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Caring and compassion are hallmark of longtime teacher, coach

CLOQUET -- It's not unusual for Dave Otterson to greet you with a hug.

"Mr. Otterson," as most of Carlton and St. Louis counties know him, is good at making a person feel comfortable. Some even call it safe.

He recalled being complimented once by a parent who told him, "My daughter felt safe in your classroom."

"I said, 'Thank you, thank you.' I didn't really know how to take it," he said, before acknowledging it as one of the most endearing things he's been told about himself.

An elementary teacher in the Cloquet district for 32 years, and now a part-time aquatics instructor educator at the University of Wisconsin-Superior in the Health and Human Performance program, Otterson is a 66-year-old dynamo of positivity. It's what's lacking in the world today, he said -- positive reinforcement in an age of vitriol and picking one another apart. He combats this with a well of good will. He basically rejects cell phones (sometimes at the slight irritation of his family), favoring human contact instead. He tells his grandchildren stories, rich and meaningful family stories as well parables, some of which he's learned in sermons as a converted and devout Catholic. He believes in the power of a story to tie his connections to people tightly and securely. He was humbled to be the subject of this story. The interview was a two-way street, with him asking as many questions as he answered.

"I have 'face-look' instead of Facebook; I have 'eye-mail' instead of email," he said. "I tell my students I'll help them any way I can."

Otterson doesn't let his ever-changing crop of 25-30 aquatics instructors view their grades in a student portal online. Rather, he visits with each student at the end of the semester individually, explaining the grades. His is a life of tendrils, reaching out in many directions, touching countless people through his time in education. He graduated from Cloquet and can see his 50th class reunion on the horizon. He got his master's degree at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He is a prophet of Red Cross swimming education, and has devoted much of his life to the pool deck, both as a diver, swim coach, aquatics instructor and meet official. He admires the current Cloquet-Esko-Carlton prep swimming program, believing Coach Stacia Grayson to have turned a corner from building swimmers to racers.

"I swam," he said. "I didn't race. I was good enough to be happy. CEC is going to be good. The technique these days is unbelievable."

He broke into a story about the history of how humans came to swim. They couldn't. Then they could.

"They got smart," he said. "They took kicks from the dolphin ... the frog; they adapted to be an aquatic creature -- for food, for escape from predators ..."

As Cloquet Community Education's head aquatics instructor for 20 years, Otterson taught many things, but his poolside illustration of the frog kick that forms the base of the breaststroke was a revelation for a young swimmer -- some of whom grew up with frog ponds in their backyards. By the time he dove in to illustrate its application in the water, the education was so crystal clear it was no surprise to see his high school teams excelled in the stroke.

Otterson's respect for the outdoors, and water in particular, is deep. He laments that lifejackets are often thought of as a nuisance to be worn on the back of the boat chair and says professional fishermen -- his psychologist son once one of them -- ought to set a better example. He kayaks, his latest love, as often as he can at his home on Big Lake, where he lives with his longest love -- his wife of 40 years, Marcia. They raised two daughters and a son, all of whom are raising families of their own in Minnesota.

In many ways, he raised a generation of swimmers and students, too. He doesn't go anywhere unnoticed or un-encountered. He enjoys these moments, ones that allow him to hug, make eye contact and human connection. A twin brother to now deceased Dean, they grew up adopted by Harold and Esther Otterson -- warm and caring people. It was his brother who was curious about their birth family. It was his brother who sought that connection, one Dave treaded into more lightly to a positive and lasting effect. This is a theme running through his life. He has never had to go far from Cloquet to satisfy his curiosities. He and Marcia have visited Arizona, but he wouldn't think about retiring there and miss the family here, the outdoors and all its wealth of charms and activities. Even as a swimming and diving official for the past 27 years he has resisted working the state meet -- content to work and marvel at modern pools in places like Grand Rapids and Duluth.

"I do section meets," he said. "I get asked to work the state meet and I've been there when I was coaching, but I've never followed through."

Not surprisingly, Otterson likes to dance. He's even modern in his own way, in that while he may not text you he will work to understand all the modern bits about you. At meets, jewelry and all manners of piercings have become a source of mild contention on the pool deck.

"I call it [sic] 'cranial accessories,'" he said. "They pierce everything from the neck up." He's OK with that. He won't rant and rave about it like a Morgan Freeman character going to Las Vegas, but he will enforce it if a swimmer thinks he or she is going to leave the starting block with a post in the tongue.

Otterson can be amusing and is always alert to amusement. He believes humor is the heart of human connection. He takes it as a personal rite to bring the stern-faced man-in-the-street to crack a smile.

He often tells the story of a hermit who was delivered a box of chocolates with a note saying "I love you." This brought the hermit out of his shell and into town, seeking the author of the note until the letter carrier admits delivering the box to the wrong house. The hermit crumples the note and retreats into his protective shell.

Would Otterson have followed protocol and taken back those chocolates?

"No," he said, still contemplating. "No. I don't think so."

Otterson began teaching in 1969, during a now unthinkable age of corporeal punishment. He was quick to abide more heartfelt sensibilities.

"Kids need constant positive feedback," he said. "There's a saying, 'God didn't make junk.' Kids make poor decisions, but there's worth in everybody."

If you ever came into Mr. Otterson's orbit you would know he wasn't afraid to ask you to confront your mistakes, your errors in judgment. But the conversation might end up with him telling you to go take care of that cold with one of Esther's mustard plasters.

"A nurse is an angel," he said, and you can just imagine him being profoundly impacted as a young boy wearing a piece of cheese cloth surrounding a slice of mustard-spread bread on his chest.

"It works!" he said.

It's a story he tells. A story from a life wrapped in hugs.