SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Remembering Two Teachers



November 13, 2010
Saturday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
I would be remiss if I didn’t notice the recent passing of two of my former Ketchikan teachers.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Both of them taught me valuable lessons, although I would have preferred to have skipped some of those early disasters and just gone straight on to “Wisdom”, while “passing go and collecting $200.”

Like many young Ketchikan males (and a few females) I had Tom Pearson as a shop teacher at Schoenbar in the early 1970s. He was one of those big burly guys who seemed to scream “man” with every fibre of his being.

He was also remarkably patient because – year in and year out – he suffered through our attempts to “make stuff” and he also had to live in fear that any given day could – despite his best instructions and oversight –  lead to sudden digit decapitation or even worse (did you see that a shop teacher back east is being sued because a student disregarded explicit instructions to not attach electric clamps to his body parts!).

Anyway, it was Mr. Pearson’s job to try to teach me how to build something and not kill myself using power tools in the process.

Of course, I didn’t really need the help.

I come from a family of master tinkerers. MacGyver has nothing on the male members of our family who can pretty much assemble nuclear devices with duck tape, marine tex and baling wire.

Well, actually they aren’t always that good at the assembling part. They can do it, but they all have “completion” issues. They would rather have dozens of nearly assembled “projects” laying around the basement than actually finish one.

But I - of course – am not like the rest of my family. If you gave me some tape and a piece of folding paper and asked me to fold it and tape it up, I would give you – a wonderful piece of wadded paper to shoot into the trash basket. And the tape would be wrapped around my fingers.

Really, I have absolutely no skills in that department. Which, in my family, translates into have no skills at anything at all.

So it was with great enthusiasm, under Mr. Pearson’s tutelage, I embarked on a plan to build a complete chest of drawers in my Eighth Grade year.

I measured. I measured again. I cut, I planed, I hammered, I glued. I did all those manly arts sort of things and I ended up with: A shelf.

Seriously, I destroyed so much lumber during my efforts that all I could build when I was through was about a foot long curio shelf. Just big enough to hold a couple of my “Third Place” sports trophies.

I did learn something that year, though.

For a couple of weeks, they made the boys switch to Home Ec and the girls switch to Shop to give us a brief taste of how the other half was suffering.

I already knew the cooking stuff from working on my Dad’s boat all those years, but I did learn how to – very carefully – sew the tips of my fingers together without causing too much pain.

I’m sure Mr. Pearson was highly amused by my shop progress, but he just smiled, said “good job” and gave me a passing grade so as not to have to deal with my like again.

Later, when I was in my early 20s, I learned another lesson from Mr. Pearson, but I will get to that later.

So then, I moved on to Ketchikan High School, where I learned some lessons from Max Dawkins, or Xam Snikwad, as he signed his hall passes. I later learned he actually was a pretty interesting guy, but at the time he was not one of my favorite teachers. To put it mildly.

I had Mr. Dawkins for Algebra in Second Period my Freshman year. He gave me the worst grade I have ever received for a full quarter. But I have to say, it wasn’t all my fault.

Mr. Dawkins – at least in those days – was a very hard grader (I have heard rumors that he was less so later on). One thing that seemed to really bother him was punctuality – or the lack thereof.

In first period, I had PE and in those days, there were two bells at Kayhi in the gym. The first bell was a warning, letting you know you had five minutes before the class bell, so it was time to hit the showers.

Mr. Vincent, the PE teacher, never let us leave the gym on the first bell. We had to stay until the second bell, which meant we then had five minutes to get showered and get to our next class. Of course, we never made it before the second bell and Mr. Dawkins was not amused. Everyone’s grade suffered – at least partially.

There was another factor. All the studies in the world show that high schoolers’ brains don’t function very well in the morning hours. So what do we do? We send those kids to school at 7:30 in the morning and we wonder why they are walking zombies until noon. High School kids should be in school from noon to six. Then we’d stand a better chance of catching up with the rest of the world in Math and Science. But – as usual – I digress.

Imagine waking up (after your mother pours water on your head!) and stumbling half asleep up the hill to school. Then you run around the gym for an hour like a lunatic and then sit your bottom in a chair for an hour of algebra. Your results may vary, but ours were pretty bad.

When the first quarter grades came out, there was one C.  Everyone else was in the D and F range. I had one of the highest grades in the class, a D+. My mother was not amused. She was “very disappointed.” She bemoaned the fact that I was wasting my education (my mother was Kayhi Salutatorian in 1939).

She, of course, tried to compare me to the girl across the street whom she had been comparing me for nine years of schooling at that point (I had always lost that comparison). But this time, I had an out. The girl across the street had gotten a “D.”


Anyway, things got better after I decided to stop showering and just go straight to Algebra in the second quarter. I ended up leaving Mr. Dawkins’ class with mostly C pluses and B minus for the rest of the year. And I had to work harder for those B's than I have had to work in any other class that I have ever had in my life.

So Mr. Dawkins taught that “life is not always fair” but you have to work really hard anyway and (to quote Woody Allen, 90 percent of life is just showing up), it is also very, very, very important to be on time.

Of course, smelling like gym sweat for the rest of each school day really hampered my Freshman year social life. Not that it was much to talk about anyway.

I said that I got another lesson from Mr. Pearson later in life and that’s true.

In my early 20s, I still harbored some hope of having athletic success so I joined the local men’s fast pitch softball league. I was fortunate enough to play on a team in which Mr. Pearson was the pitcher and I don’t think I’ve seen a better fast pitch softball pitcher in my life.

You had trouble catching up with his fastball and he then threw a variety of other pitches that left the batters just flailing idiotically at the plate. Risers, drops, you name it, he threw it.

Of course, it didn’t help that he was at least two decades older than most of the other players in the league and they were always making fun of “gramps” and he was leaving them looking pretty childlike at the plate.

Anyway, we won most of our games and were competing for the league championship at the end of the year. I can’t remember which team we played, but I can remember what happened.

And it wasn’t pretty.

Mr. Pearson set down the other team in order every inning. He just completely stuffed them. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much luck against the other side and we were in the last inning and the score was 0-0. The other side obviously had last ups.

I was playing in right field (it was at the lower of the two Dudley Fields, so my back was to the Kayhi Auto Shop area. It was very sunny and since it was late in the afternoon, the sun was back behind the plate and shining right into my eyes in right field.

It didn’t matter because the other team wasn’t even making contact. They’d come up and miss three blazing strikes and sit back down.

Occasionally someone would foul a pitch off and I think there were a couple of week grounders in the infield, but no one had gotten safely to first. I was actually almost dozing, as were both of the other outfielders.

Suddenly there was a tell tale ping of someone making better contact. The swing was late, so I knew it was heading my way, but when I looked up all I saw was the blazing sun. I pulled my sunglasses down, I used by glove to shield my eyes. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. I couldn’t see a thing.

I didn’t move.

Then the ball splatted on the dirt field about 10 feet to my right and rolled back toward the fence.

The perfect game was gone. Then I made it worse.

Horrified, I chased after the ball, grabbed it, and turned back toward the field. All I had to do was get the back in quick enough to hold the runner at second or third and, most likely, Mr. Pearson would get the next guy out and the game would go on.

But for some reason, I turned and thought the runner was already at third and I uncorked the longest throw of my life hoping to catch him at home.

By all rights, the ball should have only gotten to second base anyway, but I never had much of an arm. But that day I was blessed – for two seconds – with the arm of Roberto Clemente.

On the fly, the ball sailed past second, past the mound. And even cleared the backstop. The ball bounded onto Jackson Street and bounced somewhere past the Armory. It may still be going as far as I know.

The runner was nearing third base, he trotted home. Game over. We finished second.

Natch, I just walked slowly and sat in my car, staring blankly out the window. I would have driven home but my right arm was completely numb and I didn’t think I could grip the wheel. The rest of me wasn’t doing so well either.

I sat there as everyone left. No one even looked at me as they got in their cars and left. It occurred to me that – as the sportwriter for the Daily News – I would now have to go back to the office and write the game story for Monday paper. That was pretty ironic.

Then there was a tap on the window. I had to roll it down because my own “steamedness” had caused the windows to fog.

It was Mr. Pearson.

“Interesting game,” he said.

I just nodded.

“You ever finish that chest of drawers?” he asked.

I must have looked pretty puzzled.

“That thing you were working on at Schoenbar,” he said.

I shook my head. Finally, I spoke.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“About the chest of drawers?”

“No, the game,” I replied.

“Oh that,” he said. “It was a great game. I enjoyed the heck out of it.”

I still look puzzled.

“Hey, if you want to work on that chest of drawers again, sometime, you can come by the shop in the afternoon,” he said. “I’m usually there for a couple hours after school.”

Of course, I never did get back to that chest of drawers.

But knowing that I could of made all the difference.

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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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