“At Random” column for June 23, 2013

Remember Marvin Berteau?

I had written about Marvin last week, in a Father’s Day column about the power of parental support when times get tough. In 1967, as he was floundering in a youth baseball game, Marvin’s son Paul was sustained by hearing his father’s words of encouragement over the boos in the crowd.

When Marvin died at age 87 last month, Paul talked about the long-ago baseball game at his father’s funeral, and how the experience had shaped his understanding of unconditional love. Marvin taught Paul a big lesson that night — one of many that Marvin, a resident of Ponchatoula, would give his five children over the years.

Like all truly gifted teachers, Marvin was also a great learner. I discovered Marvin’s special talent some 30 years ago, as a young reporter sent to write about him.

Some French tourists were crossing the country, and during their stay at a campground near Ponchatoula, they were told to go make friends with Marvin. He was, after all, fluent in French.

I was on hand as the visitors and Marvin got together, and they complimented him on his technical command of Parisian dialect. I watched as Marvin switched effortlessly between English and French, smiling as he made a cheerful connection with newfound companions.

Nothing remarkable about any of this, except that Marvin hadn’t studied French in school.

An office manager at a local auto parts store, Marvin hadn’t made it to college. He had, in fact, learned Parisian French mostly by checking out materials on the subject at the local library and teaching himself.

And he did it for fun.

For Marvin, knowledge was never a form of pride or superiority; there was nothing about him that was the least bit pretentious or vain. He loved learning for the sheer pleasure of it, and his interests ranged widely.

Marvin frequented his local library, along with a university library not far away. During his years at the auto parts store, he’d often spend his lunch hours in the quiet of his parked car, eating his meal, reading and listening to the radio.

In later years, as a retiree, Marvin blogged, opened a Twitter account and took an online course on the Constitution. He loved to sing and play the harmonica, skills that were also largely self-taught.

“Learning was my dad’s window on the broader world,” his son Charles told me.

I’ve been thinking about Marvin in these days of summer, a season when so many students rejoice at being out of school, away from the grind of having to learn.

But Marvin knew that learning, properly understood, wasn’t something to run from; it was the best way to connect with something larger than yourself — and find joy in the bargain.

Or so I was reminded at Marvin’s funeral, when his grandson Stefan stood up and shared the tale of Marvin’s connection with those French tourists decades ago.

It was fitting, of course, that Stefan told the entire story in flawless French.