trail taking her closer to healing from her divorce, her recovery from addiction, and, especially, her mother’s death from lung cancer. Her literary memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Vintage Books, 2013) landed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and made first pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

Strayed’s mother looms large in her life as a writer. “My mom always read to me. I have a distinct memory, not yet 4, of leaning against her pregnant belly. And I always loved to write, but it wasn’t until I was grown up that it occurred to me that someone like me could be an author.” 

Strayed says her world opened up when she came to the University of Minnesota. “I took my first creative writing class with Michael Dennis Browne. Here was a man who wrote books that did for him what books did for me—make my hair stand on end. Paulette Bates Alden was also a huge influence. She was my most important mentor during those years, and she’s still a dear friend,” she says.

Strayed is also the author of Torch, about a family’s grief after an unexpected loss, and Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns for the website the Rumpus. She’s working on another memoir and a novel. She bluntly admits that writing can be misery. “I struggle with it, but then I remember: I love this. And I love the feeling of living inside a book, not wanting to put it down and staying up all night. I always hope people are similarly enthralled by my books.”

Certainly, millions of Wild readers are. “The writer’s job is to find what’s universal, and Wild is connected to those ancient stories of journey that have been told throughout time. I never wrote the book for people to receive a message, but I’m glad they’re inspired, making them think of their lives in a new way.”
—Claire Sykes

Bobby Bell: Never Too Late

When Bobby Bell crosses the Mariucci Arena stage to collect his bachelor’s degree on May 14, the 74-year-old former Gopher star defensive lineman will complete an unlikely dream and fulfill a promise he made in 1958. “I want to show kids that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, how old you are, you can do it, man,” he says.

Just making it to Minnesota at all was “doing it” over long odds for Bell. Growing up in Shelby, North Carolina, he lived a childhood of segregated schools and businesses and limited opportunity, including for sports. Bell chose to pursue a recreation, park, and leisure studies major because of the difference a few dedicated men made in his life, building the first parks and pool for African Americans in Shelby and teaching him to play team sports. Encouraged by his father, Pink, Bobby set his sights on college. “Very few blacks in Shelby went to college,” he recalls. “But my father always told me it was possible.” Bell worked several jobs, including mowing lawns for white cotton mill owners. “They were sending kids to big colleges,” he says. “I wanted to have my opportunity to go to a big school.”

Football provided the opportunity. Minnesota’s Murray Warmath, one of the few major-college coaches then recruiting black players, offered Bell a scholarship. As he stepped onto an airplane for the first time, heading for a place that could not have been more different from Shelby, Bell promised his father he would not quit. “It wasn’t just for me,” Bell says. “It was for him, for my mom, my family, all the blacks in Shelby.” He and fellow trailblazing black players like Sandy Stephens and Carl Eller, who had their own families and hometowns to represent, held each other accountable. “We pledged that we would stick it out and leave as winners,” he says.

Bobby Bell displays two prized possessions - his Super Bowl ring and his U of M graduation bobblehead

They did, winning a 1960 national title and the 1962 Rose Bowl. Bell finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year, an astonishing feat for a defensive player. Following a Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs, he worked for General Motors and opened a string of restaurants. “I was so busy,” Bell recalls. “But I never forgot that I promised my father that I would finish.”

Only three classes short of his degree, Bell arranged to take online courses from his Kansas City home. While easier logistically than coming to campus, it presented other challenges. “It all used to be in the library, but now it’s on the computer,” Bell says. “When I had to create a PowerPoint, first I had to learn to use PowerPoint. . . . It was double hard for me. But I just really started to enjoy it.”

In a lifetime of “you can do it” moments, earning his degree is right up there, Bell says. But having his father in the stands in Minneapolis to watch him play, he says, “is at the top of my list. It was the dream we had together that he would see his son play just like everybody else. That’s why I love this University. Can you imagine all this coming from where I did? Minnesota gave me the opportunity to have all this happen.

- Chris Smith, photographs by Jason Dailey

Jesse Ilhardt: Good to Hear Their Voices
When Jesse Ilhardt (B.A. ’08) enrolled in the journalism program at the University of Minnesota, she intended to become a public relations professional or a journalist. But two experiences during her senior year converged to change her path. Ilhardt is the cofounder and director of education at VOCEL, a language-focused preschool on Chicago’s west side that serves some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. VOCEL stands for Viewing Our Children as Emerging Leaders.

Ilhardt credits an assignment for a literary journalism class, along with her part-time job as a nanny for an upper-income family, for opening her eyes to language development disparities in children of differing backgrounds. The assignment required spending time at a Head Start preschool in Minneapolis, where she observed what studies have confirmed: that by age 4, children growing up in poverty have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. “Those experiences ignited in me a curiosity about how children develop language skills and really set me on a path to learn more about child psychology and early childhood education,” Ilhardt says.

The Skipper
Being called Skipper is taking some getting used to for Paul Molitor. The former Gopher, who led the team to its last College World Series appearance in 1977, and seven-time Major League All-Star player is the new manager of the Minnesota Twins. He kicked off his managerial career going head-to-head against a familiar face, Gophers manager John Anderson, as the Twins and Gophers met for the first time ever on March 4 in Fort Myers, Florida, in a spring training game.

Molitor talks about launching his career as a major league manager with Matt Nelson (B.A. ’09) at

Teaching preschool, training other educators for Teach for America in her native Chicago, and earning a master’s degree in early childhood education from Dominican University in suburban Chicago deepened Ilhardt’s desire to work toward greater parity in the early childhood experiences of all children, regardless of family income.

VOCEL is a full-day, year-round program with 17 students and three teachers. It takes a fresh approach to language acquisition by using every minute of the day for conversation and interaction with peers and teachers. “We talk while we stand in line for the bathroom, while we’re reading stories, and while we eat,” Ilhardt says. It can be noisy and a bit chaotic, she says, but it’s all in the service of language development and helping children build communication, social, and critical thinking skills.

To raise the $250,000 needed to open VOCEL’s pilot classroom last September, Ilhardt and her founding partner, executive director Kelly Lambrinatos, turned to a variety of funding sources. A crowdfunding campaign on Crowdtilt included interacting with potential donors on social media and hosting live events to raise more than $86,000 from 275 donors in 75 days. The remainder of the $250,000 first-year budget has come from more traditional sources, such as grants and large gifts raised by the preschool’s board of directors.

VOCEL’s first year is key to its success. “Once we have proven results, we hope to open additional classrooms in other neighborhoods,” Ilhardt says. “Our goal is that quality early childhood education becomes an expectation—not a luxury—for all children.”                          
—Marla Holt, photo by Ken Carl

Geoff Trenholme: A Career on the Rise

It took two years and four recipes before Geoff Trenholme (B.S. ’99) was satisfied with his French baguette. His customers weren’t complaining—they often line up outside of Rocket Baby Bakery, his European-style bakery in the Milwaukee area, before the doors even open—but Trenholme was convinced he could do better. “You want that crispy crust and that nice open crumb that is moist, and that yellowness you get is because the ingredients are mixed so gently that it preserves all the natural flavors,” explains Trenholme.

Trenholme has a degree in computer science from the University of Minnesota. He spent a few years working tech jobs, then taught high school math in the Los Angeles area before deciding that he was more interested in pie than pi. Or, to be more exact, bread. “I’ve always found food very satisfying,” Trenholme says. “It’s actually a very basic human pleasure to make food for somebody.”

Trenholme trained at the San Francisco Baking Institute and interned at a few bakeries before he and his wife, Shannon, moved to Wisconsin to launch Rocket Baby, a moniker inspired by the nickname of their first son. Since opening in 2012, Rocket Baby’s reputation has taken off. The couple recently added a second storefront and also serve around a dozen Milwaukee-area restaurants.

As chief baker, the 46-year-old Trenholme is usually at the bakery by 4 a.m. and his days can stretch to 16 hours. He prides himself on using premium ingredients, locally sourced whenever possible, and the best techniques in artisan baking. That means taking it slow.

“As with anything that involves fermentation, time adds flavor,” he says. “Most commercial bakeries take shortcuts. We’re trying to do everything the hard way. We don’t cut corners. You have to be patient, and you have to have respect for the process.”

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