Mel Pearson’s second family

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 - 7:11pm

Michigan coach Mel Pearson moved to Edina, Minn. to play high school hockey and lived with a billet family.

Michigan coach Mel Pearson moved to Edina, Minn. to play high school hockey and lived with a billet family. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of John Anderson

It was supposed to be a routine favor, a short and simple task for Mel Pearson.

The Andersons, his billet family, were preoccupied and asked Pearson, then 16, to pick up one of their daughters for them.

Naturally, Pearson borrowed one of their cars. His parents had taken most things, cars included, when they moved back to Flin Flon, Manitoba two years prior.

Despite his inexperience driving, he didn’t shy away from the opportunity to use the car, nor did the Andersons feel deterred from letting him use it. 

It was the family’s car, and he was, by all means, family.

Pearson hopped in the driver’s seat of the blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, glanced in the rearview mirror and started backing down the driveway, a straight path to the road. It was a simple exit. 

But before he knew it, he came to a halting stop. As he started to turn, the car jerked with resistance. Maybe he heard the grating sound of metal first. Or maybe he felt the ever so slight recoil first. But he certainly didn’t see it coming at all — an oak tree. One he had passed thousands of times before. One that laid so idly to the side. And he misjudged it.

“You’re trying to be careful,” Pearson joked. “But that tree just jumped out at me.”

A big dent on the front passenger-side fender of the car was residual evidence of his slip-up.

Forty-four years later, Pearson understands the safety of the driver is the main concern. Cars can be replaced. People can’t be. The Andersons shared that sentiment, too.

But at the time, when Pearson rushed out of the car to survey the damage, insecurities that lingered from his last billet family resurfaced.

After complications with that family arose, the Andersons had taken Pearson into their home in Edina, Minn. with open arms, ensuring he wouldn’t have to go back to Canada — leaving behind his friends, his hockey team and the education his mother pushed so hard for.

Now, bark torn off their tree, car dented, Pearson couldn’t help but feel this was the end of the world. For the first time since moving in, he felt that he had really done something wrong. It was a sinking feeling, especially knowing what was at stake.

“I didn’t know if I was gonna get kicked out of the house, kicked out of the country,” Pearson said. “No, I’m serious. It’s one of those things, you feel so bad.”

Neither ended up happening.

Families aren’t perfect. Mistakes are bound to happen, and part of being family is forgiveness. So the Andersons forgave Pearson. Even though he thought he was an outsider, they didn’t consider him one.

“It’s the nicest compliment you can give anybody,” John Anderson, Pearson’s billet brother, said. “He’s one of our family.”

Pearson moved in with the Andersons and immediately felt a part of the family.

Pearson moved in with the Andersons and immediately felt a part of the family. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of John Anderson

Pearson lugged a suitcase and a hockey bag up to the porch leading to the Andersons’ traditional colonial house. As autumn leaves fell all around him, he cradled the bags around his arms and shoulders as he started to scale the stone stairs.

He’d been up the walkway before, but in much different circumstances. Before, he was just a visiting friend, a close neighbor. Now, he was a full-time resident. John followed behind him, carrying the remainder of his stuff. The move in would only take one trip. Pearson didn’t have much to bring.

His back was turned away from the O’Brien’s house directly across the street — a place that Pearson once called home.

A year prior, when Mel’s father, Melvin, got cut from the Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Pearsons decided it was time to go home to Flin Flon. But Mel’s mother, Ruby, was adamant on giving her son an opportunity to earn a college scholarship and get an education. She believed letting Mel stay in Edina was the best bet for that. So she turned to her good friends, the O’Briens, and arranged for him to stay with them.

The O’Briens had children themselves, so they were used to the responsibility. But the age differences were the problem. Mel was in high school, and their children weren’t even teenagers yet. Late curfews, hosting rowdy teens, giving up their car when needed — these were things they didn’t have to worry about yet with their own children. They thought they knew what to expect, but they didn’t expect it to be so hard.

The O’Briens kept in touch with Mel’s parents, but Mel saw the writing on the wall. When his parents reached out to him and told him the O’Briens couldn’t host him anymore, he had already felt the same way. So while he was in the process of packing, Mel’s parents began the search for other possibilities. As the window was closing, John, his friend and teammate, reached out to his parents and probed the possibility to billet him.

“He was probably gonna have to go back to Canada because nobody was going to take him at that point in time,” John said. “And I said to my parents, ‘Well, why don’t we take him?’ ”

With each step he took toward the Andersons, he added distance from the O’Briens, a place he liked but knew didn’t really fit him. 

It was the small things. 

When bands such as Blue Oyster Cult, Marshall Tucker and the Eagles came to town, all of Pearson’s high school buddies went. Sixteen was a reasonable age to go. But when Pearson appealed to the O’Briens, they pointedly said “no.” They just weren’t comfortable with stuff like that yet. And that discomfort only grew.

The Andersons were asked and said yes with little hesitation.  

Mel was happy with the new arrangement. The O’Briens were as well. The Andersons had similar activities and interests. It was for the best, they thought. 

So Pearson, his life with the O’Briens behind him, walked into his new house.

Upon seeing him, Pearson could only recall the Andersons saying one thing.

“Oh yeah, here comes this kid.”

***

Pearson dropped his things into his new bedroom upstairs — a couple suitcases, a full backpack and his hockey bag.

He didn’t decorate it too much, there was no need. John, his new roommate, had his fair share of decorations. One of which was a Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster that Pearson was in disbelief his parents let him hang. If it was Pearson, he’d have slapped on a hockey poster.

But Pearson started unpacking. While he did so, he asked John questions, things on his mind about the rest of the family and how he fit in.

How were things going to be? He asked about John’s mom, dad, the two sisters. He was nervous, and he wanted to know.

After Pearson finished, he crept down the stairs and into the foyer, where he could see the entire house. The slate floor felt cold against his feet.

It was awkward.

This was the second time in under a year Pearson had to move in with strangers. Of course, he had met both families before, but outside of John, neither family knew him particularly well.

“I think that was the biggest thing,” Pearson said. “I knew them, but I didn’t know them.”

Getting to know a new set of parents, a new set of rules, a new lifestyle, it was all weird to Pearson. This time, though, he had one of his good friends with him.

Pearson walked through the hallway and to the kitchen, where Margaret — John’s mom — had just finished making dinner.

As Pearson took his place around the table with the other kids — the parents would eat after they finished — he started to recognize one of the dishes, tomato and split pea soup.

Margaret, normally called Margie, didn’t know at the time, nor would she learn until years later, but split pea soup was one of Pearson’s least-favorite meals. He hated it. But it was his first day, and he wasn’t about to be ungrateful.

The jean jacket he had on was already rolled up from when he had moved his things, so he went straight to digging in. He ate as much of what was served to him as he could handle, and when Margie looked away, he rushed to pour the rest down the drain. When she looked back and saw the quickly emptied bowl, she mistook it for how much he loved the soup, and asked him, “Oh, how was the soup?”

“I said, ‘Haha, Mrs. Anderson. That was the best split pea soup I’ve ever had.’ ” Pearson said. “How could you tell her it’s lousy, right?

“So the joke was every Sunday for quite a while, she made split pea soup. Just because she thought I loved it so much, and she wanted to welcome me into the family.”

It was different than what he had left behind at the O’Briens.

“Easygoing, fun, loving, relaxed, that was her role. Caring, all those things,” Pearson said. “A good mother.”

And even though Pearson had just met her as a family member and not as a guest, that’s what she was.

“Like a second mother,” Pearson said. “Appreciate her taking somebody like me and treating me like one of her kids.”

Pearson (left) and billet brother, John, have continued to have a great friendship years after they lived together in high school.

Pearson (left) and billet brother, John, have continued to have a great friendship years after they lived together in high school. Buy this photo
Photo courtesy of John Anderson

The Andersons wanted people to stop by, guests to stay, people to enjoy their time when they visited. It came from their upbringing, and they were just trying to carry it over to the next generation.

That extended to Pearson.

They would try their hardest to include him in whatever family activity they had going on. Family trips, he came along. Family traditions, he took part. Family holidays, he celebrated. When Christmas rolled around and the kids rushed out of bed and to the tree, he joined. 

“He was considered part of the family, he got presents just like everybody else,” John said. “My parents were really good about not making him feel like an outsider.”

But there was a lingering feeling that never went away — at least not immediately.

Despite all their best efforts, there were times when Mel couldn’t help but feel like the odd one out. And it was never obvious. It was as simple as going through the kitchen late at night for a snack and hesitating to open the refrigerator.

“It’s weird moving into a house and going into somebody else’s refrigerator,” Pearson said. “Doesn’t seem like it’s yours.”

Nor did turning on the television. Or staying out late at night beyond curfew. Or being able to just say no. 

“If they were going somewhere, ‘Oh, we’re going to (wherever). Let’s all go along,’ and you know you’d rather just stay home and relax or something,” Pearson said. “OK, but you’re just trying to accommodate them, and because you know they’re going out of their way to make room for you and whatnot in the house.”

And for a long time, whatever they did, he would do. If they didn’t offer, he would “just stay to (himself) and not screw up.”

But within a year, when the hospitality became the norm and the household became family, he grew more comfortable. After a year, he could help himself to the fridge.

“ ‘Do I have to do my own wash?’ I didn’t feel like making Mrs. Anderson have to do my laundry,” Pearson said. “I mean just little different things until you feel comfortable. ‘Okay, she can do it. She’s doing the rest of the group’s.’

“It’s a process, so I think after a year then, yeah, you know them. They know you. You feel comfortable with them.”

Comfortability, though, was a two-way street. As Pearson started to see the Andersons more as a family, they saw him as more than a guest and started treating him as such — even more than before.

At the start, he would get away with some small pet peeves, but after a year, they were more than willing to lay down the law — Glenn Anderson, John’s dad, in particular.

Glenn was a by-the-book, militant parent. As a well-respected businessman, he carried himself with high regards and held others to the same standards. As a father, he knew the things he had to do to raise his sons.

So when Pearson rushed down to the base of the stairs one Monday morning his senior year, Glenn stopped him. The door was within arm’s reach, and Pearson would have been free to go to school.

But Pearson had gone the full weekend without shaving and looked scruffy. He didn’t think there was much hair, but Glenn disagreed. Glenn wasn’t going to let Pearson go to school looking like that.

“Pearson,” Glenn called.

Pearson loosened his sights from the door, turned and lowered his head to meet his billet dad’s eyes. He was taller than Glenn, but the 5-foot-9 frame felt large in the moment.

“Get upstairs and shave,” Glenn told him.

When Pearson first met him, he thought Glenn was a hardass. He had a presence about him — powerful, but not overpowering.

“My dad didn’t say a lot of words, but when he did, you probably should be listening,” John said.

But Pearson grew comfortable with him, or at least, comfortable enough to argue back.

The bus was coming, he countered, and if he missed it, he would be late for school.

“I don’t care. I’ll drive you to school,” Glenn told him. “Get your ass upstairs and shave.”

“And I’m going, ‘Come on man, like I hardly have anything. Big deal.’ ” Pearson said.

But it was a big deal — at least to Glenn. He doesn’t go unshaven. A respectable image goes a long way, and so Pearson went back upstairs, shaved and Glenn drove him to school that day.

“He was like that,” Pearson said. “He wasn’t afraid to lay down the law and sort of be a true dad, not just let me float.”

That’s not how Pearson’s dad would have done it. Mel claims his dad would have said, “Hey, go ahead,” and let him leave unshaven, but Glenn was different. 

“I think he knew the responsibility of being a father,” Pearson said. “And I was just like another one (of his) sons or daughters, and I was going to get treated that way.”

***

In large part, staying with the Andersons helped Pearson stay out of trouble.

“It’s like having a guest in your house for eight years. You have to be on your best behavior,” John said. “There’s your family and then there’s guests.”

But the line got blurred. Pearson became both a guest and family. And that’s when Pearson’s devious nature started to show, with the jokester in him jumping out.

When Pearson took part in Senior Skip Day, it was John who tried to cover for him when the homeroom teacher confronted him.

“I tried to steer him away from trouble in school and stuff like that,” John said. “But there’s only so much you can do.”

It was a friend looking out for a friend. A brother showing some love to another going out of line.

That bond would stick with them through the years. No matter how far they were, no matter if Pearson eventually left for Michigan Tech in Houghton or moved to Ann Arbor to coach the Wolverines, he would stay in touch. Every break, he would come back to the Andersons. After he graduated, he didn’t go home to Flin Flon. He came back to Edina.

“If you need to call him, you know, he’s always been there,” John said. “And I know that he always will be there. Just because we shared eight years being family together.

“He’s like a brother to me.”

Years later, after Glenn had passed, and Margie was sick in a hospital in Minnesota, Pearson was by her side with the rest of the family before she passed away. 

Pearson still talks to John’s two sisters on occasion. He even asks his younger sister, Mary Beth, questions every now and then in regards to raising his own daughters.

And he keeps in touch with John to this day. In the past seven days, he has already reached out twice. When either have struggles or successes or just anything on their minds, they’ll let the other know. There were few words Pearson had to describe what John meant to him, but two would always come up.

A brother. Family. The moment he stepped foot on that stone porch, arms full of bags and suitcases, Pearson became so much more than the neighbor next door. 

“I wish everybody could have an experience like that,” Pearson said. “Have another family.”