Remembering Some Teachers Who Made a Lasting Difference

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English and journalism at an area high school. Her education column appears occasionally in The Times

Most adults can recall at least one teacher who made a difference in our lives--the one who encouraged, inspired, and maybe even goaded us to learn and achieve.

Some prominent area residents recently shared with me some memories of the teachers they treasure most.

Judy Abdo, mayor of Santa Monica, gives some of the credit for her leadership skills to Norman Kempton, a teacher at Le Conte Junior High School in Hollywood.


“He arranged for me to be in his homeroom, so I could work on organizing the (school) assemblies,” said Abdo.

In retrospect, Abdo says, it may have been in Kempton’s class that her path to the mayor’s office began.

“I think he sort of recognized that I could do an organizing-leadership role,” she said. “Otherwise, I might not have done it--I wouldn’t have thought of it.”

Don Rohrer, chief lifeguard for Los Angeles County, recalls swim coaches Whitey Saari of El Segundo High School and John Joseph of Santa Monica College.

Rohrer especially appreciates the innovative coaching methods Saari used. “He was so far ahead of his contemporaries (in the 1950s) that we didn’t have too much trouble beating most of the teams we competed against,” he said.

What Rohrer remembers about Joseph is charisma that could motivate a whole team.

“You admire the guy so much and you don’t want to let him down, so you work out until you can hardly crawl in the pool,” he said.


Stephen Bennett, chief executive officer of AIDS Project Los Angeles, recalls his humanities teacher, Millicent Rutherford, of Lindbrook High School in Saratoga, Calif.

Rutherford used a little eccentricity to get students more interested in literature and the arts.

“We’d study Italian art and she would get . . . photographs from some of the Pompeian paintings that are not typically looked at--the parts of Pompeii they won’t show you because the graphics on the wall are what Americans would consider lewd,” said Bennett. “And she’d show up in a Pompeian red dress to start the day.”

Most of all, though, Bennett credits Rutherford with sparking his intellectual curiosity. “School was a drag, and she changed that for me,” he said. “I think she taught me a lot about taking responsibility for my education.”

Genethia Hayes, interim executive director of the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, has fond memories of an international relations teacher at Dorsey High, whom she remembers only as Mrs. Weiss.

“Her expectations for you were so high and she just encouraged everybody to rise to the occasion,” Hayes said. “She spoke to us as though all things were possible for us, as long as we were willing to work hard.”


Weiss was also apparently ahead of her time in terms of the skills that she taught her students. “She was the first person who ever talked to me about the need for us to understand all of the cultures that existed in the world, to talk about a Global Village,” Hayes said.

“She felt that her job was to prepare us for a world that she might not even be alive to see.”

Michael Tuck, KCBS-TV news commentator, said his outstanding teacher was a geology professor at Trinity University, San Antonio, Tex.

Tuck wasn’t even interested in geology--until he sat in Donald McGannon’s classroom.

“When you think about it, there’s not a lot of real excitement in just looking at the Earth and trying to imagine what’s happened over millions of years,” Tuck said.

But McGannon quickly changed that view, Tuck said. “Because he had such a great interest in (geology) and knew how to communicate that interest, suddenly the Earth and its natural history came alive.”

Ever since, Tuck added, “I look at a mountain or an outcrop or a desert a lot differently today than I would have before that class.”


Next week, I’ll recount memories of special teachers from some other prominent Angelenos. If you have a story about a special teacher, please write to me in care of The Times, 1717 4th St., Suite 200, Santa Monica 90401 (No phone calls please). It may be included in a coming column.