This week I learned of the passing of not just one, but three former teachers. That sort of takes my breath away, and not in a good way. None of these deaths was really recent, but even in the days of the internet, it can take time for word to travel.
First, I heard from my brother Chuck, who read it in our high school alumni newsletter, that our old wrestling coach, Chris Ford, had passed away in January of this year. Coach Ford was, for me, the very model of what a good coach should be: encouraging, demanding, scrupulously sportsmanlike, respectful to his own team and opposing teams alike, and a builder of relationships in the wrestling community. I had the benefit of his coaching for just two years, before he left Huron (Ohio) High School to build a wrestling program from the ground up at Ashland College (now Ashland University). After creating at Ashland a nationally noteworthy wrestling program, he went on to do the same thing at Ohio State University, from which he retired in the mid-1980s. I still think of him as the youthful coach who led the high school team on which I wrestled.
I once wrote a science fiction short story about an intragalactic wrestling tournament, in which I depicted an annoying coach. Chris Ford was not the model for that coach, but he did set the standards against which that coach was contrasted. (The story was “Shapeshifter Finals,” and can be found in my story collection, Going Alien.)
Further down in that same alumni newsletter, I read that Coach Ford’s son, Brian, had died several months later. That just seems too cruel.
In the same damn newsletter, I learned that my high school Latin teacher, Marlene McKillip, had also passed away, at the age of 83. I did not have as close a relationship to her, but I do remember that she was stern, demanding, and fair. Veni, vidi, vici.
You’d think that would be enough for one newsletter. But no, down at the bottom, there’s an alumni membership signup form. And on the form are blanks where you can specify contributions to different scholarship funds. One of them is in the name of the teacher who probably influenced me more than any teacher in any school: Larry Zimmer. You don’t suppose, I thought. And I googled his name, to learn that he has been gone from this world for three years! I found this tribute, from another former student named Lesa, which says it as well as I could: “Larry Zimmer died on Thursday, and the world is a little less kind because of his loss.”
It was Larry Zimmer, Mr. Z, more than any other teacher, who encouraged me to write.
In my 1990 novel, Down the Stream of Stars, I had an AI holo-teacher for kids on a colony starship. The teacher was named Mr. Zizmer, or Mr. Z for short. I’m glad I was able to give him that tribute, but I wish I’d been home when he called to say how much he enjoyed it. He did not leave a return number. I was not very good at keeping up old connections in those days, and I never stayed in touch the way I wish I had. If wishes were horses…