A few more vignettes for Hugh Curtler from his memorial service

As a few of us have written in tribute (Lisa and Jill), our friend Hugh Curtler passed away last summer. With the pandemic upon us, his wife Linda and family delayed the memorial service to yesterday, which included an online viewing. Several friends, relatives and students spoke in tribute. Here are a few of the poignant and funny stories about our friend:

Hugh was a teacher, coach and friend. Several of his former university students and friends spoke of his impact on their lives. A few said Hugh taught them how to think in his philosophy class. Other classes were more lecture and rote, so Professor Curtler’s stood out. A few talked of changing majors or minoring in philosophy. One spoke of his mentoring.

He also started the Honors program at the university, Southwest Minnesota State, and the women’s tennis team. One of his early tennis players spoke of how it all got started and the influence Coach Curtler had on their lives. On Lisa’s blog she has a video of Hugh speaking of the tennis program start-up and rise to prominence.

But, a few funny stories were thrown in that made us smile or laugh. One former student spoke of Hugh and him walking along the campus having discussions in a Yoda-like fashion, as if Master Yoda was one of the students there. A co-ed student said she and several of her friends saw them laughing and wondered what it was all about.

A long-time friend spoke of Hugh and Linda’s bird-watching hobby. He called them both one day when an unusual bird was in his front yard and left a humorous message. He said he saw this bird and called them, but since neither were there, he just shot it and threw it in the freezer to be identified later. They knew he was joking, but were not entirely sure.

One student spoke of several students dressing in formal attire for one of his classes to celebrate a milestone. The good professor walked in and was stunned, but continued the class to the elegantly dressed students. Apparently, he still had some of the champagne left when he passed.

His sister wrote a note to be read at the service. She spoke lovingly of her brother and mentioned their common love for watching the comedienne Carol Burnett’s show on Saturday night. That was one of their touchstones. Mine too, as I grew up doing the same.

Finally, the bird-killing storyteller spoke of a recurring joke he had with Hugh knowing his feelings about politics. He would pretend to be a campaign person from a candidate Hugh did not care for and call him to thank him for his donation. He used the name Sarah Palin as an example, since she is back in the news running for Congress. He knew he could always get Hugh going with such a ploy.

Hugh will be remembered well. I miss his comments as much as I miss his blog. His voice was a lot like our British friend Roger’s, who offers context and history. Please take a look at my previous blog which has links to Jill and Lisa’s more detailed ones.

Our friend has passed on – Hugh Curtler, teacher, coach, friend

I learned from our US expat friend in Ecuador, Lisa Brunetti, who writes under “Playamart – Zeebra Designs and Destinations,” that our blogging friend Hugh Curtler had passed away. Our mutual friend Jill Dennison has a wonderful tribute post, including pictures and links to some of his later posts. Lisa has added a terrific tribute as well, including a You Tube link. A link to both tributes are below.

Here is how Hugh defined himself in his “About” page:

Hugh Mercer Curtler is a retired academic who taught philosophy and Humanities (Great Books) for 41 years in three different colleges and universities, his final 37 years being spent at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. In addition to teaching full time, he founded and directed Southwest’s honors program and, for fifteen years, coached their championship women’s tennis team. To this point he has published thirteen books and numerous articles and reviews in professional journals. His successful coaching career led to induction in university and conference Halls of Fame plus the USTA Northern Hall of Fame; in 2006 he became Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Southwest.

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Hugh spent his early years on the East Coast before moving to the Midwest where he supplemented his academic work with avid reading and careful observation of the world around him. Hopefully, his blogs will reflect his wide range of interests.”

If I defined Hugh in a few words it would be “teacher, coach, friend.” Here is a note I posted on Jill’s tribute post to add to her words.

“Jill, this is a wonderful tribute to our friend. As you may recall, it was Hugh that sent me your way, saying I think you will like what this person writes about. He was ever the philosopher (but not pretentious), professor and coach. We bloggers did not fully appreciate the tennis coaching side of his persona. Without preaching it, I learned a lot about philosophy and great literature from Hugh.

He also was a staunch supporter of the environment, even inviting me to co-write an article for a magazine on perceptions of lay people on the environment and renewable energy. My first reaction to his invitation was ‘Hugh I don’t think I am qualified to write this,’ but he insisted for its purpose, I was. I would not have done it without his push and co-authorship.

Finally, his comments on other blogs will be missed. I always looked forward to what the professor might add, taking some pleasure if he agreed with my post or supported my comment. I wish your other readers who do not know Hugh’s work will check these suggested posts out. Thanks, my friend, Keith”

Please check out these wonderful tributes to Hugh. He will be missed, but maybe we can help his words to live on.

Failing to teach history

The following is a letter I sent into my newspaper. Let’s see if it will get published. But, please feel free to adapt and use with your newspapers.

It troubles me that so many state legislatures have passed laws to restrict public school teachers from teaching our bad actions in history under the premise it is bothersome. Slavery of African-Americans and its persecuting brother the Jim Crow era did happen. Genocide of Native Americans and stealing their land did happen. Firing gays and lesbians who worked in government jobs under the Lavender Scare did happen. Blackballing so-called Communists under the McCarthy witch hunts did happen. And, we did detain Japanese Americans in camps.

We may not have had a Holocaust in the US where 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, but Jews did get persecuted here, too. We must know these lessons. If we fail to learn history, we are destined to repeat it. And, that concerns me

Remember those teachers who impacted you so much

Teachers are feeling the brunt of the recent COVID surge. They want to teach but keep themselves, their familes and the kids safe. Yet, we owe so much to our teachers, especially those that changed our lives.

I am biased as my mother was a teacher. I saw how hard she worked grading papers into the night, offering constructive feedback and encouragement to each student. I have seen criticism of teachers when they are looking for pay increases around them not working a full year. But, when you add up their hours and compare them to those of the average year-around working person, they have nothing to be ashamed of in that category.

Please indulge me as I remember a few of my teachers – I will focus on Grades 1 – 12, as I can do an entire post of college professors..

  • I remember Ms. Shrout, the tiniest of high school teachers, exude passion as she taught us Algebra and Trigonometry. She had to stand on her toes to write long solutions from the top of the board. And, she was funny and made us laugh as she taught us so much.
  • I remember Ms. Bowden, who no one would ever accuse of being warm and fuzzy, show her big heart and big mind as she taught us Chemistry and Physics. She treated everyone so fairly and gave up so much of her time as a softball and basketball coach. Ironically, I first met her when I was nine as she was my swimming instructor at the community pool.
  • I remember Mr. Franks who taught us Civics in junior high school. He made learning fun about how society should work, that I would love to see him teach folks today who need it so much. He was as engaging and inviting of dialogue as any teacher I ever had before I got to college.
  • I remember Ms. Regan who taught us Literature in high school. She made reading the classics enjoyable, helping us get beneath the stories that sometimes got hidden in the fanciful prose and poetry. Our classes were enjoyable and engaging. She also gave of herself as a tennis coach.

I could mention more, but wanted to highlight a few. I noted a couple of these teachers also coached the kids after school. They would spend a lot of extra time to help others in so doing, but if I remember correctly got US$500 per annum in extra compensation for all those hours of work at practice and games.

Let me know about some of your favorite teachers and why. Each of the above had a different style, but each conducted classes that were interactive and engaging, which is what it is all about.

Nice boys don’t ask questions like that said the minister (a repeat post)

The following post was written about seven years ago, but remains relevant today. As a person of faith, we should not shy away from askng questions. I truly love the encouraged dialogue in the Brown family.

Earlier this week, Dan Brown the author of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” appeared on CBS Good Morning. It was fascinating to learn of his upbringing as he was raised by a mathematician father and a very devout mother who was the church choir director. Brown even sang in his mother’s choir. He said he was raised to ask questions and lived in a very healthy balance of science and religion.

Brown noted it was not uncommon around the dinner table to question all things, such as what if Jesus was not the son of God and was a mortal prophet? This type of questioning was encouraged as it opened his mind to discussion. It also let him gain a better understanding of religion in the context of greater scientific information. When he became concerned that the Big Bang Theory seemed to be at odds with the bible’s view on creation, he went to ask his minister. The answer he received was not welcoming of discussion. The answer resides in the title to this post. “Nice boys don’t ask questions like that,” said the minister.

He said this was a life changing answer. It had the opposite effect from what the minister likely intended. Brown said it told him that we should be questioning more things in the bible especially where the text doesn’t jive with scientific data and leading thought. Many who have discussed the Big Bang Theory have noted that it need not, by itself, contradict a divine hand of creation. But, that is not the answer he received.

Since he wrote “The Da Vinci Code” which is based on the plot that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child, he was asked on the show about the recent papyrus that indicated that Jesus was married, but was proven to be not authentic. Brown notes that religious scholars over time have discussed whether Jesus was married. The book and movie just made the issue more known to others. He was not saying Jesus was or was not married. Brown was simply noting that it has been discussed in religious scholar circles.

So, we should question texts such as the bible, especially when considering the context of when they were first written and later translated. I have written several posts about people of faith teaching against science and scientific exploration. For the home schooling mothers (and fathers) and owners of the Creationist museum that talk about the dinosaurs walking with man on an earth that is only 7,000 years old, this does a huge disservice to the children. They are being taught that others will try to dissuade you from these teachings, which will only alienate the kids from their teachers when the truths become more evident.

As someone of faith, to repeat a message that I have been noting in earlier posts, it is not possible that every word in the bible is true or any religious text for that matter. They each have good messages and teachings to live by, but even if divinely inspired, these texts were written by imperfect men, interpreted and reinterpreted by imperfect men, and translated and retranslated by imperfect men. God did not dictate, so the men related what they believed to be true in the context of their own biases, understandings of science, and human imperfections. And, they were men. Women are treated as second class citizens and even chattel in many religious texts.

For a minister to give the response to young Dan Brown’s question like he did, showed his own lack of faith in the document. The bible has many great lessons, but it also has parts that don’t get brought up much in sermons. We must question things. King Solomon, who is revered in the bible for his wisdom, implies God gave us a brain and we honor him when we use it. So, we should use it and ask questions.

We need to reconcile what the text means in the greater context of science and history.  For those who believe the earth is only 7,000 years old, when data literally beneath your feet refutes what you are saying about the age of the earth, then you should pause and think. If we don’t allow an updated understanding of the bible and religious texts, then people will pay attention less and miss the key messages that Jesus had for us. And, that would be a shame.

Heart of Gold – an encore tribute to Neil Young

“I want to live, I want to give. I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. It’s these expressions, I never give. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold.” The words from “Heart of Gold” ring true to many. We are searching for a heart of gold; all of us in one way, shape or form. Neil Young, like some of the others I have written about, is our conscious. Like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin, he sang about us. Our trials and tribulations. Like Dylan, he told us what was wrong in the world – he could just play a meaner guitar.

To appreciate fully the greatness of Neil Young, I would encourage you to give some compilation of his songs a listen on a long trip somewhere. I have a CD called “Decade” which is a two disc set, which seem to always have one of the two in my car’s CD player. Yes, I am an Old Fart, I know. One of his conscious testing songs still resonates today – “Southern Man.” Read on and tell me if you agree: “Southern man, better keep your head. Don’t forget what your good book said. Southern change gonna come at last. Now your crosses are burning fast. Southern man.” Please know that I am from the south. Yet, there are cadres of people who have become quite exclusionary, which is giving the south a bad name once again. This is very frustrating to many, but our voices aren’t as newsworthy as the loud and proud neighbors we have.

Another favorite is “Old Man.” It tells the tale of how the old man was once just like the young rebel. “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…. Old man, look at my life, twenty-four and there is so much more.” The times were different, but the arguments are similar. Let me live my life. It is mine not yours. This argument has been going for years and will go on tomorrow. Mark Twain once lamented how stupid his father was when he was a teenager and how smart he became once Twain got in his twenties. That was written more than 125 years ago. He could write it 125 years into the future and it would still be true.

One of the best tunes he wrote with a very distinctive title is “Cinnamon Girl.”  He describes her as “A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night. You can see us together, chasing the moonlight. My Cinnamon Girl.” I think he uses Cinnamon as it is spicy and often used with something sweet. At least that is the conclusion I like to believe is true. But, the song is evocative in many ways. Give it a listen and see if you concur.

There so many to choose from – “Helpless” is a favorite. If you get a chance to see The Band’s final concert movie “The Last Waltz”, look for Joni Mitchell singing a haunting back-up to “Helpless” with Young.  “Ohio” is an anthem against President Richard Nixon for allowing the national guard to be called out on college students at Kent State, where an itchy trigger finger caused students to die. This was one of the more avoidable tragedies in our country and was a damn shame.”Down by the River”, “Cowgirl in the Sand”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Like a Hurricane”, “Long May You Run” and “Sugar Mountain” are all terrific. He has so many songs, that I have likely left off someone’s favorite.

Let me close with one he wrote during the time of the first President George Bush, back when our homeless problem was becoming worse, the war on drugs was failing miserably and we tended to speak in platitudes, some of which you may recognize. “Keep on Rockin in the Free World” is an anthem*. To me it says, I am still here and this is a great place to be, but quit screwing people over: “We got a thousands points of light, for the homeless man. We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand….Got a man of the people says to ‘keep hope alive.’ Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive…Keep on rockin in the free world…”

One of the reasons I like this song is politicians and leaders like to speak in buzz words or say things that sound great. Yet, talk is cheap. You need to make a move to make a difference. People were dying on the street, yet little was done by leadership. Plus, I like it as he showed he still had the knack. The 1980’s had some good songs, but it was a decade of big hair bands whose lyrics and music were fairly straightforward and similar. This song made a statement by its words, as well as made a statement by its tune. But, the other reason it resonated as one month after its release, the Berlin Wall fell and it became an anthem for “rockin in the free world.”

Neil, you have been our conscience for a long time. We love the important words, the storytelling and the music. We love that you stand up for what you believe. Keep on rocking for a free world and mining for that heart of gold.

*Note: Here is Neil Young singing “Rockin’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live in 1989.

Unaccountability

Parents have tended to emphasize to our children that they need to be accountable for their actions. When I see a child or adult accept accountability, it impresses me, probably because it should be more commonplace than it is. “It is my fault, I messed up, and I will take care of it,” are words that need to be said more often.

Sadly, one of the worst examples of the lack of accountability is the former president. He has long avoided accountability which has contributed to his blaming others or avoiding blame for his mistakes. This is a key reason he remains an “enfant terrible” even into his 70s and is well known for his deceitful bent.

The latest example is the sycophants in Congress who are rationalizing his autocratic-like spying on people he perceives as his enemies – Democrats and the mainstream media. This is on top of only seventeen Republicans who voted to impeach or convict him for his role in the insurrection on the Capitol. Plus, there are way too many elected Republicans who continue to support his bogus claims of widespread election fraud.

To be frank, the spineless sycophants unnerve me the most, as they pretend to like the former president, so as not to anger him or his vindictive extreme base, yet they know what he is like and speak of it privately. They privately worry what they will have to defend next. And, next up may be things beyond their control, as he faces more than several civil and criminal court cases.

So, moms and dads, please tell your children not to emulate the former president. When you ask what would Jesus do (WWJD), the answer will not come from a list of things the former president does, unless he slipped up and did the right thing by accident.

My Mother the Teacher – a reprise

The following post was written seven years ago while my mother was still alive. We lost her on early Christmas morning a couple of years later. Since two weeks ago was National Teacher Appreciation Week and today being Mother’s Day, this post seemed fitting to revisit.

When one of the boys I was coaching in baseball found out my mother had been his teacher, he said immediately about the sweetest woman I know, “Your mother is mean.” I asked him why he would say that and he said my mother put his desk up front by her desk. Now, if you remember anything about teachers, you know when a teacher does this she is beyond her last straw. I also knew the boy was more animated than others in practice and would not listen very well. When I mentioned this later to my mother, she said, “He was a real pill.”

Teaching is a hard job. It can be very rewarding, but it also can be very thankless. My mother has always been a teacher, whether as a second (or first) grade teacher, as a substitute or as a bible study teacher. She would spend (and still does at age 83) hours preparing her lessons and, in the case of elementary school, grading papers. In her paying job, she probably worked ten to twelve hours days. Some might say, teachers get summer off, but they work a week after school is out and a few weeks before every one comes back. But, when you add up the hours, they can rival most year-round employment jobs.

However, because they are relatively low paid, especially in my state of North Carolina where we are 46th in teacher pay, many work summer jobs as well. Our state is trying to remedy the problem it created with frozen budgets and cutbacks on additional pay for masters degrees. Teachers have been voting with their feet leaving the state and the Moral Monday protests added a large voice to that of teachers to shame the legislators into doing something. They are still arguing over this as of this writing.

Yet, through this process, teachers have not been shown the respect they have earned. Of course, there are some poor teachers. But for the large part, my experience has been with very dedicated professionals. And, they also take the blame for things outside of their control. My mother would tell you that it does take a village to raise and educate a child. A good teacher cannot do the parent’s job. It needs to be a team effort between the teacher, parents, counselors and teacher assistants. Also, volunteers help, in a large way, especially if there is not enough teacher assistants to cover the classes.

But, you may have noticed I used the plural of parents. The dilemma these days is if you looked at the demographics of classrooms, the number of kids with divorced parents would not be insignificant. Further, the number of those kids with only one parent in their relationship would not be inconsequential, especially in high poverty schools. In the volunteer work I do for homeless families, there is a significant percentage of single parent families. Divorced or single parent families make it tougher on the kids.

A couple of years ago, I tutored two fifth graders in math. They were interesting and attentive little girls who asked for help in writing. This blew me away. One had ten people and three generations in her house and the other had seven people. Each had a heavy list of chores beyond the normal 5th grader, so school work was difficult to fit in. The nice part is a school counselor was working with the teachers and parents to help these girls keep up. Since English was their second language, word math problems gave them trouble, as did geometry, but that can give anyone nightmares. We worked through their issues and they passed.

Seeing my mother with my kids and my nieces and nephews, she has the patience of Job. She embodies what teachers are all about. They want to help people and take great pride when the children learn and can apply their learnings to something else. In Finland, teaching is one of their most honored professions. Their brightest aspire to these roles and are given the freedom to teach. They are paid well and Finland routinely ranks high in education achievement.

We should value people like my mother. They make such a huge difference in our kids’ lives. They did in my life, as well. So, big shout outs to Mr. Batten, Ms. Bowden, Ms. Regan, Ms. Shrout, Mr. Brickell and countless others. Thanks for teaching me. And, the biggest thanks go to Mom. You are my first and best teacher. I love you, Mom.

My Favorite Teacher Movies

In honor or Teachers Appreciation Week, here is a post from seven years ago. It received wonderful suggestions in the comments section as there are so many good ones I did not mention. Please add yours below.

I was inspired to write this having seen a review of all the musical performers who went on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with a focus on performers from Great Britain. So, what does this have to do with teachers, you ask? In 1967, the singer Lulu came on the show to sing the title song from “To Sir, with love” a song that lives beyond its boundaries. The movie by the same name is one of my four favorite movies about teachers.

“To Sir, with love” was set in the 1960s in a working class area. Sidney Poitier played the role of “Sir” which was what the male teachers were called. After much angst of trying to teach these high school seniors, he realized that they were about to go into the real world, so he decided to teach them about life. I must confess I get chills writing this, as he taught them how to act toward each other; he taught them about race relations and human dignity; he taught them the beautiful things in the world and showed them opportunity. And, he taught them that the world was not going to give you anything, so you better work hard. If you have not seen the movie, I will not spoil the ending.

The next three were hard to pick from, but I went with “Dead Poet’s Society” perhaps Robin Williams’ best movie filmed in 1989. Williams’ character Mr. Keating returned to a prep school for boys that he had attended. The boys had been taught to conform and toe the line, but Keating taught them poetry and passion. He taught them about carpe diem. And, they called him “Oh Captain, my Captain.” The best moment in the movie is when he teaches Ethan Hawke’s character how to improvise a poem, since he was having so much trouble writing one. After he does so, Keating whispers in his ear, “don’t you ever forget this.”

“Stand and Deliver” with Edward James Olmos made in 1988 is a about a math teacher who decided to teach Calculus to Latin American high school students in an impoverished neighborhood. He is ridiculed and laughed at by the other math teachers and principal. He drafts kids who work over the summer on pre-calculus material, to be prepared for the even harder stuff in the fall. Lou Diamond Phillips plays one of his students and Andy Garcia plays a testing official with the Advanced Placement organization. These kids fight an uphill battle with Olmos’ coaching, teaching and coercing. And, just when they succeed, they get slapped down and have to do it again. It is an inspiring true story about what blood, sweat and tears mixed with some passion and intellect can do.

The final member of my quartet is “Mr. Holland’s Opus” made in 1995 with Richard Dreyfus as Mr. Holland, the music and band teacher. Take a lot of tissue to the couch if you watch this one. Mr. Holland worked on his opus for years, but found out later that his real opus was the kids he taught. Along the way, he had a challenge he needed to overcome and that was when his son was born deaf. But, his son being deaf was not the biggest obstacle, it was him finding the way to show his son his passion and bring him into his world and becoming more a part of his son’s. Being the father of band students over the years, with my oldest being in the marching and jazz bands, this show has extra meaning for me. Hats off to Jay Thomas as Holland’s friend and the school’s athletic coach. And, Bill H. Macy and Olympia Dukakis play important roles, although you will not care for Macy’s character at all.

I think movies about great teachers have a special place in our hearts. We all have been inspired by one or more teachers. And, just like these inspirational teachers, there are other excellent movies about teachers – “Finding Forrester” with Sean Connery, “Dangerous Minds,” with Michelle Pfeiffer, “Teachers” with Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington and “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman to name a few. 

I would love to hear about your favorites. Did I miss one that I should have highlighted? Have you seen the above? What teacher did you have that made a difference in your life?

Random life lessons from sports or other interests

Whether it is playing an individual or team sport, marching in a band, or working in some group effort, life lessons abound. These lessons may not be earth-moving, but they will serve you well, if you heed them and use them elsewhere. In no particular order:

  • Sporting activities teach us how to handle failure. The best baseball hitters will fail seven times out of ten. Think about that. What you do when you fail is of vital importance.
  • Specific to golf, it is a terrific metaphor for life. Golf is a game of managing your mistakes. The worse the golfer, the wider array of outcomes to any given shot. The next shot is of importance, but also managing that six inches of area between your ears. The just completed bad shot needs to shoved out of your mind before the next one.
  • Marching band is hard work and involves a lot of team work. Think about playing an instrument while weaving in and out of patterns avoiding other marchers. And, doing that until you get it right for the day.
  • Any team member knows we each have a role on the team. Not everyone can be star or lead the effort. We just need to roll up our sleeves and do our part. In basketball, teams with too much talent are not necessarily the ones who win. There is only one basketball, so someone has to pass the ball, rebound the ball, play defense,…
  • You cannot change the past, only the present and future. The great baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser said when he starts out, he wants to throw a no-hitter. Once the opponent gets its first hit, he sets out to throw a one-hitter and so on. He said he was good at putting the past behind him, as I mention about golf in the earlier example.
  • Life is not fair. Neither is sports or music. No matter how hard you practice, there will be some who are more talented than you. So, just do your best, work hard and find a way to contribute. There is an old lesson that the best coaches are the former players who had to work harder to succeed. Think about that.
  • Practice the things you do not do as well, not what you do well. This is a common mistake. Practice is good, but practicing what you need to practice is better. Also, do not shirk on practice efforts. Work hard to improve as if you do not, then you are only cheating yourself.
  • Focus on sustainability as you practice or work out. What are your goals? Then work toward them. Whether it is better chipping, more accurate free throw shooting, or more aerobic exercising, work toward those goals.
  • Play the game the right way treating all participants and team mates the way you want to be treated. Recently, I wrote about Dean Smith teaching his basketball players to thank the person who passed the ball leading to their basket. Also, trash talking serves no constructive purpose. Win and lose with class.

There are so many more life lessons that can be mentioned. Please share your thoughts and other lessons you took away from such interests.