Forgetting and Remembering

Posted on March 30th, 2017 by

Yesterday would have been Steve Wilkinson’s 76th birthday.  And I forgot.  He would have been ok with that.

One of my favorite memories of Steve was his wandering the courts in the Swanson bubble with the list of all 100 campers’ names in his hands.  Learning the names somehow came easy to me, and that ticked him off.  (I would say, “Yeah, and your kicking my butt in tennis ticks me off.  I’ll trade you.”)  He would forget names and daily have to work really, really hard at it.  It’s one of the only things with Steve I ever saw that did not come easy.

He would often stop me and ask, “Ok, is that Sarah or is that Jennifer?”  I would say “Jennifer”.  He would say, “Thank you”, then go back to concentrating on his list.  It was sweet, it was funny, it was brave, it was incredible.  It was – in a word – beautiful.  He never gave up.  And it was important he knew everyone’s name.  Because he required us all to know them.  He knew that calling someone by name gave them something powerful.  It meant they were “known”.  He cared enough to know.

Though I forgot his birthday, strangely, all day long I was thinking of him.  Much more than normal.

People tell me all the time that Steve lives on in his book.  In his teachings.  In the people he loved.  In the legacy of Tennis & Life Camps.  In Gustavus tennis.

I’m sorry, that is not enough for me.  I miss laughing with him.  Arguing with him.  Learning from him.  Asking his advice.  Being exasperated by him.  Hugging him.  High-fiving him.

It’s not enough for me that he “lives on”.   I want him here.  And that’s not going to happen.  He used to practice the Serenity Prayer every day.  “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  And now I do.  Every day.  Not in a way that is attached to a particular religion.  In a way that is attached to all humanity, those who practice a religion and those who do not.

And here is where Steve and I would disagree: sometimes I cannot accept the things I cannot change.  Sometimes I cannot accept the fact that he is gone.  Sorry, there it is.  Call me a bad person, call me weak, call me stubborn, call me a fool.  But you cannot make acceptance happen.  You can work towards it, but you cannot force it.

But I realized this morning as I was lying in bed thinking about him, I still change the things I can, often thanks to him.

I practice what Steve taught me the most: the practical application of love.  Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk I often read, talks of one of the grounding principles of Buddhism:  our actions are our only possessions.  Steve, a practicing Lutheran, I thought of as a Zen Master (he was steeped in Eastern religion and was a World Religions professor at Gustavus before starting TLC in 1977).  He took the amorphous, dreamy wishes we all have when we say “I just want the world to have more love”, and put it into practical terms (Steve was nothing, if not practical), and said, “If you just want the world to have more love, then do it. Here’s how.”

We talk about love all the time.  Steve taught thousands of us it is not so complicated.  It is in our simple actions.  It is learning someone’s name.  It is carrying someone’s luggage.  It is eating a meal with a lonely camper and bringing them out of their shell by asking questions until you strike on the passion in their voice and the light in their eyes.  It is by high-fiving.  Anyone.  Anywhere.  It is by complimenting your opponent.  Even when they are cheating you.  It is in reaching out to your enemy.  Even when they may cut you off at the knees.  It is by calling out and doing something about injustice in the world.  Even if it might be unpopular to do so. It is by changing the only person you can.  Yourself.

So, no, Steve, today I do not accept a thing I cannot change.  You’re gone.  But I can change what I can.  And I will.  I will go relearn someone’s name that I forgot.

How Can I Contribute?



  1. Sarah Morris says:

    Neal, my thoughts are with you as you continue the grieving process for Steve. I know your path will take you towards healing.

    Thank you for shining your light and Steve’s for so many and for so long.

  2. Dick Baldner says:

    A great post Neal; and I really enjoyed reading all of the great comments. TLC is Truely a really “special” place and I am privileged to have been able to participate in it these past years. It’s had a big impact on me. I’m looking forward to attending again this spring – God willing and the creek don’t rise!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Dick. TLC wouldn’t be the same without you. I’m glad you’re coming back with the gang!

  3. Steve Jackson says:

    Like you Neal, truth be known many of us forgot Steve’s birthday. But I’d be sure to bet that thousands and thousands of us have thought of Steve day after day (and the values he instilled in us) not just throughout the past year but many years now since we first met him and learned his name.

  4. Barb says:

    Thank you, Neal! Steve was in my heart and mind yesterday, today, and will be there tomorrow.

  5. Linda LeClaire says:

    Thanks Neal! I love reading your posts. I love your honesty. You are very, very good at what you do! You are the perfect person to follow in Steve’s footsteps and keep alive the mission. TLC keeps getting better and better and better!

    We are all looking forward to seeing you and Barb at TLC this summer!

    Love is the answer…


    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Linda. Remember thirty years ago when I said I was done? Who would have guessed this would become my life’s work? It is the greatest privilege I can think of to help keep this thing going…

  6. Jennifer Kirby says:

    What a fantastic post. I can SO relate. I think that is one of the hardest things in life and maybe something that is ultimately impossible. But we can try.

    I’m so very glad I made it to TLC when Steve was still there. I remember him watching me practice my serve and he told me what an honor it was to watch me practice. What?! An honor to watch my crappy serve? To him, my effort was beautiful. And his appreciation made me feel worthy.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      You’re welcome. Actually, when I wrote the name Jennifer in the blog, you came to mind. You and your motley crew from Sioux Falls! 😉

  7. Rozan says:

    Great post and comments, as usual! Thanks, Neal and all!

  8. Alexa Drescher says:

    I needed this today. I love your words and I miss the camp. Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      You were one of the best campers ever! There is always family camp or adult camp next year ;). Good luck on graduation. Madeline is graduating, too. Exciting times!

  9. John Wilkinson says:


    I, of course, had thoughts of my brother yesterday, and I am appreciative of your writings today. I also used to challenge him about accepting the things we can not change, and then turn it to a competition of who is the “wise man”. I miss our good natured exchanges, and recognize now that I was the stubborn one, unwilling to change. Mistaking my stubbornness for giving full effort, my smile for good sportsmanship, and my imagination for a positive attitude, I had all the “three crowns”.

    Your story of Steve, and the importance of names is a good reminder to me that both you and he share wisdom, and I have a lot of remembering to do.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      John, you were a great challenger of Steve. Not many people even attempted it, and I loved it when you two went at it. You have your own wisdom in the challenges you presented. They were both legitimate and had their own wisdom, just as Steve’s had his. Looking forward to the next time we meet.

  10. Doug Fick says:

    Neal – you are an awesome writer! I’m pleased to say we had our two boys attend your camp and are better for it. Not only did Steve remember the names of the campers, but also greeted the parents by name. Wow. I have that serenity prayer as my one and only display item at work and relect on it often. Steve’s book is truly inspirational . I’m convinced – even though I hardly knew him – that he was indeed one of the finest human beings I have ever met. We are all blessed because of his selfless example. Neal, keep up the great work at TLC. You are creating your own unique and impressive legacy. I’m sure Steve is watching with a smile and enthusiasm as you continue to honor him and carry out his mission well after his passing. Well done.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Doug. I was actually talking with a tennis player friend of mine who asked me why I didn’t apply for a job that was out “there” in the tennis world. My face must have registered my incredulity, because he looked surprised at my answer. I said, “Why would I want to do that? I have the best job in the world.”

  11. Annette Reynolds says:

    hello remember me? this is Annette Reynolds I miss Steve also I remember my first camp and the last with tears of joy. I miss everyone at TLC especially Neal and Dan . Gifts come into our lives in different shapes and forms Steve to me was definitely one of Gods greatest gifts thanx to you Neal for keeping the Blogs coming

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Annette! How could we not remember you? TLC Camp Masseuse for over 20 years!! Thanks for checking in!

  12. Penny Greer says:

    Here’s what I would like to change

    TLC having one more adult camp so folks on
    both waiting lists and others could come!

    I am going to miss you all so much!!


  13. Penny Greer says:

    Here’s what I wish I could change – having one more adult camp this summer
    so more of the 2 waiting lists and others could come!!!

    I am going to miss all of you so much!!

    Penny Greer

  14. Doug Nimmo says:

    Wonderful, Neal. Many thanks.

  15. Darrell Schmidt says:

    After both of my sons attended GAC and played for Steve I wrote a poem honoring him that I presented to him at my final annual tennis awards banquet. It was titled ” Loving Boys into Men.” The gist of it was thanking him for his transformational powers to assist his players with mental, physical, and spiritual maturational development , and thus creating so many living legacies. Those living legacies are his former players that are showcasing Steve’s values, every day. In retrospect I think everyone who ever attended TLC is a living legacy for not only Steve but for those that have followed in his footsteps. That means you Neal and all of the present and former staff. Thanks for keeping the faith.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      this is beautiful, Darrell. Onward we all go, keeping the faith. Thanks.

      • Neal Hagberg says:

        And, by the way, your sons were incredible instructors for TLC, and even more powerful, incredible human beings…

  16. gretchen Koehler says:

    Yes March 29th Steve’s birthday i can not forget as it is my Mother’s birthday too we will always remember Steve and i will always remember my Mama

  17. Marcia Gilmer says:

    Your words, “I want him here. And that’s not going to happen.” show an acceptance, of sorts, of the very thing you say you cannot accept. I would argue that you do recognize it as fact but that it is very painful for you and by saying you cannot accept it, you leave the door open for it somehow not to be true. You are not bad, weak, stubborn or foolish. You are hurting and that, unfortunately, is part of The Deal. I applaud your moving forward with changing the things you can and your wisdom in recognizing your inability to accept something still very raw to you. Refusing to allow that to stop you from being loving, supportive and honest with all of us takes courage. Steve would be proud of you. I am, too.

  18. Derek says:

    This is a great post because it’s what I remember most about Wilk. I went to camp as a junior in high school and Wilk learned my name right away. I was impressed by that then. Then when I started attending Gustavus and would see him around campus he remembered my name.

    Wilk, TLC, and GAC made a big impact on my life.

  19. sven says:

    hey Neal……I have thought of Coach ………and miss him very much 🙂

  20. Meg Nixon says:

    Neal, great words.
    I must have been channeling Steve earlier this week…I was in my second happiest place on earth, first being any tennis court, anywhere, anytime 😊, skiing. I go into the rental shop and this nice team is taking care of fitting me with the perfect equipment and we are laughing and talking and when we got done I high fived everybody! They all looked a little surprised…they are also the ski valet for my friends home so at the start and end of each day they were there to take care of me. We walked in after a great day of skiing, I was walking back to the boot storage and Mike, the lead guy asks me “how was it up there?” And I high fived him and said “with skiing it’s ALWAYS good, can’t be bad”. Again he looked kinda surprised I high fived him and he got the biggest smile. Unconsciously I did that every morning and afternoon! By yesterday guys were bounding out to help me, calling me by name…what they didn’t realize I got more out it than them ❤️. Every time I could see a lift attendants name tag I always called them by name and they all look so surprised…

    TLC is making impact through love and respect with all campers, young and old (😡 Watch it😊). THANKS TO ALL OF YOU!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Wow, delightful and wise words from a confirmed troublemaker! I smiled all the way reading through that. Be careful, you’re going to spoil your reputation 😉