THE BLOG
08/21/2014 11:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Three Hall of Fame Teachers-and Their Influence on a Newbie

Kevin Walsh

The following first appeared on Kevin's blog, MyMediaDiary.com.

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It wasn't too hard to pick the first round of inductees in 1996 for my school's Hall of Fame: Glenn Frey of the Eagles; Judith Guest, the author of Ordinary People; U.S. Congressman William Broomfield, to name a few. But if you follow the school's motto, "Enter here to learn, go forth to serve," many inductees who selflessly serve are not necessarily your marquee names.

And fortunately, our school realized that faculty, as well as alumni, deserved a spot on the wall for their service.

My first day on the job as a 22 year-old English teacher, I was asked for a hall pass. Even later that year when I was coaching freshman baseball, I went out to talk to the umpire before the first pitch and was greeted with, "Hey kid, go get your coach." I had a senior home room; some students were already 18 -- one kid was 21.

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Some new English teacher not noticing the word above his head.

In 1987, I was the first teacher hired at Royal Oak Dondero High School in five years -- I was also the last one hired for the next four years. So as the "baby," as I was called until my hair was half-grey, I quickly sought support from those outside of my playpen.

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My time at Dondero was special. It was the classical school that I always wanted to inhabit since I fell in love with teaching while watching Lloyd Haynes' Mr. Dixon on Room 222 at the idyllic Walt Whitman High School. The magic, of course, was that out in the parking lot most teachers and principals are smiling -- even if the Los Angeles public bus system does slam its doors on your smiling face, Karen Valentine.

My new school was built in the 1920s and had three stories -- I always thought that this easy access to such square-footage made the camaraderie stronger, simply by increasing the likelihood that we were bound to bump into one another, like Royal Oak's comfortable neighborhoods that had sidewalks and local parks -- not subdivisions and gates.

But the magic wasn't in its architecture, it was in the faculty and its amazing institutional memory. When I began, there were some teachers who started their careers three years before Kennedy's election, before teacher's unions and before anything close to a livable income. Some of those same veteran instructors first taught in the same school beside veteran English teachers who remembered The Great Gatsby first appearing in stores.

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Some Dondero students even performed on the White House lawn during the Camelot days.

I owe my love of teaching to these amazing people -- most notably my dear mentors and neighboring English teachers Judy Schultheiss and Kay Brakeville, who were my confidants and took me under their wings with great care, patience and wonderful irony. From them I learned balance, the potential of each student and the respect that each child deserves -- even if they have flipped your book out of the window and headed downstairs for a smoke.

But I also must acknowledge three men with whom I shared different aspects of teaching -- all of them contributing to my own psyche as an educator. Not surprisingly, all three are being inducted into the Royal Oak High School Hall of Fame this September 21st.

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Mike McElroy

Mike taught biology on the corner of the third floor -- on the other side of the building and the other side of the brain from my literature and writing classes. He was a weight-lifter and coach of swimming, football and track -- four things never found on my resume.

But Mike impressed me immediately with his great sense of humor -- even with the most ornery of linemen. He shared the coaches' locker room with me during the spring as I muddled through my only season of managing a baseball squad. I learned the hard way that you should make cuts during tryouts. As the person that was perennially cut, I couldn't bring myself to do it. But halfway through the season, my squad of 18 kids jockeying for nine places on the field wore down the morale of everyone. I still see Mike's sideways smile as he shook his head that spring of '88 and said, "It's tough to do, I know, but it's just one of those things you've got to do."

Off the field, Mike was one of the first lines of defense in the most ridiculous layout for a men's room ever seen -- a long "L" shape that gave the smokers time to enjoy two more quick puffs before tossing the evidence upon hearing the tell-tale jingling of keys. "Nope, not mine. I'm just standing here." Mike was quick to not only provide a great extra long-arm of the law for the administration as he'd escort the busted ones downstairs, but he'd do it in a way that by the time they'd reached the ground floor, the students received a bonus biology lesson on the damage that tobacco can do to your lungs -- all while getting a great cardio workout during the descent.

There have been many that have entered the ranks of teaching so they can coach. For Mike McElroy, the jobs were one and the same.

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Rick Hartsoe

Legendary for his wild ties, his strict tardy-policy (that would require you to stand for the entire class if you didn't arrive to his cellar-choir room within the five minute passing time) but most importantly, for the Pop Concert. Rick Hartsoe's son, Brad, was one of those seniors in my first homeroom. One day, Rick stopped me by the mailbox and told me that he'd heard good things about me from his son. It took me a minute to figure out who was talking to me and who the mole was -- until he mentioned Brad's name.

Rick was the true professional that appreciated commitment, quality and terrible puns. We were destined to be compared to one another for the next thirteen years for awful groaners. The highest praise I could receive was to hear a student say, "Did Mr. Hartsoe tell you that one?"

But I didn't know the juggernaut that was Rick's Pop Concert until that winter. Our classes were invited to the auditorium during the day for a preview performance. As the recipient of the "Current Readings" class that provided a pretty tough crowd for a young or well-seasoned teacher, any break in the week was welcome. So I shepherded the crowd downstairs, past the office and hope I didn't lose too many as we took our seats. The lights went out, the spotlight hit the drummer in his plexiglass cage in the center and the entire choir stood and belted out rock songs that were hits in the '60s, '70s and that afternoon on the radio. The guitars and keyboards made the place sound like Pine Knob, not a school's assembly. I couldn't wait to return with my friends and family the next night -- so proud that I was in a school that was so innovative.

Rick's greatest legacy is the wonderful contrary mixture of intense structure and the true creative freedom that he gave to his students -- as they arranged the material, auditioned it and dealt with the consequences before a much tougher audience than a teacher holding a gradebook.

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Larry Streeter

I have to end with my fellow English teacher who has been a mentor/father/brother to me since our first departmental meeting together. I have rarely met a more spiritual, humble and kind soul in my life like "Streeter" as he was called by one and all. He led the Student Senate and steered thousands of students through intense times of their lives as he modeled the love and respect that each one of us should give to one another.

Larry's humbleness made you forget that he was not only sought as an educational leader in Michigan but on the national level as well. He would lead all of our pep assemblies, evening dances, fundraisers and, like Mike and Rick, allowed the students to become the leaders somewhere in the process. His disciples are teachers as well as civic and religious leaders all over the country.

I am forever grateful to Larry for including me in the PIP-Fest, a lock-in at the school for "Partners in Prevention" that was geared toward at-risk students. It wasn't my top priority to spend two nights sleeping on Kay Brakeville's floor, but the sharing and utter frankness of the students and the guides once Larry had made it clear that everyone was in a safe place completely changed my way of teaching. After that weekend, I never again took for granted the obstacles that some students had just getting out the door safely each morning -- and that maybe that worksheet I sent home last night wasn't the reason they were looking so exhausted.

I also never again took Larry Streeter for granted. He understood those kids and they love him dearly for his compassion and unflagging support.

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Three faculty already acknowledged as legendary, even before their induction.

As I pointed out to a superintendent, it's very easy, too easy, to take pot-shots at the risk-takers and innovators. It's a lot safer to sit on the side or to not say anything at a staff meeting and then complain about the kids going to a team-building camp, coming in at 6 for weight-lifting or staying late for rehearsal. All three of these men took chances, were creative, dedicated and self-less and they took the long-view on their students -- and a young teacher, here and there.

If you're in the Detroit area on Sunday September 21st, please help us honor these three exemplary men, two more faculty and 15 illustrious alumni at the first ceremony in eight years, since the city's two high schools became one for the first time since 1957 -- the Royal Oak High School Hall of Fame Induction.

More information at www.ROHSHallOfFame.com or visit its the Royal Oak High School Hall of Fame Facebook page.