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John Lamb, Published March 20 2010

Teachers get lessons from flood

"I really blew it this year," Jim Papacek said Thursday, standing in his driveway.

With a wet fall and a snowy winter, the resident of Fargo’s South River Road prepared for the impending spring flood by renting an apartment for three months.

Last year, when the neighborhood, between the Red River and Fifth Street and 13th and 17th Avenues South, was forced to evacuate, Papacek rented a hotel room so he could clean up after the sewer was shut down.

But with the crest predicted to come in below his 40-foot backyard berm, Papacek was feeling pretty confident Thursday.

Papacek has lived in the house since 1973 and has fought a number of floods.

With each year and each flood, the former biology teacher learns a different lesson both from Mother Nature and sometimes even former students.

“The one that always gets me was in 1997,” he said, his normally soft voice already starting to get even quieter. “We were fighting bad.”

After volunteers helped finish sandbagging, he stood up on the dike (“my Napoleonic moment,” he said smiling) and thanked the volunteers for saving his house.

A young woman approached and put her arm around him and said, “It’s payback time, Mr. P.”

It’s a story he’s told before, but he still gets teary recalling it.

“I went in the house, told my wife and had a good cry,” he said. His wife, Patricia, is a former French teacher at Fargo South.

But it bothered him that he didn’t recognize the former student. He went through old photos and yearbooks, but couldn’t identify the mysterious volunteer.

He expressed his frustration to a teacher friend who told him not to try to find the person.

“Just think of her as all your students,” the friend advised.

The North Dakota Teacher of the Year in 1983, Papacek is now retired but still misses teaching kids.

Papacek was again thankful this year when students rolled through the normally quiet neighborhood Wednesday morning and finished fortifying all the backyards with sandbag levees.

“It just jacks you up,” neighbor Dan Holm, a former choir and orchestra teacher in West Fargo, said about seeing students coming to work.

“The students don’t recognize the personality of a teacher until they get older.”

Holm has seen his share of former students help out, which makes him believe he’s made an impact.

“You like to believe you’re teaching them character and compassion,” Holm said.

Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533