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I want to be like Bruce Kasden

Note: I’m a columnist for the Reader Weekly, an alt-weekly newspaper in Duluth, MN. Every Tuesday I post a new column.

“Make this thing good. I don’t want any of this Paul Ryan shit.”

That’s what professor Bruce Kasden was once rumored to have said about the Promethean, the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s student newspaper. I was ending my sophomore year, the newspaper was pathetic and tabloidish, and my column was the trashiest part of it.

Kasden graciously agreed to be advisor for the paper, despite being warned by every professor on campus that it would ruin his reputation. Kasden didn’t care. He saw kids who needed help. We needed an advisor to remain an official campus group and keep our funding, and Kasden was our last hope.

After a year under his guidance, the paper won second place in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s college division. The professors who told Kasden he was an idiot for helping us were now praising him. Kasden especially liked that part. There was nothing he loved more than watching mean people feel stupid. “You should’ve seen them,” he told the newspaper staff, chuckling and shaking his head. “You made them all look like fools.”

Kasden died on Oct. 17 of this year, at the age of 67. Despite my stolidness, I’m finding it difficult to hide my emotions today. I feel like JFK or John Lennon just died. Kasden had the same effect on people who knew him. From students to community members, he charmed us all and then changed us for the better.

Despite the initial quote in this column, he and I got along well. Bluntness was his specialty, but he made sure you knew he meant well. In Kasden’s speech class during my freshman year, he would regularly call me out when I acted like an idiot. One time I was subtly flirting with a girl next to me when he stopped in mid-sentence, glared at me, and in that great booming voice of his, shouted, “The lesson is up here, Mr. Ryan, and it has nothing to do with girls or sex!”

What kind of professor says that? A smart one. I was humiliated in front of a class of 60 people, and my attention span was never a problem again. Over the years, Kasden and I grew fairly close. I still wrote my column in the paper, but I also started writing hard news, eventually becoming a top reporter and taking over as editor.

Old Uncle Brucey taught me that making people laugh doesn’t matter if you don’t have class. If you earn a person’s respect, you can be as gutsy as you want with your comedy and nobody can touch you. Earn the laughs and the respect, and your unique way of doing things will be protected. Why do you think I still have this column in the Reader Weekly despite all the angry letters?

That lesson was followed by Kasden himself. His unorthodox method of treating students as friends and equals couldn’t be criticized if his students were kicking ass. And they always were. When UWS went through its ridiculous “You have to have a doctorate to be a good professor” phase, Kasden only agreed to step down because of his bad health. Otherwise they couldn’t have touched him. His students wouldn’t have allowed him to be kicked around. He was our guy, one of us.

I’m not old enough to have known Kasden when he was young, but it’s clear he always did things his way. Often he’d tell us stories in class about his life, his travels and his adventures. Many of those tales are not fit for print, but they were inspiring and fascinating. We were college students in the prime of our lives, yet we were all jealous of a man in his late-fifties.

“Travel when you’re young,” he once said. “You’ll have plenty of time for steady work when you get back.” I took his advice and moved to California, and I’m happier for it. He taught me that life is about more than climbing a ladder to sit at the top. Have some fun along the way, he said, and don’t worry so much about your speed. The view will be just as nice.

 14 Responses to “I want to be like Bruce Kasden”

  1. Bec says:

    May he RIP. I wish I could have known him.

  2. Dennis says:

    Nicely done, Paul.

    Oh, for the record…the only reason you still have a column in the Reader is not because you have class or talent or have earned respect. It’s because you’re not ugly. Just thought we’d clear the air or any confusion that may have been the case.

    Oh, stop it. I’m kidding. I think.

  3. Paul says:

    Thank God you’ve never seen me in person. Photoshop does wonders.

  4. 8berse6 says:

    You still don’t have any respect and what kind of person of class makes jokes about ass-groves?

  5. farsi says:

    Good words, Paul.

    I think Dennis is hitting on you.

  6. Dennis says:

    I don’t hit on straight guys.

  7. Yvette says:

    Sorry about your professor, Paul. Sixty seven is too young these days. Obviously he left his mark on you and many others and that is a special thing!

  8. jbw says:

    uncle bruce’s hot sales tips! he knew what he was talking about. i wish i could have said thank you.

  9. Justin P. says:

    I dont know if I should feel like a fool – or lucky to have known Bruce.

    Bruce has been a friend of my family since before I was born.
    My younger brother and I spent a couple weeks each summer with he and his mom in Moose Lake…. We only visited 2 or 3 times – but as you obviously know — Uncle Brucee was quite influential.

    Our father left when we were young.. Bruce was glad to reach out to us – if only for a few weeks of our lives.

    Bruce was intimidating, yet youthful and fun. While visiting him – we were allowed to act like fools – but act without respect … like a drill seargent he would quickly bring you back to earth.

    The first time we visited – our mom carefully packed our suitcases. Upon arriving at his place he gave each of us white canvas duffle bags!@!!… dumped all our shit in the bags … step one of making us men I guess…. ha!! I still have it.

    I could carry on and on with stories of our times with Bruce — I could have you all in tears… laughing your asses off……… quite a character – quite a man.

    In reference to my “fool” remark…………… over the years as time began to control my life in persuit of that success or perhaps just while focusing on my family, my contact with Bruce was sporatic at best. I did get to see him a few years ago, proud he was able to meet my wife, daughter and son. I only wish I made more of an effort for them to get to know him as uncle Bruce.

    Paul – thank you for the article, I am glad to know he influenced so many more people.

    Thank you Bruce… thank you.

  10. Kim says:


    I met Bruce while working at UWS back in 1992….

    You may not believe this but I loss contact with Bruce a few years back…marraige, moving, and two kids….life got busy….

    At the end of last year I started thinking about him and ask around if any one knew his location…his phone and mailing address in moose lake were no longer available / hooked up.

    I did an online search in the yellow pages thinking he may have moved….I wish I would have just googled him like I did today….I truely did not know he had died. He will always be a true friend…distance and lack of contact never took that away.

    Do you know his burial site…I would like to say Hi…..

    take care and thank-you for your kind words about a wonderful man…!!!!


  11. Emery Thibodeau says:

    It is with sadness that I read of the passing of my very good friend Bruce, I have known Bruce since I worked for him at his Enco Gas station in Glendale, California, this was back in 1962. We have stayed pretty much in contact all these years up until about 2005 when he came to Colorado Springs to visit my wife and I for a few days. It was a great visit, we ate and drank alot and went to the top of Pikes Peak. I visited him in Moose Lake several times, the last time being around 2001. We rode motorcycles, went to UWS where he showed me around and sat and talked a lot. He visited me in Alaska a couple of times in the 70’s and I have some great memories of those trips.

    Can anyone tell me where he is buried, I’d like to visit? Is his brother Kenny still living?

    Thank you for making this web site available and bringing back a lot of good memories, I am sad though that we won’t be seeing Bruce again.

    Emery Thibodeau, Box 2026, Kenai, Alaska 99611

  12. Marie Casey Stevens says:

    The first class I attended at UW-S was a 7-10pm Comm 100 course of Bruce’s. Nothing could have set the tone for my college years the way those first three hours did, and when news came to me in Cleveland that he passed away I realized for the first time what “prostrate with grief” means.

    Bruce and I became close friends during my first year in Superior. He invited me to teach Comm 110 with him, an incredible experience I will NEVER forget, but I don’t think I can list the ways he changed my life.

    When I was in college, I was undiagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and due to traumatic events while I was in college developed severe social anxiety disorder. While some find it tragic that I had to drop out about a semester before I would have graduated, anyone with that mental pedigree knows the real math at work. Without Bruce’s help, I never would have made it that long…or as close to “all in one piece” as I did.

    He helped me overcome a nightmarish end to an engagement. Later, he set me up with the man I’d marry. The lessons he taught me helped me deal with the divorce and find both the love and the life I wanted. Unfortunately, in the brief time we lost touch he passed away. I wish I could have been there, but I was using the skills he taught me to keep my own stepdaugther from her own implosion. I know he would have told me to do what I was doing, but I also had a knack for driving Bruce crazy…and that’s why I had to say somewhere that he’s one of the best men I’ve ever known.

  13. Cathrine Estar says:

    Paul, thank you for this article. Bruce so loved his students, teaching, and helping people find their way in life. His whole being lite up when he shared stories of his teaching years. Bruce was the first person I met when I moved to LA in 1968. He was a friend of my husband, and became a friend, and Uncle Bruce to my entire family. He treasured

  14. Fred Heinrichs says:

    Uncle Bruce or the "Great Kasden" was surely unique and touched many lives, not the least my family and especially my kids. Living in Arizona we only got to see him occasionally but it was always fun. His irreverant wit and coarse language made him who he was but you couldn't ask for a more loyal friend. We shared lots of projects, stories and good times. Unforgetable no doubt. we still talk fondly of him.

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