It Takes a Village – In Honor of Steve Wilkinson

Posted on January 21st, 2016 by

One year ago today, Steve died. I have spent the year in mourning. And talking to him. And hearing him answer me back.

On the opening night of last weekend’s TLC Winter Retreat Camp, I spoke with the kids about my friendship with Steve and how the mission of TLC continues on through all of us. I told the kids I still talk with Steve all the time. And he answers me. Whenever I need advice, I ask him what I should do. He always smiles and says, “Be yourself. Do not try to be someone else. And go with your strengths. It’s the only way it will work.” That advice is how the retreat camps started five years ago. When I address the campers, I say what I believe: Every single person in this room has something unique to add to the conversation. You have something no one else can give. If we respect that and put all of our uniqueness together, we just might find some answers.

We just finished the second of three retreat camps, bringing together urban and rural 8th graders on full scholarship to have a ball – ok, bad pun – on court learning tennis, singing, and watching goofy skits on sportsmanship. And to having difficult dialogue on privilege in our society, to become more aware of – and then work to change, using the Three Crowns of positive attitude, full effort, and good sportsmanship – the institutions and systems that keep many in our society from experiencing equality.


Some kids arrived without rackets. One girl arrived without shoes. Many – in sub-zero temperatures – only had a light sweatshirt to keep “warm”.   Not by choice, as would be the case with my own teenaged daughter, but because they do not own a coat. This is the reality of a lot of people in the world. In our country. In our city. And, it is the reality for some of you, in your neighborhood or your own life.

Some people have said to us it is not TLC’s job to bring these things up. “You are a tennis camp.” And then we look at a child without shoes through no fault of her own, who wants to play tennis and think, how can we not?

One girl from the city spoke matter-of-factly about shootings in her neighborhood as if it was as normal and reasonable as weekly bridge club. She is 13.

A rural girl told me flat out she was not smart. Because that is what she has been told. This kid has the most imaginative, creative mind, and added insights to the group that had the other kids clapping.

We hear stories of what it is like to be handcuffed as an 8th grader at the mall for a mistake the clerk made by not taking off the tag of a legally bought shirt. And how this was not unusual for the kids of color in the room, but unheard of to those of us with white skin. Or how one of our TLC staff of color returned to his locker when he was in high school school to find a racist epithet written on his locker. These things had not happened to the white students.


We talk about how girls are 43% of all sports participants in this country and get 3% of the media coverage. (That is not a typo). We discuss some of the things boys and men say to girls and women on the street, in school, in the business world, in songs, on the tennis court, that would never be allowed said in the reverse.

We talk about Billie Jean King, who, in her fight for equal rights for girls, was asked, “Why don’t you fight for the rights of boys, too?” and answered, “I spend my time fighting for girls because they are underserved. If boys were underserved, that’s where I would spend my time. But they’re not.”

The same can be said for race, or sexual orientation, or religion.

Then we try to figure out ways the Three Crowns can help address unjust systems. We don’t have all the answers. Or many. Because it is so complex. But we do believe we have the responsibility to try and we have a tool to use.


At the end of the retreat, the kids wrote thank you notes to the instructors and to the three individual donors/families who sponsored the camp (Gratitude is what our entire camp is based on). Each camper was asked to write three. One girl shyly asked me for help, as she was not sure how to construct a thank you note. She wanted to write all three donors. We worked on the notes together. When she finished, I said she had completed the task, so she was done. She said, “Can I try it by myself now? Now I want to write the instructors.” So she did. She put her head down and went at it.

When camp broke and she was leaving, this girl, who had not spoken in the large group sessions, who is facing huge obstacles just getting to school in the morning, let alone getting to college, on the way out the door gave the instructors big hugs, and as she passed me she stopped and said, “Please tell Steve ‘Hi’ from me.


Steve knew it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a village to snuff out the light of a child. It will take a village – our entire society looking deeply at itself – to light that light again.

Hi, Steve. I miss you. And thank you.

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  1. Amy Braun Steinhauser says:

    You realize, of course, that you, Neal, are now “the Steve” for a whole new generation, nay, generations, of players. What a delightful gift, one that can only be paid forward! as I have no doubt you do every day, in his honor.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I was just having lunch today with Mike Senescall, TLC’s National Advisory Board Chair, and we both talked about how lucky we are to be caretakers and stewards of this mission. It is our job now, but in 15 years it will be someone else’s job, because we all “own” TLC collectively. Gave me shivers to think about us all owning it. Thanks for your kind comments. I love my job :).

  2. Erik Allen ('92) says:


    The retreat camp was excellent for the student that Susan encouraged to attend. Not only did she learn a lot about herself but it appears that she returned home with renewed interest in the game. Sunday afternoon she asked to go over and watch Jackson at the L3 tournament in Lakeville before being dropped off at home. Thanks for all you do at TLC!

  3. Jim Donehower says:

    Thank you, Neal. The TLC example is a continuing opportunity to be both challenged and inspired (they are different, you know . . . ) to be one’s best self. The environment that the Wilkinsons (and you and the whole staff) have created and now sustain is something special and important.

  4. Laura Riness says:

    Beautifully written, Neil. I know Coach made an impact on Mason even in the short amount of time they worked together. What an amazing man. I also want to thank you for asking Mason to be a part of TLC. It has been life changing for him, and we as his family are changed as well through him. The mission of TLC is great…all of it. Please keep going with your amazing work. Lives are being changed!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Mason is an amazing man in his own right. What a privilege to have him on staff. He made a powerful impact on the kids at the retreat.

  5. Jillayne Pinchuk (1991 Gustavus Grad) says:

    Hi Neal,

    Thank you for keeping us updated on all the positive things that Steve has inspired. For our part in Dubuque, IA, we have started a tennis program with the Boys & Girls Club. Our daughters, Lauren (16) and Allie (15), both TLC grads, and I reached out to the Boys & Girls Club and began teaching middle schoolers the basics of tennis. Through sportsmanship, camaraderie and positive attitudes, the kids are learning to appreciate our love of the game. It’s something that I learned back in 8th grade (30+ years ago) during my first TLC camp. If you love something, the effort is worth it to share. Our company, Hirschbach Motor Lines, purchased the racquets that the kids will “earn” by completing a series of lessons. The goal is to have kids be able to go out to the courts with their friends and practice on their own, eventually, hopefully, trying out for the team in senior high. We need to see more kids of color out there with racquets in their hands, heading to the courts. It builds strong neighborhoods, strong schools and a strong community. Thanks, Steve, for providing the inspiration!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      What a beautiful way to spread a message that is powerful for every religion, race, gender, or orientation. So glad to hear this!

  6. Les Zellmann says:

    Neal- Our kids had a great time at the TLC retreat. If not for this special opportunity, they would not have access to a “lifetime” experience that provides maturing growth for a positive future.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I’m so glad to hear this. Your kids are great and the program you are running in St. James is phenomenal. I have learned much from you as a person and coach.

  7. Sarah Morris says:

    What an inspirational way to carry Steve’s legacy forward! Thank you, Neal

  8. Gaylon Rust says:

    Great Blog Neal! A very good reminder to let love serve on and off the court. Great to hear of the success of the retreats.

  9. John Whitmer says:

    Has it been a year already? Although there may be a few folks out there somewhere whose integrity, spirit and accomplishments combine to his level there surely aren’t many. In my book he set the gold standard for character. And, hey, I’ve never played tennis and don’t know a thing about it.

    Thanks for the posted photo and commentary.

  10. Joe Walz says:

    Ahhh…the Three Crowns. I try to use them every day and am grateful to Steve and to Neal for the work they have done to make the world a better and happier place. I pray for the wisdom and courage to do my part and to be grateful for how much you have touched my life

  11. Deborah Wilkinson Sundal says:

    Thank you Neal. As I read your blog at the end of the work day, I am sitting at my desk and looking at a picture of me and my dad. I have tears of sadness mixed with tears of joy running down my face because by reading your blog, I just got to spend a moment with him. Thank you for your words, vision, execution and impact. And thank you for the outstanding job that you, and the entire TLC staff, do/does to carry on and expand the mission of TLC. You are all a gift to our family.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I was having many conversations today with others about how your dad’s words to me both before and since he died are always full of grace and acceptance. And you are so much like your dad in that regard. Thank you.

  12. Sheryl Bjork says:

    Great post, Neal–thank you.

  13. Sven says:

    love & peace friends …..

  14. Dr Dan Halvorsen says:

    Wilk continues to be an inspiration for all of us to “notch-it-up-a-bit”!
    Thanks Neal for the remembrance and reminders…we can all do better!

    Smiling from down “here” …to Wilk up there! As we Oles say… Fram Fram!


  15. Michael Hom says:

    Beautifully written, Neal. I miss Coach daily as well. Next to my parents, he is one of the most important influences in my life. I cannot think of how many different ways his teachings and mentorings affect my actions on a daily basis. A true Teacher.

  16. Wes Weleczki says:

    Thank you Neal. Truly excellent reminders that have given me pause.

  17. Sara Green says:

    Fantastic article. Your writing always brightens my day and gives me something to ponder. It occurred to me as I was reading this piece that many of us talk to Steve frequently. He’s busier now than he ever was, with all of us chatting him up and asking for his advice! But somehow I doubt that he minds. The retreat camps are a great testament to TLC’s mission and Steve’s vision. I’m so grateful that the kids can have such a positive, life-affirming experience.

  18. Lindsey says:

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Thank you.

  19. Jennifer Kirby says:

    Neal, as I read this, I’m sitting next to my mom on her deathbed. If she passes today, it would only be fitting that it happened on the anniversary of Steve’s passing. She was like him in her own way and touched so very many people through her work as a musician and teacher. During the last month, students from decades ago have written to her. Two custodians from the school where she used to work sent her flowers. How many custodians are known so well by a speech pathologist that three years post retirement, they send her flowers?

    I love how you are carrying forward Steve’s legacy. When my mom and Steve meet in heaven soon, they will realize that they are kindred spirits.

    Thanks again. Your timing was perfect with this post. Sending much love your way.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Sending love your way, Jennifer. Thank you for taking time to share about your mom. You’re a lucky daughter.

  20. Greg says:

    Thank you Neal for letting us be a part of the retreat, the kids are still talking about it and their parents are very thankful too!

  21. Kare Mann says:

    So many tears! Thanks, Neal. As always, perfect for the day.

  22. Marc Miller says:

    Awesome article Neal – thanks!