There are few people more mythically fearsome than your junior high school assistant principal.
Joe Koeller was mine.
Back in the late 1960s, Art Bleemer was the genial principal of Long Lots Junior High. He smiled when we saw him, which was rare. Most of the time he sat in his office. From Day 1 in 7th grade to graduation in 9th, we had no idea what he did.
We knew what Mr. Koeller did, though. He handed out detentions.
He made kids confess to whatever they’d done wrong — sometimes even more.
He made them implicate their friends.
He made even the toughest greasers cry.
That’s what a junior high school assistant principal does. And Mr. Koeller did it very, very well.
Mr. Koeller died Saturday. He was 88.
Reading his obituary, I learned things about my old assistant principal I never knew.
Mr. Koeller enlisted in the Navy during World War II. He served on a destroyer, and participated in the invasions of Safi, North Africa, Sicily and Salerno.
After graduating from Holy Cross in 1947, he was commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserves. He earned a masters in school administration from Fordham, taught for 2 years in New Jersey, then was recalled to active duty in Korea. Returning to the States, he was an OCS instructor in Newport.
In 1954 Mr. Koeller came to Westport, to teach science at brand-new Long Lots. He was assistant principal during my era, then became principal in 1973. He retired 10 years later.
I got to know Mr. Koeller better then, when I substitute taught for a couple of years at Long Lots. He turned into the great guy he probably was all along — funny, warm, definitely not mean. He delegated that work to his new assistant principal, Dan Sullivan.
During Mr. Koeller’s tenure, Long Lots earned a reputation as a superb school. He nurtured dozens of legendary teachers — some of whom remain in the Westport school system today. Through them, his influence on thousands of students lives on.
After retirement, I saw Mr. Koeller from time to time at the diner. We had great talks, and I always left with a smile.
But I didn’t know — until I read his obituary — anything about his volunteer work with the Red Cross and the Community Garden.
Or that he’d been involved with St. Luke Church since its founding in 1957. He taught religion there from 1957-62, and again from 1982-2002. He was one of St. Luke’s 1st Eucharistic ministers, and served in that capacity for 12 years.
Even reading about his survivors told me something I never knew about Mr. Koeller. The long list includes Jane, his wife of 63 years; his daughter Joanne, and other relatives — along with “his Navy buddies, his many good friends from Long Lots and the St. Luke community, and his beloved cat, Molly.”
Mr. Koeller — the assistant principal who gave out detentions and made greasers cry — had a beloved cat?
I learned a lot at Long Lots — thanks to Mr. Koeller and everyone there.
But even at my age, you learn something new every day.
(Joe Koeller’s Mass of Christian Burial is Thursday, May 20, 10 a.m., at St. Luke Church, 49 Turkey Hill N., Westport. Interment will follow in Assumption Cemetery, 73 Green’s Farms Rd., Westport. The family will receive friends in the Harding Funeral Home, 210 Post Rd. E., Westport, from 4-8 p.m. Wednesday, May 19. In lieu of flowers, contributions in Mr. Koeller’s memory can be made to the Matthew 25 Fund for Charity, St. Luke Church, 84 Long Lots Rd., Westport CT 06880.)