Michael Bohl '00

MVCDS Graduation Guest Speaker 2018

Hello and thank you to the graduating seniors for inviting me to speak today, it is an extraordinary honor to be here with you and your loved ones, celebrating a truly important accomplishment. Congratulations to you all.

For those of you who don’t know me my name is Michael Bohl. I graduated 18 years ago with the class of 2000, and this is, I think, my first time back. A lot has changed here in the past 18 years- first and foremost it appears that the school has decided to lift its restraining order on me. Thank you- I appreciate that. It’s either that or there are enough new faculty around that nobody remembers anymore what a really awful student I was. To say I didn’t “finish at the top of my class”, would be very generous. The truth is I’m the guy who was banned from all art classes for a whole year for calling the teacher names. That was the same year I got kicked off the basketball team for encouraging my teammates to skip practices and play in an indoor soccer league instead. The following year I turned it up a notch when I got suspended for mooning the camera during an all-school photoshoot, which was only realized after the photos had all been developed and paid for… It’s interesting, not everybody thought those things were funny 20 years ago. So what is the guy who was actually voted class clown 20 years ago, doing speaking at graduation?

Well I suspect I’m here for a couple of reasons: First, I probably make a pretty good cautionary tale. The truth is that life can be pretty tough, and generally nobody falls harder on that realization than the class clown. I think more important though than the inglorious fall many of us take out of high school into the real world, is how critical my education here at Maumee Valley ended up being to me at almost every stage of life since I graduated. And that’s something that as a graduating high school student, sitting in those chairs, I never thought would be true.
The truth is that when I was sitting in one of those chairs 20 years ago, I had already decided that I was not good at school, that I lacked the intelligence, the talent, the drive… whatever it was that equipped someone for a professional career, I did not have it. But I had been accepted to a college, and college is what everyone here does after high school, so I went, hoping to just randomly find something I was interested in, but not really believing I would. After a year of wasted time and money, I left school and enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps infantry. I was attracted to the challenge of special operations training and was planning on trying to get through the Marine’s Recon program. I thought this would provide me an opportunity to challenge myself in different ways, provide a service to others (which was important to me, I wanted to feel useful), and finally have some of those real-world experiences I felt I needed to become an adult. My Mom and my sister asked me an obvious question, what if there is a war? To which I responded, “There hasn’t been a war in like 10 years, don’t worry about it!”

So at 4AM on 9/11/2001, I left for Marine Corps boot camp. Just 30 minutes after swearing in, while watching the news waiting for the plane to come take us to Parris Island, I discovered that I was in for more real-world experiences than I had anticipated as the news of the terrorist attacks that took place that morning began appearing on the news. I’ll never forget how sobering my phone call home was that day. Now, MV prepared me well for making difficult phone calls home… Hi Mom, I’m in the headmaster’s office for yawning too loudly in Mr. Lundholm’s English class. Hi Mom, I got kicked out of art class again— that kind of thing. I was glad to have had this practice, because my phone call home on Sept 11 was one of my toughest. Unlike the times before when my call was met with anger or disappointment, this time I think my Mom was entirely just scared. Which was sobering to say the least.

So I went to boot camp and then the school of infantry , where I finally started to find something I felt good at. I was promoted at the School of Infantry for having the highest physical fitness score in our company. I owe a lot of whatever success I’ve had in athletics to MV, my adviser Jim Fish, my coaches, and my headmaster Phineas Anderson. Phineas must’ve known how important running was going to be to me in the years ahead because he gave me his old track shoes as a graduation gift. I initially thought he was just giving me a smelly old pair of shoes to repay all the trouble I caused him. The truth is this high school was the first place where I really discovered the enjoyment in athletics- and my time here laid the foundation not only for my physical training in the military but 2 decades of participation in triathlons and ultramarathons since. MV athletics helped me to discover the enjoyment that can come from competing with oneself, from always trying to best oneself. And that drive for self-betterment is something that has benefitted me ever since. 

Prior to finishing at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry, I passed a screening test for special operations training. And I did very well at that too. Going weeks at a time without sleep or food, or rest from physical activity was grueling but it gave me a sense of self-worth that I had previously lacked. Growing up here in Toledo I often worked with my father and grandfather in the summers, cutting firewood or stacking brick- and they both would sometimes tell me that I was one of the hardest workers they knew, and whether this was true or not it really made me feel good- and I learned quickly that being a hard worker was something to strive for and to be proud of. Years later in high school, as it was becoming clear to me that I wasn’t particularly good at school, I decided to spend my summers working on the maintenance staff here. This experience was absolutely critical in teaching me the irreplaceable value of hard work and perseverance. We had a mower here back then called the bruiser, and on my first day of work, I was put on the bruiser for 8 straight hours of mowing all the hardest to reach places on campus. And at the end of the day, with my forearms and shins covered in bruises, the maintenance staff (many of whom are here today- Larry Anning, Dave Villarreal, Doug Brunt) told me how impressed they were and how proud they were of me for sticking out the full work day. And I loved that- I came to work every day ready to sweat and bleed just to show them that I could work hard. And they acknowledged it and gave credit when it was due, and they really cemented for me at an early age the importance and value of working hard simply for hard work’s sake. And that is something that has stuck with me ever since. During long patrols in the 130-140 degree heat of Iraq, during long nights spent freezing in the ocean. The lessons I learned here at MV absolutely helped me get through those times, and more importantly they helped solidify my appreciation for the irreplaceable value of hard-work and perseverance. 

At our graduation ceremony from Marine Reconnaissance training, I received another award for being our class honor graduate. Ironically, one of the graded tasks that helped me earn this award was to sneak around one of the buildings on our training facility, and draw a sketch of the building from multiple vantage points. So basically, military art class, right? Well apparently I had one of the best drawings they had seen. So despite having been kicked out of umpteen art classes, and eventually being banned from the whole art department, I learned something. Despite myself, I learned something. So thank you, MV art department, for putting up with me long enough to teach me basic art skills. 20 years ago I would’ve laughed at the notion of art class ever being useful to me. But here I am, openly admitting that not only were my art classes important to my military training, but even today, as a neurosurgeon and head of a medical device innovation program, I draw pictures every day. I draw pictures for patients (to explain their diagnoses and the surgeries we are recommending), I draw pictures for engineers, I draw pictures for patent lawyers. If only I had known how important art was going to be to me everyday… I might not have been such a monster in class- but I was, and I’m sorry. You definitely got the last laugh.

After completing my special operations training I was placed in a Marine Recon team and sent to Iraq. When we first arrived there, I remember feeling that I was very well prepared. I had completed the most rigorous training the military offers, I was part of a team of 5 other guys who had also completed this training, and we were ready. So with this sense of preparedness and capability in our hearts, we set off on our first patrol in enemy territory. We quietly paddled our inflatable boats up the Euphrates river, and when we reached our insertion point, we jumped out of the boat to start sneaking up toward where our target was. As soon as I jumped off the boat… I sunk clear up to my armpits in cold, foul smelling river muck, and I was completely stuck. I spent 2 hours stuck in that river bed, and when gunfire from our target began coming in our direction, and then when I realized the river tide was rising and that my head was feet below the high tide mark, I was pretty convinced I was gong to die that night. But I kept struggling, and finally, after 2 hours I freed myself. My map, my GPS, my ammo, my weapon, all caked in mud, and I felt like I had just run a marathon. And then, feeling exhausted and embarrassed but relieved to be out of the mud, I rejoined my team and we started the patrol. That was my introduction to Iraq. This experience, and numerous others patrolling around the outskirts of enemy-controlled Fallujah, really taught me a lot of lessons. One, just because you prepare for something doesn’t mean it will go your way, and some things in life simply cant be prepared for. In these situations, it’s important to maintain a dogged perseverance and work ethic. Sometimes hard work is the only way to pull oneself out of the mud, and even that’s no guarantee. About a year later we arrived in Fallujah, where our first mission was to retrieve the body of a Marine who drowned in a tributary of the Euphrates river. These deployments to Iraq affected me in many ways, but one was to inspire a bit of personal insight into the tremendous opportunities I have been given, and prompted me to begin considering how I was using these opportunities to impact the world and the people around me. And I saw first-hand how our decisions about what we do with ourselves and with the opportunities life provides us can very meaningfully impact, for better or worse, the world around us.

While we were on our way home from Iraq, with some of these early thoughts forming in my head, we stopped in Kenya, where we were supposed to do some war games with Kenya’s paratroopers but instead ended up playing a lot of soccer with them, visiting their homes, their children’s schools, and spending a day helping in an orphanage. Those experiences gave me a greater sense of meaning and purpose than the sum of nearly anything before them. Maybe it was the contrast of these experience against our recent time in Iraq, I’m not sure, but shortly after we left Kenya, I began thinking about what a career in healthcare would be like. Then several weeks after leaving E. Africa we arrived in Singapore, and during some free-time out in town I found a book market, where I came across a book on how to teach yourself Swahili. And then my plan came together. In that moment I decided I was going to buy the book, teach myself Swahili, and once my enlistment ended return to E. Africa to work in a health clinic and figure out whether or not I wanted to pursue a career working with sick people. So I bought it and I spent almost all of my free-time in that book. The book actually came with me to Fallujah on a second deployment. When officers in Camp Fallujah would walk by and see me reading this “Teach Yourself Swahili” book they would often say as they were walking by, “they’re speaking Arabic, dummy.” And I would just look up with a confused expression- why bother trying to explain… So I poured myself into this book, and the most unexpected and encouraging thing happened- I fell in love with learning that language, and I was good at it. I slowly began to realize that I was capable of learning something complex, and doing something academic, and that if I was passionate about something like a foreign language, if I had a personal investment in it, motivation to do well in it, then working on it didn’t feel like a struggle at all. As I became better at having Swahili conversations with myself, I slowly began to believe that pursuing a career in healthcare might just be achievable.

Two years later my enlistment ended and after a month at home I traveled to Tanzania and worked as a nurses aide in a small hospital. All the time I spent talking to myself in Swahili paid off, and after a few weeks there I was essentially fluent. I spent a lot of my time in the hospital helping with two men who had debilitating strokes. And I really enjoyed it, it gave me the same sense of purpose and meaning I had previously felt in the Marine Corps when we visited Kenya. Because I knew Swahili I was also able to involve myself more meaningfully in the local community and in the hospital, I got to scare a few kids who liked to say nasty things in Swahili to white people like me who they thought couldn’t understand them, and I had a few opportunities to do things like shadow a surgeon from New Zealand. The first surgery I ever saw was in Tanzania, it was a c-section child delivery, it completely blew my mind.

So I eventually came home, got my EMT license, and then mustered the courage to give school another try. I called my MV math teacher, Ms. Biss, for some tutoring, and off I went to the U of Wisconsin. I majored in African Languages and Literature and took premed courses. This time around in college, everything was different. I was motivated to attend my classes, I found myself enjoying my coursework both my literature classes and premed classes, and I went from being a very poor student, to a straight-A student. Not only was I doing well in my classes, but I finished at the very top of several science classes that had several hundred students enrolled. These classes almost felt unfair to me because I had already learned everything they were teaching in these classes here at MV, from teachers like Mr. Meinecke and  Mr. Euton. Even though it had been 5,6,7 years since I had been in my chemistry or physics, or biology classes, all that information had been covered here in high school, and despite my mediocre performance in those classes while I was here, the information came right back to me. As someone who is now a physician-scientist, I cant imagine a better college preparation for science work than the one I received while I was here. I can’t thank my high school math and science teachers enough for that. And the same thing is true for my literature classes. In high school I felt like writing papers was absolutely torture- I struggled and fought so much with writing. And then, despite a 6 year gap in which I did zero writing, I was better prepared for our writing assignments than the majority of my classmates who were majoring in literature. Thank you, Mr. Cambisios, Mr. Lundholm, all my English teachers. I’m sorry I yawned so loudly in your class, Mr. Lundholm.

As I was getting great grades in college, I realized I shouldn’t rule out medical school, and then began working towards a career as a surgeon, having been inspired by the surgeon I shadowed while in Tanzania. 

I finished college in 2 years, 3 total if you count the year I spent before enlisting, and then began medical school. An interesting thing happened in medical school. I found early on that I loved anatomy, especially neuro anatomy. The brain, the spine, peripheral nerves- I really enjoyed learning about all the different pathways that motor and sensory signals take around the body and within the brain, and I did great at it. But for some reason, I fell right back into my old habit of discrediting myself. I told myself for the entire first 2 years of medical school that neurosurgery just wasn’t an option for me. I clearly wasn’t as smart as my fellow students who were interested in neurosurgery (which was true), and so I just didn’t even have a shot- all this self-doubt even though I finished my first year of medical school at the top of our class. It was only after shadowing a neurosurgical procedure, an awake craniotomy for removal of a brain tumor from a patient’s language center, that I admitted to myself that neurosurgery was what I really wanted to do. And I remembered something that a friend of my mothers said about medical school. This was Dr. Amjad Hussain, a cardiothoracic surgeon and all around renaissance man who lives here in Toledo, who whether he knows it or not, has been a phenomenal mentor. He said that to get through medical school, “You don’t have to be smart, you just have to be willing to work hard.” That, for me, took all the fear out of it, because I knew I could work hard. So I committed myself to neurosurgery, and again discovered that if I was passionate about it, then spending consecutive 12 hour days studying it, was entirely reasonable, sometimes enjoyable. When medical school ended I was fortunate enough to match into one of the country’s best neurosurgery programs, despite having believed just 2 years prior that I didn’t have a chance of getting into any neurosurgery program.

Now I am 5 years into a 7 year Neurosurgery residency. All these lessons Ive learned about self-doubt, hard-work, the importance of finding ones passion, have all motivated me through this surgical training process, which has been in many ways more difficult than military training. In the last five years Ive discovered interests in the surgical treatment of scoliosis and other spinal deformities, as well as in medical device innovation. With the help of my mentors Ive been able to build a neurosurgical innovation center. In just 2 years of operation we’ve described 10 new surgical procedures, treated 16 patients with 8 of these procedures, filed nearly 30 provisional patents, 10 non-provisional patents, and built a prototyping laboratory that has generated over 10 new medical devices, 7 of which have been used in our own operating rooms. We recently met with Johnson & Johnson at their medical innovation headquarters, and they expressed an interest in partnering with us because, according to them, we have shown in just 2 years to be the most productive academic innovation center they have seen.

So I now find myself, just 20 years after sitting in your chairs believing that I was incapable of doing anything academic, and I’m leading an academic innovation program, operating on brain tumors and complex spine diseases, and mentoring undergraduate and postgraduate students in medicine and biomedical engineering. Ive published about 40 academic papers in recent years, and have another 15 pending publication- Ive somehow gone from high school class clown to guy who grades papers, sits on honors thesis committees, and has his own laboratory. Which is all a little surreal, and exciting.

I imagine at this point that a lot of your parents are starting to get nervous that I am going to recommend that you all enlist in the infantry before going to college. You can relax- I understand its not for everyone. But I do think there are several important lessons I’ve learned since leaving this wonderful school that you might find useful in the years ahead. 

First, we all have an obligation to service. The world into which you all enter can be cruel, and nasty, and unfair and horrible things happen every day, both here and abroad. As graduates of an institution like MV, we all have the prerequisite tools needed to bring light to people who are suffering. No matter what your chosen profession is; medicine, journalism, the fine arts, history, the military… you all have the ability and now the opportunity to enact positive change in this world. Feel that obligation, and let it motivate your career decisions.

Second, do not be afraid of failure. We all fail, we all sometimes fall face first in the mud. There is more to learn from failure than success. Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Which leads to number 3: You are stronger, and smarter, and more courageous than you think you are, and you are capable of far more than you give yourself credit for. If an opportunity presents itself to you that seems highly difficult with a high risk of failure- always say yes to that opportunity. You’ll either succeed at something great, or fail and learn a tremendous amount in the process. Ludicrous ideas- like a college drop out infantry marine teaching himself Swahili because he might want to be a surgeon one day- those are the kind of ideas that can be life-changing. Don’t be afraid to make unreasonable goals and then… number 4.

Work, work, work as hard as you can towards those unreasonable goals that you feel passionate about. Find your passions, find your motivation- and then chase after that passion with unflinching perseverence. I promise you, you’ll be happy with the results. 

Finally, trust the training and mentorship you’ve received here at MV. The faculty here who have watched you all make your way through high school know more about you and your potential than you may think. Just three weeks ago I was cleaning up some old books I had at home and I came across a book called Democracy’s Discontent. I never read it, but on the inside cover I found a note written to me from my Upper School Headmaster, Mr. Sprandel. It said this, “Michael, Discontent fits with where we each are in our lives- a period of passage- but I have faith that smooth waters of purpose and meaning lie ahead- best of good fortune in college and keep the sun over your brow and the search before you. Your buddy, Mr. Sprandel.” I almost hit the floor when I read that. Mr. Sprandel knew more about me back then than I did, and his words couldn’t have been better chosen or timed. I can’t wait to finally read the book.

So with that, I thank you all deeply from the bottom of my heart for asking me to speak today- it is truly an honor that I will never forget. Great challenges, failures, and victories await everyone of you, and what could be more exciting than that? So I’ll leave you all with the same words that one of my mentors, Mr. Sprandel, gave me 20 years ago, “Best of good fortune to you all. Keep the sun over your brow, and the search for the smooth waters of meaning and purpose before you.”

Thank you.
Maumee Valley Country Day School is the only PreK-12th grade accredited, co-educational, and independent school in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan.