Exercising Imagination

Dick_Van_Dyke_1959It was a warm Saturday in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1939. Young Richard Wayne Van Dyke, usually called Dick, was watching the local Wabash College compete in a track meet with Purdue University. Dick was only a freshman and new to the community, but he was starting to get a reputation for his speed. Dick was just a spectator today, until his coach came up and said the Wabash team’s anchorman for their relay team had turned his ankle and couldn’t run.

“Do you want to run anchor?” said the coach.

“Are you kidding?” Dick asked.

“They need a man,” came the answer.

Dick jumped at the opportunity, though not really prepared with the right shoes for the occasion, he was ready to give it his best shot. It seemed unreal to him: a high school freshman getting to run against college boys. He was to be the anchor in the 4×100, no less.

By  the time Dick got the baton the Purdue anchor was a few yards ahead. Dick was able to make up the distance and pulled ahead with 20 yards to go. The crowd roared. He held the lead and won the race, for which he received a blue ribbon. When he took the medal home, his father thought he was lying.

The Van Dyke family would only stay in Crawfordsville for a year before moving back to Danville, Illinois, where their family had lived for most of Dick’s life. He thought he would be the star of the track team and continue to grow in popularity as he had done in Indiana. His plans were derailed when he went to the doctors for a physical.

When the doctor discovered a heart murmur in Dick, he was forbidden to run. He was crushed.

Dick was a happy person, so he decided to move on and find another pursuit. He learned to let his personality shine through, so he joined the drama club. While the plays in the early 40’s where mostly propaganda, and seemed to get more boring with each performance, he was finding great satisfaction in performing for a crowd. In the mean time, Dick and his friends would spend hours singing, telling jokes and making up tall tales. At least three of his associates ended up having a successful career in entertainment. They helped each other learn skills and routines that would help them in the future.

Dick would spend hours watching movies on Saturdays with his friends. He would impersonate Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. His idol though, was Stan Laurel. He would practice funny faces, pratfalls and jokes so he could entertain anyone at a moment’s notice.

Dick would later relate in his autobiography that the confidence he gained through athletics had helped him to run for class president and audition for school plays. He also said he and his friends would exercise their imaginations. His constant attention to learning and practicing his craft helped him grow as a performer. He tried out for the a cappella group at every audition held in his high school, but was continually denied by the teacher leading the choir. Dick continued to sing and practice, and was finally allowed to join the a cappella group. He quipped that the teacher only let him join because they ran out of basses. However, he continued to sing his way into lead roles on Broadway.

For you:

Everyone that becomes great at something takes time developing their craft. Dick would not be the comic-standout actor the world loved in Mary Poppins if he hadn’t practiced faces and falling. His practice helped him develop the skills he would exhibit throughout his successful career.

What is your skill? What is your passion? Are you giving it time each day to develop? No one controls your destiny as much as yourself. So if you want to become great with people, practice getting out and meeting people. If you want to be more compassionate, get out and serve someone.  If you want to learn the piano, take time each day to practice.  A sharp saw is more efficient than a dull saw, so take time to sharpen the saw.


I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy. My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

One thought on “Exercising Imagination
  1. David says:

    Thank you Ryan.
    This is a very inspiring message!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *