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Remembering Mr. Walsh

Setpember 3, 2012

I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have a fond memory of at least one teacher who captured the imagination and made them think about their future potential.

Somewhere in the process, usually in middle school or high school, a teacher comes along who brings 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. He was different and intriguing, and the students liked him. But there was more to him than that.

He was not politically correct. He rarely wore a tie which was standard teacher dress code at the time. He wore turtle neck sweaters, and a 60s style medallion 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 annoyed by the secondhand smoke.

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

Invariably we opted for the college version.

Mr. Walsh was a one-time Foreign Service officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, and served from 1950 to 1960 in Washington D.C. 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 Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and at the Vatican Institute of Gregorian Chant in Rome.

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

He turned to public school teaching only when the CIA wanted to promote him to a desk job at company headquarters in Langley, Virginia. 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 world travel, and the fact that he once worked for the CIA, made him all the more fascinating. But he was also a great guy and a caring teacher who could relate to his students.

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

He signed my senior yearbook, “To Robb, who was an athlete, gentleman, and student – and showed no strain.” Classy stuff for a 17 year-old to hear from a teacher.

We stayed friends for years, getting together whenever possible, talking late into the night about politics or his recent visit to Eastern Europe.

It was twenty years ago this week that Mr. Walsh died in his sleep on September 10, 1992. We had dinner together the night before he died, and I was honored to be a pallbearer at his funeral.

In his last will and testament, he insisted that his memorial service be held 'at night,' and that wine be served at the reception afterward. He requested the following words be read: "The drinks are on me."

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 like Mr. Walsh. Their legacies are passed on by grateful students.

Thank you Mr. Walsh.