ROCK FALLS – Longtime teacher Doug Hand and a doll named Elwood set out on a journey to teach kids to dream big. Along the way, their success likely surpassed Hand’s wildest dreams.
As the community mourned the loss of Hand, who died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday, they still managed to revel in the improbable story of a wildly creative educator who almost by accident made himself and a 4-foot, 4-inch doll iconic figures on an international scale. But even in the last weeks of his life, Hand tried to deflect attention from himself.
As Hand’s illness progressed, the community became more adamant about the need to publicly celebrate the adventures of Doug and Elwood. When approached about stories, Hand politely and appreciatively declined community and media requests. He instead sent Elwood on a whirlwind solo tour, making stops throughout the community. The journey never went off course – it was always about Elwood and the kids whose lives were impacted.
Former students John and Bob Watts, both of Rock Falls, visited Hand a couple of weeks ago to convey their thanks. Three Watts brothers and a sister, DeAnna Mulvaney, all spent time in Hand’s classroom. John Watts said he spoke to Hand that day about the many people wanting to see public tributes.
“He said, ‘I never did it for recognition or publicity; I did it for my kids,’” Watts said. “He said, ‘Do what you want when I’m gone,’ but he just didn’t want the attention.”
John Watts said the impact Hand had on his family was immense. He and his siblings now have children who have been touched by Hand’s message. Watts recalled a day when his stepdaughter, then 8, came home from school with a giddy exuberance.
“She had Mr. Hand as a substitute teacher, and she couldn’t have been more excited,” Watts said. “She had never met him before, and he had made that kind of impression on her in just one day.”
Denise Gallardo, LD/resource room teacher at Merrill Elementary School, worked with Hand at both Merrill and Thome Elementary during her 36 years with District 13. She said his sense of humor and creativity taught free thinking and offered students different types of learning experiences.
“He loved old movies, and so did I,” Gallardo said. “He turned kids on to the Stooges and Marx Brothers. He also loved big band music. He started a lot of funny, goofy things that the kids just loved.”
Gallardo said the Easter egg drop became a classic every spring.
“The kids had to figure out how to wrap up a raw egg so it wouldn’t break when it was dropped out of a window,” she said.
Hand’s wit and humor were gifts that often allowed students to learn without even realizing it.
“His students appreciated his sense of humor,” Merrill School Principal Kyle Ackman said. “He engaged kids with it while still making boundaries clear. He was fair and quick to give kids recognition for something well done.”
Ackman said Hand’s eagerness to go the extra mile spoke volumes about his character.
“If you needed supervisory help, all you had to do was call up to room 26,” Ackman said. “If a teacher wasn’t feeling well, he’d be the first to offer to do playground duty in the cold.”
In addition to being a jokester, Hand was artistically gifted. When Gallardo had to write a children’s book while working on her master’s degree, Hand did the illustrations.
“I joked with him about starting an Elwood book series, and that I’d be his agent,” Gallardo said.
All jokes aside, Elwood presented commercial potential commensurate with his icon status. Watts said that was never part of the Elwood mission.
“There was plenty of opportunity for enterprise, but Doug was never interested,” Watts said.
When Hand said he was taking a group of students to Hungary with Elwood, Gallardo remembers thinking about what a huge responsibility that would be. But he didn’t think twice about it.
“It’s so cool they had the kind of opportunity that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” Gallardo said.
Rock Falls Mayor Bill Wescott and Hand grew up in the same neighborhood. They maintained a close relationship as adults. The mayor’s wife, Linda, has been a school nurse with District 13 for 27 years and worked with Hand when they both were at Thome School.
Linda went on the trip to Hungary because the district wanted a nurse there with the seven children in the group. Wescott said Hand always called that trip Elwood’s greatest adventure. Hand also made sure it taught the kids valuable lessons.
“The kids knew there would be a random drawing because only seven of them could go on the trip,” Wescott said. “Everyone took part in the fundraisers, and then there was a big assembly to announce who was going. Doug wanted them to have a grasp of doing things for the greater good.”
Wescott said that although Hand was very personable, he also was quiet by nature.
“He didn’t want to be in the limelight; he supported people behind the scenes.”
Wescott said he was lucky to see the teacher’s more outgoing side at their Optimist Club activities.
“He was in his element there,” Wescott said. “He could connect once again with the kids. He had an amazing memory, and all the nuances were there in his interactions. He would still tell kids things like, ‘You always wore the wrong socks to school.’”
Bob Watts was in Hand’s classroom when Elwood made his academic debut in 1980. He remembers the buzz it created when Hand said there was a new student.
“Then he walks in with Elwood,” Watts said. “Everybody just looked at each other and didn’t know what to think.”
Watts said Hand then told the students what Elwood stood for, having no idea how many times that message would be repeated.
“He told us that all of you have a dream and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something – life is what you make it,” Watts said.
Watts has gone on to teach his four children many of Hand’s lessons. Two of his kids also had Hand as a teacher.
“Mr. Hand was old-school,” Watts said. “He was big on respect. I try to teach my kids to respect parents, teachers, other kids, and to dream big. Don’t ever let anyone shatter your dreams.”
Services for Doug Hand
Family and friends will gather from 9:30 to 11 a.m. today, followed by the memorial service, at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, 703 Third Ave., Sterling. A memorial fund has been established for Rock Falls Public Library.
Created: Oct. 1, 1980
Age: Eternally a fifth-grader
Height: 4 feet, 4 inches
Weight: 12 pounds, fully clothed
Baccalaureate: Bachelor of Big Dreams (B.B.D.); Yale University, May 1994
Master's: Master of Arts (M.A.) in Big Dreams; University of Central Florida, August 2001
Vocation: Inspiring children to believe in a dream, to have the desire to follow that dream, and to see it through to the end
Avocation: Traveling the world on behalf of others
Philosophy: Dreams are the purest form of imagination, and imagination is the key that will open any door.
Motto: "DREAM BIG"