Remembering Joe Koeller

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.

Long Lots Junior High, back in the Joe Koeller days

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.)

14 responses to “Remembering Joe Koeller

  1. DWooger, I remember you as a sub: epecially in ALipson’s music room. JoeKo was our Principal and Dan Sullivan VP (Sully perhaps too avuncular for the post.) Principals seem above the fray. His (JK’s) connection to StLuke’s was often mentioned by my mother (and increased my fearof the man… as if he had extra powers.)
    Thanks for reminding me that these larger than life people made a career out of tending to the likes of me.

  2. Dennis Jackson

    Mr. Koeller was a disciplinarian, but fair. Much nicer than the fearsome Bob Reddy at Green’s Farms, who always seemed cross. (No wonder our generation launched the movement toward self-esteem ad absurdum. )

    Mr. Koeller said no radios in the cafeteria, and when he saw mine (1959 World Series was on WMGM), he took it away until the series was over. I would have done the same. His ruddy face made him always look on the edge of anger, but I recall it more in a smile, and he was friendly when not disciplining.

    And I can’t recall who was Principal then, which says something. Great teachers I had at Long Lots I had included Miss Kelly and Mrs. Demers for English, Miss Roper for Algebra and Geometry and Miss Williams for Math. Inspirational Science teacher Mr. Franklin, and Coach Bob Yovan, who gently advised us to learn about deodorants for we would soon be needing them. Pretty Biology teacher Mrs. Anderson who got married and then pregnant, leading us to joke that she obviously practiced what she preached. Music teacher Mr. Reynolds, who had us learn to sing “We’re Going to the Hukilau” including the use of hula movements (the real ones, not the hoops) when Hawaii became a state, as well as the anthems of all the branches of the US Military, and tested our ability to recognize several major symphonies. And Librarian Miss Stein, who taught us the Dewey decimal system. She loved words, and once asked us to describe the taste of an orange. What a great school!

  3. Nice piece and especially good comments. As a BJHS student, we had our share of assistant principals as well. It seems enimgatic to me that it takes their death to find out their real lives so often contradictory to their demeanor at work. Must have been a tough job! Certainly a matter that we goofballs thought very little of during our legendary mischievous junior high years. Here’s to Mr. Koeller!

  4. Thanks for that warm tribute to Mr. Koeller.

    One small correction Dennis: the principal at Greens Farms elem. was the late Jack Ready. Back in the day everybody was afraid of his gruff demeanor. In fact, he was a great guy too just like Joe Koeller.
    My favorite Joe Koeller story was the time our mother was an invalid and my father was struggling (failing) as the family cook. When Mr. Koeller got wind of this, he arranged for my 14 yr old brothers to be enrolled in the home economics course/club at Long Lots. Worked out great—every week a new dinner recipe. As I recall they were the only two boys enrolled in the home econ class that year.
    And Mrs Koeller worked for many years at Town Hall in the Personnel Dept. Also very much respected.
    Condolences to the Koeller family on their loss. Mr. Koeller touched a lot of people in a positive way.

  5. Dennis Jackson

    Thanks, Bob. It’s all coming back now.

    Obviously these two gentleman educators (and presumably many others) cultivated a serious persona that was effective in keeping us kids in line, all in the interest of our receiving a better education, of course. And it worked.

    Would that such seriousness of purpose could be inculcated in more of today’s young students.

    My sympathy to the family of good Mr. Koeller.

  6. Innocent Bystander

    I think this younger generation is just fine. There is no question that the Mr. Koeller’s of this world sought structure and discipline. They were the GI generation of focus and determination. Much different world today. So many options that you wonder how the kids even manage to schedule a day. But I have learned that they know exactly what they DON’T
    want to do in life. That is far advanced from my Boomer babies.

  7. Lynn Backalenick

    Thanks for the Joe Koeller tribute. I wanted to add a little about him. Though he seemed to scare most kids at Long Lots, he was a doll to me.

    Being thrown of our respective homerooms both Laura (aka Booty) Eckle and I had Joe Koeller for homeroom. We were both fond of him. We pulled quite a few pranks on him and as hard as he tried, he couldn’t be serious with us. He also tried to let me off the hook on some major infractions.

    Years later I met and became friends with his daughter Joanne, When she told her dad. He said re: Booty and I
    “they weren’t bad kids, just mischievous”!

    To me, that scary vice principal, Joe Koeller was a very sweet man!

  8. Denise Honeycutt

    Joe Koeller hired me to teach Spanish at Long Lots in 1977. I still remember the interview I had with Dan Sullivan sitting next to Joe……nothing too deep….more like a getting to know you conversation. Then there was that first day of school for teachers. I arrived all nervous and excited…..couldn’t wait to decorate my classroom…..and then around 11:30 I was asked to come to the Main Office and I had no idea why. As it turned out, Joe drove me and a few other new teachers to the most wonderful luncheon at his house where his wife was waiting to greet us! What an amazing welcome to Westport! What a wonderful man!

  9. Darryl Coates Manning

    I remember Mr. Koeller. I was at Long Lots from 1966-68. Many years later, I had the good fortune of re-meeting Joe Koeller when I served on the Board of Saugatuck Childcare, the Preschool that my kids attended. As it turned out, Mr. Koeller was also on the board. The first time I saw him at a meeting, the old feelings of being “bad” and being “sent to the office”, which we did on a regular basis, came racing back to me. He and I served on a committee together and I had a chance to get to know the real Joe Koeller. The kind soft spoken man who dedicated his life to helping kids. I talked to him about his role as vice principal at Long Lots. He told me he didn’t like being the disciplinarian. And, was much happier when he became the Principal. I’m very pleased that I was able to know him as an adult. And, I am saddened to hear of his passing.

  10. What a nice tribute Dan.
    I had the honor of knowing Joe through his wife Jane. I worked with Jane for many years at Westport Town Hall Personnel. My daugher also went to Long Lots. What a wonderful family.
    Our deepest sympathy to Jane and Joanne.

  11. You know someone is admired when the PTA starts a Staples High School Tuition Grants in your honor upon your retirement. That’s what LLS did for Joe Koeller. Many LLS/ SHS graduates have benefited from the Joe Koeller Scholarship Award.

  12. Linda Gramatky Smith

    I am very sad to hear this news. Joe Koeller was a wonderful guy, one of my favorites, and he lived down the road from us. And regrets — just recently I thought I’d go see him. I missed my chance. My condolences to his wife and daughter, Joanne.

  13. Jim Honeycutt

    Long Lots was special place when I worked there in the 1980’s. Ask any Long Lots teacher or administrator and they will tell you how unique and wonderful it was in that school. The atmosphere at Long Lots was in large part a reflection of the leadership in that building and Principal Koeller himself. The year I left Long Lots to come to Staples, I left behind so many wonderful memories and friends. But especially I will always look up to Joe Koeller as example of great administrator, a man who was there for me when I was wonderful and successful as a teacher and also there for me too when in the classroom I performed a perfect be perfect belly flop.

  14. Darren Yovan

    My Dad, Coach Bob Yovan, worked with Mr. Koeller for many, many years. I remember as a young kid going to Long Lots on Saturdays and seeing Mr. Koeller in the hallways as my Dad worked out in the gym. Always liked him, and my dad cared for him a great deal. Wonderful memories. Darren Yovan