WWII vet’s rap sessions connect with fifth-graders
Mel Feuer’s back is hunched and he walks with a cane.
But don’t be fooled, because he charges ahead and you have to hurry to keep up.
Feuer is 92, so you’d suspect he might have trouble relating to and holding the attention of 10-year-olds on the subjects of civility, integrity and responsibility.
But don’t be fooled, because he was the pied piper last week at Castle Heights Elementary School in the Beverlywood area, speaking for nearly an hour to 60 enthralled fifth-graders who didn’t want it to end.
“What’s the weather report?” Feuer asked the students. Not the outside weather, but the inside weather.
“My weather report is very sunny, but I’m a little bit cloudy because it’s my last time with Mel,” one student said.
The students were about to graduate from Castle Heights, which meant this was the end of a year of weekly visits from Feuer.
“I feel very cloudy because I won’t see Mel again, and I’m moving to San Francisco,” another student said.
So why is it that Mel Feuer — whose son Mike is L.A.'s city attorney — has visited two classes at Castle Heights each week, and two more weekly at Horace Mann School in Beverly Hills? And why has he been doing this work for nearly a quarter of a century as a retiree?
“I love these kids,” he said. “The kids are fantastic.”
But the longer answer begins with his upbringing in Cleveland, his parents’ struggles during the Depression and Hitler’s march across Europe.
Feuer enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 at the age of 19. He was slight and not very tall, which made him the perfect guy for the job of ball turret gunner. He’d fold himself into the little globe that dropped from the belly of the B-24 and fire away at the enemy.
On his 24th mission, to knock out German submarine pens in France, his plane was hit.
“The pilot said, ‘We’re going to have to get out.’ I had never parachuted, but it was OK because I’d read a lot about it. So I was floating down and I see a Frenchman with a bicycle standing next to a little bridge, and he’s watching me come down,” said Feuer, who guessed — or, rather, hoped — the man was with the Resistance.
“As soon as I landed, the shooting began,” said Feuer, who raced into a field and felt dirt flying up at him from the impact of bullets that just missed.
Fortunately he was captured rather than killed. Feuer refused to give his captors anything but name, rank and serial number, and he was taken by train to the prison camp that would later be depicted on stage and screen — Stalag 17.
Feuer endured a year of imprisonment, then feared he was being marched to his death when the Germans quickly ordered an evacuation of the camp. Feuer fell behind his comrades because his ill-fitting shoes tore the skin of his feet, and he would never forget the offer of two soldiers to carry him. Just as he’d never forget the sight of American troops who were waiting to rescue them in the days just before the end of World War II.
Feuer said that on the ship back home, there was talk about what the men would do with their lives.
“I thought, hey, we’ve got the G.I. Bill. Get an education and do something to make our society more understanding of one another and what’s happening around the world,” said Feuer, who couldn’t think of a better contribution than to become a teacher.
He went from teaching to becoming a principal in San Bernardino and retired in 1988 after more than 30 years as an educator. While visiting a Beverly Hills library one day in 1991, he read about a volunteer program run by the Maple Counseling Center.
It’s called Community Circle, which sends a brigade of 20 adults into schools to share life lessons and lead discussions, drawing on the components of late UCLA coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. Self-control, cooperation, loyalty, confidence etc. Mel Feuer was a perfect fit.
“Who can finish this sentence for me?” he asked Castle Heights fifth-graders. “I am…"
The hands shot up and students sprang out of their seats, and soon they were shouting the answer.
“Fantastic,” said Feuer, who invited students to the head of the class to talk about what it means to be somebody.
“It means that no matter how many mistakes you make, you’re still somebody, and people have to treat you like you are,” said one student.
“I need four actors,” said Feuer, who set up a skit in which he played an 11-year-old bully whose crimes included stealing potato chips from other students.
“A way to stop bullying is to think before you say something,” one of his actors said, asking Feuer how he’d feel if he were the one being pushed around.
Feuer told the class he’d seen a wonderful thing. He’d seen a student in the office who’d been injured, and she was surrounded by friends who sacrificed recess to be with her. Feuer invited the students to explain why they did that, and next, he asked other students to talk about their own good deeds.
“He makes them all feel worthwhile,” said fifth-grade teacher Barry Feeney, and Mel knows all their names, too.
Student Ruby Field has heard Feuer’s story of his survival during World War II. She now writes letters to soldiers serving overseas, and she shared one of those with Feuer in class last week.
“Mr. Mel is a man who inspires us to reach our personal best,” she wrote to a soldier named Ryan, adding that Feuer’s words of encouragement “will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
The fifth-graders went to a Dodger game together recently and had to decide on the recipient of a Clayton Kershaw jersey for best effort this school year.
On Thursday they presented it to Mel Feuer, who will be back at school in the fall for the start of his 25th year as a volunteer.
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