Dick Brunt (1943-2013), at Mammoth, with Jenny Bothwell, Cody Johnson and Tony.

Dick Brunt (1943-2013), at Mammoth, with Jenny Bothwell, Cody Johnson and Tony Lu.

When I was first looking at colleges towards the end of my junior year of high school, I talked it over with my History teacher at the time.  I told him I was considering going to Occidental.  He reminded me that it was his alma mater, which I acknowledged that I knew.  He also reminded me that it was a sports rival to the schools that all three of my older siblings had attended or were attending.  I told him I was aware of that as well.  He asked me if I still wanted to major in History.  I told him that I did.  He asked me what my plans were.  I told him I was planning to get a History degree, get a teacher’s credential and come back to teach US History.  He said that he would just about be ready to retire by then and that it sounded fine to him if I came back to replace him.

As it turned out, none of that happened.  Limited to applying to four schools, I cut Occi at the last minute in favor of keeping UCSB as a safety school and instead went off to Brandeis, where I didn’t stay.  I started as a History major, but while I had been a whiz in high school because of my memory capacity, college-level History was a different kind of study and I gravitated more towards English (the influence of my other favorite teacher in high school).  And my plans for a teacher’s credential twice began and twice went away.  And I never went back to Villa Park.

Oh, I went back to visit.  In fact, when I first went back, during Spring Break of my Freshman year (by now at Pacific), my best friend, John and I, took Dick Brunt, that same History teacher to lunch.  There was no way we would let the chance to thank him go by.  If you are lucky, and I mean really lucky, you will get the kind of teacher who can change your life.  At Villa Park High School, I had two.  One was Carol Mooney, that aforementioned English teacher.  The other was Dick Brunt, who died last week.

Mr. Brunt was a fantastic person to have as a teacher.  He kept a turntable in his class and a pile of 45’s and in the ten minute break before our class he used to play music; he loved arena rock and had piles of Journey, Foreigner and Queen.  He had a wonderful sense of humor.  Once, when a student said that “not every Tom, Dick and Harry can become President”, he pointed out that actually, Tom, Dick and Harry have all been President.  Especially Dick.  He kept a list of amusing names he had found in the paper.  The best was Dr. Amir Dikshit.  He wasn’t just Dr. Dikshit.  He was Amir Dikshit (say it out loud – you’ll get it).  He believed in and loved his country; I had him for third period, when the Pledge of Allegiance was said schoolwide.  But I also had him during a war and John and I weren’t exactly feeling like saluting.  He said that we had to stand, out of respect, but we didn’t have to say anything.  He was a dedicated coach who once raced a loudmouth Sophomore to shut him up.  Dick won the race, while wearing his trademark polyester pants.

The coaching part is important for me and my family, because that was how I first met him – he was the girls Cross Country coach and thus was at all the meets and my older brothers were runners.  So was I, of course.  And so was Alison, and so Alison, in her one year at Villa Park, had him as her coach.  Which, because of our moves in 1981 and 1992, meant he was the only teacher who ever taught all five of us.  And in spite of the fact that he taught us all, he was one of the few teachers who allowed me to be me and not have to be any of the others.  He didn’t expect Stacy’s grades.  He didn’t expect Kelly’s running dedication.  He didn’t call me John (yes, I really had a teacher who consistently called me by my oldest brother’s name, even though we have nine years between us).  He knew who I was and let me be who I was without expectations.

And maybe part of that was because I was just about the best student he ever had.  Before our final exam was given, he told us all, in front of the class, how many questions we could get wrong on the final and still earn an A in the class.  He started at the bottom and some of my classmates could ace the final and still not even earn a B.  And then he moved up the list, getting to Jay, who could get something like 60 questions wrong (out of 150) and still get an A.  Sean could get something like 80 wrong and still get an A.  John, one of the best students Brunt ever had, could get like 120 wrong.  I could skip the final and still get an A in the class.  But, being me, I got everything right on the final, even the 151st question (“What is the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” – if you don’t understand the question, I can’t help you).

I knew everything about U.S. History going into that class and I took his class rather than AP because he was known for being such an amazing teacher.  And he and I already knew each other, of course, and he knew how much I loved history.  After all, I was a runner too and he and I had been talking for the first two years I was in high school before I hit his class in my Junior year.

But he made the class so amazing.  We did mock trials, reliving famous trials in U.S. History; we were the only class he ever had to reverse history on every trial because in the John Brown trial I came upon the brilliant idea of having Brown (played by me) not swear on a Bible that condoned slavery and thus, all the self-incriminating testimony I would give would have to be thrown out.  He once yelled at my friend Sean (though, really admonishing the other side who wasn’t paying enough attention): “If you are going to lead the witness, could you at least do it with a straight face?”  We worked on a project of how to attack Vicksburg, which John aced because, as a Civil War buff, he already knew how Grant had done it.  We did a project on JFK and had to decide who killed him (Mr. Brunt believed in the Warren Report, which I did not; 22 years later, having read Vincent Bugliosi’s book, I wish I could tell Mr. Brunt that he was right).

Because of the Cross Country connection, I spent a week with him and his wife, Della at Mammoth Lakes for our training week before school started, talking to them whenever I could.  He bet our top runner that Carl Lewis would break the world record in the 100 meters at the World Championships in Tokyo.  Rob bet him and Brunt won.  What nobody but Brunt and I knew was that race was taped.  Brunt and I had watched it live that morning while all the other runners were still asleep.  At the end of that week, it was Dick and Della who I rode with on the several hour trip back to Villa Park.

I found out that Dick died when my brother sent me his obituary yesterday.  My mother then sent on another, longer one.  The second one says that “Teaching was his love, and his passion, and he was extremely good at it.”  That’s ridiculous.  He was magnificent at it.  Every student who took his class loved taking it and they all learned amazing things from having him, not just History, but life as well.

If you get lucky enough to have a great teacher, you damn well better make certain they know they’re appreciated.  Teachers don’t get paid a lot.  They do this work because they love to do it.  And it’s good to get something back, in terms of appreciation.  Tell them how good they were.  I always told Mr. Brunt how great a teacher he was.  He was the first person I went to see the first time I returned to school.  He was just about the only person at the school that John still wanted to see.  He had earned that lunch we bought him and a whole lot more.