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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, July 31, 2009


BJ Rolfzen 2008; photographer uncredited at

I'm very sorry to learn of the death of Boniface J. Rolfzen, Bob Dylan's high-school English teacher for two years in the 1950s. He was born in April 1923 and died, aged 86, on Wednesday. He retired from teaching only in 1985, and until recent illness required him to live in a nursing home, he and his wife Leona lived on East 24th Street in Hibbing MN.

My own encounters with Mr. Rolfzen were limited but memorable (on my side, anyway). He came to my talk in Hibbing Public Library in April 2001, and though he wasn't one of those who came up and spoke to me afterwards, I heard later that he had delivered a most complimentary verdict about it; and then on March 24, 2007, arriving in Hibbing for lunch at Zimmys on the bus trip to the town organised as an optional extra for speakers at the Dylan Symposium organised by the University of Minnesota, I was among those who met and chatted to both BJ and his wife. By then I had been able to send him a copy of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, and in return he gave me, and inscribed, a copy of his self-published The Spring of My Life: a memoir of growing up in a small town in central Minnesota during the Great Depression years 1923-1941.

I respected him greatly, and only this spring on my tour of Bob Dylan & the Poetry of the Blues talks I was enthusing about his contribution to Dylan's strikingly early self-confidence in and around English and American Literature.

"Alex from Grand Rapids Minnesota" (here), reports that BJ told her this about when Dylan was in his class: “Robert was shy. I can see him coming through the door of classroom 204. I remember it distinctly because he was always doing the same thing. He always came in to class alone. He always sat in the same chair, three seats from the door in the first row. Right under my nose for two years.”

Got to get up near the teacher if you can, if you wanna learn anything...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

B.J. struck me as a fine man. In the summer of '06 i was visiting Hibbing and - at his invitation, not my solicitation - he invited me over. Lived right around the corner from the Zimmerman home. Across from Hibbing high school. He was waiting for me in his driveway, took me into his basement study and spent a couple of hours reminiscing. Told me about seeing Bob the previous year at an in laws funeral, and Dylan said to him "You taught me well". Also said that Robert was very quiet - and like the song said, always sat up close to him.
B.J.'s wife offered me cookies and we were later visited by Leroy, one of Bob's first drummers in a band called the Golden Chords who said " I hear there is a fan in town". Such examples of midwestern friendliness!
Last thing i remember B.J. saying : "Good to meet someone who isn't making a documentary".
One of my more memorable afternoons.

5:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the last four years I have been a regular at Dylan Days in Hibbing, and always looked forward to seeing B.J. This year I learned he was hospitalized with pneumonia and the prognosis was not good.

From those I met in Hibbing, it was clear that he had a tremendous influence on his students, and their appreciation of literature and the humanities. Even more important, he was such a wonderful role model for appreciating life.

I'll never forget his comment about "Not Dark Yet," and how it captured how he felt. He quoted the song:

I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

It looks like it's now dark, and those who knew and loved him have lost a light in their lives.

1:44 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


8:48 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...


And to both Anonymice, thank you: good stuff. I was told by someone who knew BJ well over the last few years that those around him tut-tutted at his saying 'Not Dark Yet' was his favourite Dylan song. They said he should have preferred something more "positive" like 'Forever Young'. But first of all I think an 86-year-old man was entitled to not feel forever young, and to say so - and anyway 'Not Dark Yet' is, as he knew, much the better of the two songs.

2:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel moved reading this today. Very poignant and honouring-the profound significance of real teachers. This teacher taught someone,who through his words from when I first heard them when I was 15 has been a teacher to me.
And yes, Michael I agree with much of what you write about Bob Dylan's flaws and bad habits

7:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some very nice tributes to a wonderful man.Like many I sat around his dining table and went down to the basement.Mr and Mrs Rolfzen were very generous with their time and always welcomed wanderers in Hibbing. He showed me the copy of the "Encylopedia" you inscribed for him and he really appreciated the word 'homage'.

7:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

His love for life, his family, friends and the beauty nature had to give will forever make an impression on my life. From someone who knew him very well.

8:13 am  

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