By Erin Peterson, Illustrations by Ingo Fast
Ever wonder what it feels like to save someone's life, share a stage with a music legend, or really, really test your physical endurance? We have. So we asked several University of Minnesota alumni
Play alongside Ella Fitzgerald
Jim Hughart (B.A. ’57)
I remember getting a call from Ella Fitzgerald’s office [in the early 1960s] asking if I’d be interested in playing with Ella—I’d been recommended by Ray Brown, a friend who was the most famous jazz bassist at the time. After I scraped myself off the ceiling, I said “Yes. When and where?” Ella and I worked together on an album called Ella Sings Broadway and a single, “Desafinado,” that was the beginning of the bossa nova craze that swept across the world.
With the absolute best people, their drive is often perceptible. You can observe the performance and know that it’s there. There’s a reason they’re doing business at that level. They’re the cream of the crop. I did studio work for years, and no matter how good you are, when the red light goes on [signaling the start of a recording], there’s a lot at stake. You’ve got to play everything perfectly, because there are 25 guys standing behind you, and they’re waiting for you to make a mistake so they can get your job.
It can take so many years to get hired on a regular basis, to the point where you can stop playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and Ventura Boulevard saloons. To this day, it gives me chills to realize that I did it.
Jim Hughart has been a bass player for artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee. A Minneapolis native who lives in California, Hughart continues to perform professionally.
Save a life
Dr. Andy Grande (M.D. ’03)
People might not think of a neurosurgeon as a “people person,” but for me, finding a connection with a patient is extremely important. Patients give me a huge level of trust when I walk into their lives, and that’s such a privilege. I want them to know that I do for them what I would do for my family.
A lot of my work is treating aneurysms in the brain, which are life threatening. When I see patients, I talk to them as long as they want. I give them my cell number and my email. I want to make sure they’re very comfortable moving forward.
The biggest joy for me is not when a surgery goes well technically, because that’s no guarantee that there won’t be problems. The joy is when I see patients wake up doing well. And when they come back to clinic and they’re still doing well.
Even when things aren’t perfect, patients may still be living independently. That’s pretty rewarding when I know I’ve fought really hard for that patient. In the end, I know I’ve made a difference, and that’s pretty exciting.
Dr. Andy Grande is assistant professor of neurosurgery and codirector of the University’s Earl Grande Stroke and Stem Cell Laboratory.
Go back to school at 62
Former federal prosecutor and judge Sheryl Ramstad (B.A. ’67, B.A. ’72, M.N. ’13)
I had a goal of applying to the accelerated nursing degree program at the University, and over the course of four years, I took the prerequisites one at a time.
I didn’t tell anybody as I was preparing to become a full-time student. I didn’t want to be second-guessed or have to explain to everyone what I was doing.
One nice thing I learned was that there’s a senior citizen discount for students who are 62 or older. So I only paid $10 a credit, and no student fees. That’s probably one of the University’s best-kept secrets. But going back to school was hard—like going into a cement barricade at 65 miles an hour. It was a shock to find myself in a wholly different environment than a courthouse. The crowds, navigating from classroom to classroom, scrambling to find a seat among a room full of people—it was all rather startling and completely foreign to the way I had spent my days previously. My past accomplishments and grade point average were meaningless in this new environment.
At the same time, entering a new field felt more exciting than scary—the change was more about what I was going to do rather than what I was leaving. Having had my own life spared so many years before left an indelible impression on me. I knew it was time for me to act upon something I had felt for a very long time. I wanted to be by patients while they were in their darkest times in order to provide them with some hope.
After spending decades as a successful lawyer, Sheryl Ramstad went back to school at 62 to earn a nursing degree so she could support burn survivors like herself. She currently works at the Burn Center at Regions Hospital, where she was a patient at age 29 after burning nearly 40 percent of her body in a plane crash.
Be part of a wildly successful startup
Asha Sharma (B.S. ’11)
When I started at Porch, there were fewer than 10 employees working with [founder] Matt Ehrlichman, and we were literally working in his basement. It was a real basement, with fake wooden paneling on the walls. For a long time, I either sat on the floor or shared a four-foot folding table with other people. One time, the hot water heater flooded, which was a little terrifying.
But I wasn’t really thinking about those details—I had come from a place [microsoft] that was a lot more lavish. But at a startup, the idea of ping-pong tables in the lounge is not what creates the sense of excitement. Instead, I was paying attention to the journey I was going on. I really believe we can fundamentally change the way that people live in their homes.
I started as an individual contributor, and now I have hundreds of people who report to me. At first, I had to figure out what to execute with no resources, then I had to figure out how to find great leaders, and then how to inspire people. The roles have changed so quickly that I’m just trying to adapt and learn along the way. Some might say we’re on a rocket ship, but I don’t think we’ve achieved our mission yet.
Sometimes, I do step back a little. For example, we started our all-company weekly meetings, Around the Porch, when there were 20 of us. We'd talk about highlights and lowlights. We still do that, but there are hundreds of us now, and new people are starting every week. Those first meetings were so awkward, and now they’re a tradition. People assume traditions start in some beautiful way, but you’re actually just stumbling into what works.
Was I worried it was risky? Yes and no. The hardest decision was just deciding if I wanted to commit to this big idea, but once I did, I was all in. The day-to-day can feel gratifying and terrifying all at once. I compare it to running on water—if you look down you’ll fall. I just try to stay laser-focused and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Asha Sharma is chief operating officer of Porch, a company that helps homeowners find contractors for home improvement projects. It was founded in 2012 and was recently valued at $100 million.
Run for 24 hours straight
Jeremy Lindquist (B.S. ’11)
For most 100-mile races, the start is the slowest thing you’ve ever seen because the average pace might be 10 or 20 minutes per mile. Everybody respects the distance. It’s hard for anyone’s mind to comprehend what running 100 miles really is, so I really have to break it down. Sometimes I’m thinking about the next aid station, which might be 7 miles away. Sometimes all I can think about is my next step.
So much of it is mental. There’s one race where runners go down a snowmobile trail for 75 miles, and then turn around and come back the same strip. You can look down the trail and see exactly where you’re going to be in an hour—it’s almost like solitary confinement for your mind. But it’s also a time to reflect on things and get clarity. There are no distractions.
There’s a point at about 3 a.m.—it’s dark, I’m cold, I’m really tired, my legs are fatigued—where it’s just me and the 6-foot halo of light thrown off by the headlamp I’m wearing. Even walking can feel like too much. I might start hallucinating. The trees seem animated. But when I finish, it’s the strongest emotion I can imagine. An ultramarathon is something that’s so hard it scares me a little bit. But it gives me so much confidence when I finish it. It’s easy to get hooked on that.
Jeremy Lindquist is a coach for The TriFitness Triathlon and Running Club in the Twin Cities. He has run ten 100-mile races.