“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
— Henry Brooks Adams
He was my teacher, not my first, but my best.
Shannon School, District 54, less than half a mile across the wheat stubble from my rural Kansas home, was his first teaching assignment.
Shannon was essentially a modern brick one-classroom elementary school that had replaced a much older one-room school just a few years earlier.
We had a small gym with a single basketball goal and a curtained stage that served as our lunchroom and scene of dozens of community plays, concerts and special programs.
The kitchen sported an oven that produced amazing cinnamon rolls and a peanut butter-slathered treat that went down best with plenty of milk.
The wooden outhouses remained, but they had been replaced by new indoor restrooms, which would serve as tornado shelters should the need arise. An L-shaped hallway was our “duck and cover” destination in case of nuclear attack.
At Shannon, one teacher taught all eight grades in a single classroom. We studied at our own desks, young kids up front, older students toward the back. When called to the table at the front of the room, we reviewed our lessons, took tests and received our next assignments. Everyone helped the younger kids.
Because of birth patterns and dumb luck, I was the only kid in my grade through seven years of elementary school. I had good teachers early on, but my only real memory of those first few years was of the bully who pulled me off the teeter-totter and broke my arm.
By the time Richard Fritschen reported to Shannon, he was about 21, straight out of college, his teaching degree still fresh and new. I would have been about 10, in the fourth grade, ready to learn. … And I looked up to that man.
He, too, was a Kansan, having grown up just a few townships over, so the dry summer winds, billowing storm fronts in the west, blood red sunsets and icy winter blasts were to him familiar constants of life on the prairie.
A greenhorn teacher, he worked hard to excel, finding ways to engage kids from first through eighth grades, making sense of each subject and finding ways to awaken our interests in learning.
He taught us to keep our minds and bodies active — whether on the playground or in the classroom. He stressed science, math, English and current events, but he also got us outside and kept us moving.
He ran the bases with us during softball games, hurled a mean side-arm in dodge-ball games against the school’s west wall, taught us how to deal with danger as he shooed rattlesnakes off the south porch, led hikes and field trips and coached our short-lived basketball team. Nothing slowed him down, even though his legs were encased in braces.
Richard had contracted polio during the frightening epidemics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Parents in those years lived with a fear of poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis) comparable only to their fear of nuclear war.
The year before Mr. Fritschen took over the Shannon classroom, we had stood in line for vaccinations of the new Salk vaccine. Those mass vaccinations of school children would immediately reduce the annual polio toll from 58,000 cases to just 5,800.
While Mr. Fritschen was one of those numbers, he never saw himself as a victim. He chose instead to focus on us, preparing his students for the future, convincing kids from the wheat fields that we could accomplish just about anything.
He would instruct us only a few years, then move on to progressively larger schools. By eighth grade, I thought I was ready for the big town, population 5,000, moving from a class of one to a class of 125 in junior high. I lost track of Mr. Fritschen, but retained what he had taught me about making the best of what you are given.
About seven years ago, almost 50 years after he taught me about resilience in that little country school, I tracked him down on the Internet and found that he had just retired as a highly respected educator and superintendent of schools in Hutchinson, Kan.
He had done well, advanced his degree, completed coursework at Notre Dame, directed a Drum and Bugle Corps, helped found the Central Kansas Polio Survivors Support Group, and took part in community theater, where he was known for his role as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also a polio survivor, in the production of “Annie.”
I picked up the phone one Sunday and called him. After all those years, he remembered me. He talked about my folks, my brothers and sisters, and laughingly recalled the curious assortment of kids that had made up his first classroom.
We talked for what must have been an hour … about my career, my family, my life ... about his career, his family, his life. We laughed at how our basketball team — made up of every kid we could scrounge from three country schools — had put a scare into at least a couple of small-town squads. He asked if I remembered his wife Delilah, and I had to admit the crush I had on her at the age of 10.
When we hung up, everything that needed to be said had been said. I told him how much he meant to me and what a difference he had made in my life. And he told me he was proud of me.
Less than a year later, with that phone conversation still fresh on my mind, I heard through my brother that he had died, gone at the age of 72.
He was my best teacher, and I wanted him to know it. And while I probably was not his best student, he made me believe I was.
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