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March 04, 2014 | 05:28 PM
Don’t tell me men must not cry. I managed to avoid that on a bitter cold but sunny February morning.

While shoveling snow, I noted my neighbor doing the same. As men are wont to do, we began a conversation at 30 paces. Then abruptly he said, “Mike Hinzpeter died yesterday.”

That changed everything. It was news I expected but not quite so soon.

Mike was one of my students (1967-68) and then for 35 years his skills kept me in the clear automotively.

But there was more to it. I admired Mike’s better qualities, and who knows, he may have admired some of mine. That’s the trouble with men — we don’t let it out. Yet our exchanges led to a relationship that was based on far more than teacher-student and driver-mechanic connections.

I never had to guess where Mike stood on most subjects. Through bluster and his big-bear-like come-ons, it was always clear where the heart of Mike was.

Our relationship was always within the shadow of language discipline or the demands of solving automotive problems. It is now easy to wish I had tried to extend those boundaries.

Mike’s bout with cancer was on a similar pattern with my wife’s three years ago. She lived out the predicted six months. Mike left after four. Why fight eternity? Yes, men need to cry.

Some years ago as a contributor to the Walworth County Week I wrote several sketches of former students. One was about Mike. It seems appropriate to share it with readers, many of whom knew Mike well.

Here it is:

“Your’re the English teacher. You’re supposed to know...”

OK, Mike, OK.

What prompted this outburst was asking my automotive mechanic and former student, Mike Hinzpeter, how to spell a word he had used in explaining work he had done on our van. It was a technical term. How was I to understand his explanation unless I understood the words, including their spelling?

He was explaining how he had solved the problem. It involved the link between the rear drive-shaft and the differential. At each end of the shaft is a u-joint which has a truneon ... trunyon ... trunion ...

I asked him how to spell it. It was at that point my automotive maven uttered his imperatives.

There was a chance the problem dated back to July 1990 during a California trip when our three-month-old van produced a $3,000 warranty job. Parts of the differential and its housing had to be replaced.

I was interested in what the possibilities were that the 1990 job and this one were related. Although not willing to be pinned down, he thought it possible.

Anyway, the trunnion (I hadn’t even guessed very well) is connected with four spring clips, two to make it secure, two to make sure the device is centered. One of these was missing. Not only was it missing, but my auto professional thought it possible the fourth clip had not even been installed. That meant the vibrations which had taken me for help in the first place may have been present for almost a decade, since the warranty job in California.

It took my motor master less than two blocks down the road to spot the trouble. I listen to all the tall tales about mechanics on Car Talk, and I guess I expect the worst. I’m amazed how quickly marvelous Mike picks up on problems. This certainly was not the first time either. But he assured me, “You’re lucky!”

Mike had less patience when he was in my English class back in 1967-68. Some days he would leer at me from his front-row seat, yet it was clear he knew what was going on, and behind the facade, was hanging right in there. We agreed afternoon was no time for an English class. I’m not making excuses for him, but Mike’s tough exterior is misleading. He is really a teddy bear behind a beard.

Not long ago I was fumbling about looking for words to describe Mike’s personality. I mean the way he comes on. He could see I was straining, so he suggested I stop looking — “I’m just plain ornery,” he said.

Alright, Mike, you’re ornery. I had never thought of him in that way, though he does have certain peppery prickly properties that lay down quite a barrage. But these are welcome signs. Mike is not cranky or cross. It is a very sharp mind that is hiding behind the beard.

Mike Hinzpeter has made it his business to learn the automotive art, just as his California brother did, and their father before them. It is not beyond reason that if there had been a sister, she too would be in automotive mechanics. Mike is one of three practitioners at Vista Automotive high on a hill just northeast of Lake Geneva. I call auto mechanics an art because it involves human relations as much as mechanical know-how.

From high school Mike went to college. UW-Whitewater, graduating with a BBA in finance in 1972. If he’s told me once, he’s told me a hundred times, “I’m no good in English.” He tried to tell me again just the other day, so I decided to go for it. He said he had a required composition course, but it was taught by one of those 1960s rebel professors. So he put it off until his senior year.

I think Mike met his match. After listening to his story, I concluded that a trick he had learned very early (I know because he used it on me more than once) might also work on his college instructor. “I’m no good in English. I can’t spell.”

They must have had some bearish, bristly sessions, those two, but in the end they landed in the same place. Understanding and respect.

At the end of the course students were to write down what grades they though they should receive. Mike said he’d gotten Bs and a sprinkling of As, so he gave himself a B. The instructor thought a B+, but instead he was going to bestow an A-.

The reason related to an incident which occurred earlier. Mike had written “terodactyl” in a paper. The instructor called him on it, pointing out the word’s first letter was “p.” As any English teacher worth his salt would do, he suggested using the dictionary. MIke’s response: How can I check a word if I can’t tell what its first letter is?

Mike’s demeanor in this sequence was enough to convince this Ph.D professor that there had been good faith and progress.

Of course, as a practiced English teacher myself, I understand this problem. No one ever said this most important of academic skills was going to be easy. How many Greek-derived words, for example, are there that start with letters that are not pronounced?

And then there is the trunnion. It came from the French word trognon, meaning “core, stalk, stump.” A trunnion is “a pin or pivot usually mounted on bearings for rotating or tilting something.”

English lesson is over, Mike, and so is the van problem. Thanks. Thanks on both counts.

Through all the exterior gruff and bluff, the real Mike is more than a man with whom I do business, much more than the student you never hear from again.

Johnson is a retired Badger High School teacher.

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