AHS honors Nordin, Hesla as 2018 distinguished alumni

Published 8:59 am Friday, September 21, 2018

Two Austin High School alumni paid tribute to their alma mater by sharing their own pieces of wisdom with students.

Austin High School Alumni and Friends Association honored Dr. Richard Nordin, class of 1949, and Bret Hesla, class of 1975, as the 2018 Distinguished Alumni during an assembly at Knowlton Auditorium Thursday morning.

The two alumni shared with students their memories of Austin High School, and how their lives were after graduating from the school district.

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‘Proud to call Austin my home’

With his father’s advice of ‘don’t be average,’ Nordin lived his life in accordance to that piece of wisdom.

“Don’t be average, maintain a positive mental attitude and work to make things better,” he shared with students. “I’ve always been proud to call Austin my home.”

The alumnus peered out into the audience and shared his experiences of opening his optometry practice in 1958 and his career that included being the president of Minnesota Vision Services (a nonprofit, prepaid vision care group plan) and Minnesota Optometric Association, which recognized him with its Distinguished Service Award in 1974 and 1980.

It was an honor he shared with his wife, Gloria, who passed away this spring.

He also recounted his time serving in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant in naval security from 1955 to 1958, and with the National Security Agency in Washington D.C. He earned his doctorate in optometry from Ohio State University in 1954 prior to the military career.

“Success can have many different definitions and certainly shouldn’t be defined in just monetary terms,” Nordin said. “It doesn’t make any difference what occupation you choose, just be the best you can possibly be.”

While serving locally, Nordin held different leadership positions for nonprofits such as Jaycees, Kiwanis, Austin Park and Recreation Boardand Austin Area Chamber of Commerce. He was also the original captain and leader of the Spamtown Belle paddlewheel boat, which he played an instrumental role in operating for the public for more than a decade.

In the early 1970s, Nordin led a committee that was significant in the initial development and long-term planning for the Austin Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.

Nordin left students with a piece of advice: give back to the community, keep a positive attitude and make the right choices to get to where you want to go in life.

“You have more opportunities than my generation based on the choices you make,” he said. “I hope you make the best choices and I wish the very best for you.”

‘Be good to yourself’

Hesla recounted his favorite memories from Austin High: getting exactly one date during high school (prom) and his time singing with the Austinaires as well as playing for the school’s tennis team.

Using his own personal philosophy, “anything worth doing is worth doing imperfectly,” Hesla advised students to try all sorts of things and to go after things in life.

“Life has gone nowhere where I thought I’d be,” Hesla told students.

After high school, Hesla graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and worked in ecology from 1978 to 1985 in East Africa; southwestern United States; and northern  Mexico. From 1980 to 2002, he worked as a teacher at different levels from elementary education to high school to university and adult international studies.

What was different for Hesla was he had co-founded Bread for the Journey, which is a group that tours nationally to teach justice and ecology music to faith-based audiences. In 2010, Helsa co-founded Minnesota Community Sings, which promotes people joining their neighbors and friends in song.

Through his advocacy work, Hesla also focused on adults with developmental disabilities, using his singing and songwriting to shine spotlights on issues of civil rights for Advocating Change Together (ACT), a disability rights organization for which he had been a program developer since 2003. Helsa also coordinated the Heart of the Continent Partnership, which works with various officials to promote the health and sustainability of forests, lakes and towns along the Minnesota-Canada (Ontario) border.

For advice, Hesla shared that although there was a lot of division in society today regarding racism, sexism and homophobia, he wanted people to come together and work together to achieve change in their world.

“Pursue in seeking common ground,” he said. “Fill the corners and be good to yourself, trust your hands. …These are huge issues and we can make a difference together.”

Hesla closed out by singing a song he had co-written called “What We Do.”

“We know everyone is welcome, and every heart is true,” he sang. “We know every shape is equal where privilege can’t intrude. We know we are one great family and justice will shine through, but what we ‘know’ we don’t know till it’s what we do.