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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

Mr. Walsh Could Teach Wisconsin Something, Too

March 15, 2011

The political uprising in the state of Wisconsin over the rights of public employees to enter into collective bargaining brought a great deal of focus on public school teachers.

Lost in the ruckus is the role that many teachers play in the lives of their students, often for years after graduation.

I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have a fond memory, whether they went through public or private school, of at least one teacher who captured their imagination and made them think about their future potential.

Somewhere in the process, usually in middle school, or during high school, a teacher comes along who is able to bring out your best.

For me, it was Mr. James Walsh who taught Problems of the Twentieth Century at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland.

He asked us to look at things from outside the box. The fact that he was a different style of teacher was intriguing, and might have played a role in his effectiveness. Students seemed to be able to relate to his uniqueness.

He was not politically correct. He rarely wore a tie to school, which was the standard dress code for teachers at the time. Instead, he wore turtle neck sweaters underneath his jacket, and a 60s style medallion medal hung from a fancy chain in the place of a tie.

Mr. Walsh smoked cigarettes in class, something I’ve never seen before, or since, and his lectures were amplified by the use of a small microphone he clipped to his jacket. No one complained about his style, and I do not remember anyone being bothered by the secondhand smoke.

He usually gave us the option of how intricate the lectures would be, often starting out with a question to the class. “Would you like me to give you the college lecture version of today’s lesson, or the high school version?”

Invariably we opted for the college lecture version.

Mr. Walsh was a one-time Foreign Service officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, and served from 1950 to 1960 in Washington and Belgrade.  He graduated from Syracuse University, where he also received a master’s degree in contemporary history.

He completed his postgraduate study at the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, and at the Vatican Institute of Gregorian Chant in Rome.

He spoke five languages and traveled the world for most of his life – often to eastern bloc countries at a time when the Iron Curtain made travel to these areas difficult and dangerous.

He turned to public school teaching only when the CIA wanted to promote him to a desk job at Langley. He would leave for Eastern Europe the day after school recessed for the summer, and would not return until the week before school started in the fall.

His political take and world-view stories were legendary. Mr. Walsh assigned Newsweek and Time as mandatory reading material and discussed the contents of these magazines in the classroom.

I remember how he signed my senior yearbook, “To Robb, who was an athlete, gentleman, and student – and showed no strain.” That was classy stuff for a 17 year-old to read from a teacher.

He didn’t stop teaching after graduation. We stayed friends for years, getting together whenever we could, talking late into the night always on the topic of politics or his recent visit to Eastern Europe.

Mr. Walsh died in his sleep on September 10, 1992. It was ironic that we had dinner together the night before he died, and I was honored to be a pallbearer at his funeral. I think about him often and wonder how he would view the past twenty years.

I do not believe this is an unusual story. It’s likely played out across the country, in many locations, involving hundreds of current and former teachers, just like Mr. Walsh.

It was however the missing message on the part of the teachers union during the recent ruckus in the state of Wisconsin.