Some might say Dick Herboldshimer is puttering his life away. At 86, he has the freedom to do whatever his body will allow. But instead of traveling the world or living on the golf course, he prefers to spend his time at a jigsaw, cutting out plywood shapes ranging from flowers and ladybugs to fish and jet planes.
Two or three times a week, Herboldshimer takes the wood pieces to elementary school classrooms in the Madera, Clovis and Fresno, Calif., school districts, where he guides students in sanding, painting and assembling the projects.
"I could stay home and not do anything," he says with a grin. "But that's not my nature. I need the exchange I get with the kids."
Herboldshimer, a widower who lives alone in Fresno, retired as principal of Friant Elementary School more than 20 years ago. But he never lost his desire to help students discover new things about the world -- and themselves. Art projects provide a creative complement to academic studies, he says, and often can be used to reinforce lessons taught in science, history and other subjects.
During a recent visit to Elise Rydberg's second-grade class at Kratt Elementary School in Fresno, Herboldshimer brought wooden flowers for the students to paint. As they prepared to start the project, he tossed out additional verbal bouquets meant to encourage and inspire.
While passing out materials, he suddenly stilled the classroom hubbub with a loud whistle.
"Did you hear that?" he asked the instantly quiet students, while pointing to Dylan Cordaza, 8. "He said, in the nicest voice, `Thank you.'"
A few minutes later, Herboldshimer admired the work of Ceraina Green, 8. "Did you take art lessons? You're doing a great job."
Wherever he goes, Herboldshimer tells students to call him Mr. H, a moniker that's much easier to say. He welcomes their banter and enjoys the challenge of staying one step ahead of their young minds.
"Remember to paint the edges of your flowers first," he warns the class at Kratt. "If you don't, I'll paint your nose green."
The green-nose admonition reminds students of a story they recently read about the futility of trying to look like everyone else.
"Mr. H believes in being a catalyst for children to create gifts for their parents," says Katie Finks, the preschool teacher at Addicott School in Fresno. "He believes all children can do art with the right kind of assistance."
Addicott is a school for children with severe developmental disabilities. Herboldshimer visits about once a month to share projects of a seasonal nature or that are related to an upcoming holiday.
Although Herboldshimer wants every student to have fun, he gets just as much enjoyment out of each classroom visit as the children do. Working at the jigsaw is therapeutic, he says, and the responses he gets from students keep his mind filled with satisfying memories.
"Kids associate me with fun times," he says. "I make it a point to talk to each child. I love the one-on-one interaction."
Herboldshimer loves to tell the story of a fourth-grader who asked whether he could paint two flower projects instead of one.
"This was a tough little kid," he says. "He told me, `Mr. H, I've got to have two because I have two girlfriends.' I told him, `Young man, you've got a decision to make.'"
Because he's been visiting classrooms for several years, Herboldshimer often encounters students who have fond memories of his past visits.
"There's no way I can remember everyone," he says. "But when they ask, I'll say something like, "Oh, yes, you're the one who spilled the paint.' Then they'll correct me."
The important thing, Herboldshimer says, is to let children know they are important -- even if you draw a blank on their names.
Besides the enthusiasm of students, Herboldshimer enjoys the mental challenge of creating wood projects that complement their classroom work. When possible, he tailors his creations to current topics. If the class is studying insects, for example, he may bring ladybugs for them to paint. If the students have just read a book featuring animals or trolls, he'll come up with objects to illustrate the story.
Herboldshimer has been making things out of wood since his youth, when he started carving with a pocketknife his father gave him.
After serving as a combat medic in Europe during World War II, he went to college on the GI Bill, starting at the University of Maryland and finishing at California State University, Fresno, after moving to California in 1948. He taught in Monterey for awhile and then returned to Fresno to become principal at a new elementary school built in a remodeled cafeteria at the Hammer Army Air Base, forerunner of Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
"A lady gave me a jigsaw while I was at Hammer Field," he says. "Teachers would ask me to cut out things for them. I've always liked cutting out projects related to school studies."
Herboldshimer also enjoys the teaching opportunities that pop up at nearly every classroom session. At Kratt, one student asks whether he should paint the back side of his flower leaves.
Mr. H grins and says, "Next time you look at a flower, see if the leaves are green on both sides."
When the painting was done and the room cleaned up, Herboldshimer took some photographs of the students with their finished flowers. Then they gave him a cheer and sent him off with a rousing "Thank you Mr. H!"
Alan Xiong, 7, held his flower in both hands as he headed home. "I'm going to give this to my mom," he says.