Ten newly minted graduates cluster around a table in a hallway late Thursday night at Memorial High School.

It is relatively quiet, as all-night graduation parties go, and all eyes are focused intently on an engaging gentleman with a broad smile and a deck of cards in his hands.

Suddenly, as the card magician reveals the two of diamonds, which everyone but him has seen, laughter erupts along with howls of “What?” and “No!”

It’s a scene of joy and wonder that has been repeated countless times over more than two decades as former Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Gregg Bohlig volunteers to entertain graduates from Memorial, North, Regis and Altoona high schools on the nights of their commencement.

“It’s really fun doing this for the kids,” says Bohlig, longtime operator of a State Farm insurance agency in Eau Claire. “It’s a good time.”

Now 67, Bohlig, a member of Memorial’s class of 1970, acknowledges the late-night acts are a little more taxing than they were when he launched the tradition about 25 years ago. Last week, for instance, he performed his assortment of card tricks at school-organized all-night parties for Regis on Wednesday, Memorial on Thursday and North on Friday. All of his shifts ended at 2:30 a.m. or later.

“I’m kind of a zombie for those couple days, but it’s well worth it,” he says.

Thus, Bohlig says he plans to keep dealing as long as the kids are receptive.

“If it’s something you value and you can still do it, why wouldn’t you keep going?” he asks.

‘Magical’ connection

The parent volunteers who organize the gatherings, intended to provide a safe venue for graduating classes to be together one last time, are thrilled Bohlig continues to offer his services — free of charge — to help entertain students at the parties.

“He just does it out of the goodness of his heart,” says Michelle Swenson, chairwoman of North’s all-night graduation party at Action City.

Caro Johnson, coordinator of this year’s Memorial bash, grins as she wanders past Bohlig’s table shortly before midnight Thursday and hears a group of guffawing grads.

“It’s magical how he is able to connect with the students,” Johnson says. “It’s quite beautiful to see.”

Among performers ranging from hypnotists to henna artists, Bohlig remains a favorite.

“In this day and age when we’ve seen it all, he’s still able to entrance the students,” Johnson says. “He’s a crowd pleaser for sure.”

Across town, North grad party volunteer Christy Riley calls Bohlig “amazing” and raves about him volunteering for three local high schools in addition to his alma mater.

“The tricks are a lot of fun, and the kids love it,” Riley says.

As a former executive at the Eau Claire YMCA and former director of the Y’s Camp Manitou in Chippewa County, Bohlig relishes the opportunity to stay in touch with local youths.

Between tricks or while shuffling, he asks the kids their names, chats about their future plans and congratulates them on graduating. The teens readily engage in the banter.

Frequently, Bohlig recognizes the names and surprises the graduates with comments about knowing their parents or having read about their athletic or academic accomplishments in the newspaper.

When one Memorial graduate reports he has enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and is heading to San Diego, Bohlig responds, “Thank you for serving. I’m really proud of you for doing that.”

Another graduate later reveals that he has a few tricks up his sleeve as well, prompting Bohlig to hand over his deck and let the young man take center stage.

Bag of tricks

Bohlig, an all-state quarterback at Memorial, recalls being exposed to card tricks for the first time 50 years ago as a wide-eyed 17-year-old on a recruiting trip to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. After seeing a Luther student do a few tricks, Bohlig was hooked. Bohlig begged the guy to reveal the tricks of the trade, and finally, before the end of the visit, the performer gave in.

“That’s what got all this started,” Bohlig says. “Then I’ve got picked up a few other tricks along the way.”

To this day, most of his act centers around cards, although he dabbles a bit in what he called “mind reading” and “mental telepathy.”

In some cases, Bohlig shocks students with his ability to identify a mystery card they have carefully shuffled deep into a deck, while other times he pretends to mess up only to tap a graduate’s hand and magically unveil the card he somehow knew was there all along.

At one point Thursday night, Bohlig asks a group to erase the memory of a mystery card from their brains but then light-heartedly tells Olds Abes baseball player Cooper Kapanke he isn’t quick enough.

“You were thinking of the 3 of spades,” Bohlig declares, prompting Kapanke to drop his jaw and shout, “That’s nuts.”

Few in the constantly shifting crowds around his table have any idea that the fellow they call “the card-trick guy” or “the magician” once performed his magic on the football field as quarterback and team captain for the Badgers.

His most famous trick in a Badgers uniform came in 1974 when he fired a last-minute, 77-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Mack that defeated fourth-ranked Nebraska 21-20. Bohlig guided Wisconsin to a 7-4 record that year, including 5-3 and fourth place in the Big Ten, in what was the team’s first winning season in 11 years.

A three-sport star at Memorial, Bohlig was state player of the year and a Gatorade All-American in football, a second team all-state guard in basketball and was offered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals to play shortstop in baseball.

Mystery endures

An hour after being wowed by Bohlig’s feats, Memorial graduate Nathan Hau remains in awe at the sleight of hand he witnessed.

“After every trick, I was pretty much like, ‘What just happened?’ I had no idea how he did it,” Hau says.

Such a reaction from his ever-changing audience is music to the ears of Bohlig, even after all these years.

“It’s still just a delight for me,” he says.

Clearly, based on the regular explosions of laughter and expressions of amazement from onlookers Thursday night, the feeling is mutual.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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