Remembering Dave LaPonsee

For decades, Dave LaPonsee was one of Staples’ most popular and influential teachers.

His official title was social studies instructor, but he was much more than that. In his psychology, history and other classes, he inspired students to challenge conventional wisdom, and take unorthodox stands.

He championed “critical thinking” long before the phrase became the darling of educators everywhere.

His classroom and book-filled office — he read several books a week — were hangouts for all kinds of students, from the most brilliant to the most disillusioned. He listened to them, asked questions, listened some more, then sent them on their way.

They may not have heard any answers. But they got something more important: The ability to figure things out for themselves.

Dave LaPonsee

Dave LaPonsee

Staples students knew that Dave — and he was always “Dave” to his students, never “Mr. LaPonsee” — was a Dartmouth grad, because he might mention it. They may not have known he had master’s degrees from both Harvard and Wesleyan. He was a private person, and did not talk a lot about himself.

But when he talked, people listened. And not just students. As his former colleague and friend Dave Harrison notes, Dave’s role as an early chair of the Staples Governing Board — the school’s innovative governing body, where students, teachers and administrators made real, substantive decisions — gave the organization “great credibility.”

“His efforts cemented the legitimacy of the SGB both within and outside the school,” Harrison says. Far from “a revised version of a student council,” the SGB brought national recognition to Staples — and many very intrigued visitors.

Maggie Moers Wenig, who graduated in 1974, says that through the SGB, Dave LaPonsee “inspired us to take democracy very, very seriously.”

Harrison recalls the social studies department of the 1960s and ’70s proudly: a high-powered, highly regarded staff. “Dave was always willing to take whatever courses no one else wanted to teach,” Harrison says. “He was our indispensable ‘utility player.’ And he volunteered for that role.”

Whatever Dave taught, he taught brilliantly. And whoever he taught, he inspired enormously.

Dave LaPonsee died last June, in the New Hampshire town where he was raised and which he loved. He was 75.

It’s taken that long for news of his death to reach Westport. But I’m sure the comments page here will be filled very quickly, with memories and thanks from some of the countless students whose lives Dave LaPonsee quietly changed for better, forever.


30 responses to “Remembering Dave LaPonsee

  1. Gerry kuroghlian

    The Social Studies Department of Staples was filled with brilliant, very well educated teachers in the 1960’s and 70’s and Dave was among the very best. The SGB concept of shared governance gave students great experience in running a democracy . Dave taught the concept of “compromise” , a concept currently lacking in many aspects of our culture. Thanks for the memory of a great educator!

  2. Thank you, Mr. LaPonsee!

  3. David Schaffer

    Sad news indeed to start the day. The photo looks exactly as I remember him when I was at Staples. There were indeed several high-quality social studies teachers at Staples at that time. I am sorry to say the only other whose name I remember is Jack Culbert’s. I greatly enjoyed both his and Dave’s classes, and thanks Dan for passing this on, and keeping myself and others informed about what’s going on back there.

  4. A great man. A great educator. A great colleague. Rest in peace Dave.

  5. Rest well Dave! I was a member of the class of 1975, the largest graduating class at the time, all due to the insightful, progressive instruction and mentoring of Teachers Like Dave, Mr Leonard Mr Mott, Joy Walker and Mr Budy Dave Calkins principle at the time nurtured this staff with his progressive approach to education.

  6. Dan

    thanks for capturing the magic of Dave LaPonsee who inspired so many of us to dare to analyze history in ways more akin to science (at least in my case). Dave’s challenge was, as you related so well above, to think beyond the conventional and in my case he allowed me to embrace my passions for the science behind history. I vividly recall Dave’s last period of the day AP US History class as always-inspiring and motivating despite coming at the end of the day. Great teachers inspire beyond those fleeting weeks or months in which they are experienced, and the memories of Dave LaPonsee are with us today even as far away as Mars!


    Jim Garvin
    (Student of Dave LaPonsee for AP US History and AP European History) in the 1970s at Staples, now Chief Scientist for NASA Goddard and member of the Mars Curiosity Rover science team

  7. Christine Quinn Antal

    I am heartbroken to here that Dave has passed. He was truly the most inspiring teacher and mentor. Critical thinking is right–so many of our SHS teachers prepared us for college and the world beyond, but Dave was a special breed. He was a tremendous gift to all of us who had him. I am very sad to hear this news. Anyone know when he retired from SHS? Or if there are family members we can write a note to?

  8. Eddie Wilder

    As an Actor for the Staples Players we always Loved taking different classes to fill in the blanks and Mr. David LaPonsee was one of the teachers who made us think! What I Loved about him was that he was a great listener and even better Storyteller!! If we were good he would tell us a story about Institutions he had dealt with and the people ( often misunderstood ) he worked with to get better. He was like Alfred Hitchcock and at the end scare us back to reality!! He was a good hang if you know what I mean!! Being the Last of the Wilder Boys I always thought that he looked out for me! I was a D Student, but I got an A in his class! That’s how good he was!

  9. Billy Nistico

    One of the best. I was not a great student, but Dave always worked on inspiring me to care way more then I wanted to at 16, with lots of patience on his part. Hard to believe he was 75! He always had such a youthful, Cheshire Cat grin which conveyed a sense that he related to us way more then most teachers at that time. My condolences to his family. Dan, any obituary?

    • Here is the obituary:
      David E. LaPonsee, 75, of Wilton, NH, passed away on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, after lengthy battles with illness. David was born May 25, 1940, in Keene, NH, the son of Anthony and Ruby (Enderson) LaPonsee. David dedicated his life to education and the pursuit of knowledge. After graduating from Wilton High School in 1958, he went on to receive a Bachelor’s Degree from Dartmouth College and Master’s Degrees from both Wesleyan University and Harvard University. David’s next 44 years were spent as an educator. His career began with a year of working at CT Valley Hospital with emotionally handicapped children followed by 43 years teaching history and psychology as well as being the guidance counselor at Staples High School in Westport, CT. David was an avid reader with an unmatched passion for books. Along with reading multiple books every week, he received great joy from volunteering his time to libraries in Florida, and until physically unable, the Wilton Public Library. “Uncle David” as he had come to be known by family and friends, received such pleasure observing and participating in all the “commotion” that accompanies family functions and gatherings with friends. He also made it known as only Uncle David could, unapologetically, that a major part of his enjoyment attending these functions was the fact he would be retreating to the peace and quiet of his home when he had enough. David is survived lovingly by godchildren, nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews and dear friends. He was predeceased by his parents; 3 brothers, Raymond, John Barrett, and Bernard LaPonsee; and by his sister, Regina Boutin. In lieu of flowers please send contributions to the Wilton Public Library or Wilton Ambulance.

  10. Dave had a knack for listening because his goal was to understand. As one of the most respected teachers at Staples, by students and colleagues, I was blessed know him. He made a difference.

  11. Dave was the best, as teacher and person. Whenever I talked with him, I knew he was really listening and not thinking about his response, a somewhat rare form of being. RIP, Dave.

    • Sharon Paulsen

      On a side note to the wonderful effervescence of LaPonsee’s presence in the halls of Staples (I don’t recall having a class with him, but he was an unmistakable force of good all over the “campus”, with that quirkiness of advanced intellect), can I just say that JERRY BROOKER (yup, replying to you man!), was hands down the best God-darned English teacher I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from!! (Saw your post here Jerry, and couldn’t resist remarking on how amazing you are).
      Not to take away from how we all feel about LaPonsee, but rather to spread the love for our great educators here in Westport!

      Rest in Peace, Mr. LaPonsee.

      Sharon Paulsen, Staples class of 1986.

      (’86 … wow, a lifetime ago, and yet still only yesterday, evoked by reading another one of Dan’s amazing articles).

  12. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Mr. LaPonsee (as unruly as I was back then I would NEVER have called him Dave) was a wonderful teacher and he, along with colleagues such as Peter Bennett, Lee Wall and Paul Thurston pointed me in the direction of Social Studies/History Secondary Education as a college major. Unfortunately, the job market in the field at the time precluded me from following in their footsteps. But they were, and remain, the people that come to mind when I remember who taught me critical, liberal and humanitarian thinking. I also took Dave’s senior year Psychology course and always smile when I recall a lecture in which he said the act of putting a key in the lock was a Freudian metaphor for sex. I raised my hand and said: “What does it mean if the key breaks off?” One of many laughs that I remember sharing with him and your picture of his smile matches exactly the one that has stayed in my mind for the last 46 years. A truly great man, a great teacher and a great mind.

  13. We at Staples were exceedingly lucky to have teachers like Mr. LaPonsee and the others mentioned here — every bit the match for my best professors at college. And Mr. LaPonsee’s mentorship at the SGB was memorable as well. Too bad I never got a chance to see him after graduation, and so sad to hear he’s gone.

  14. Missy Ketley

    One of the most sincere, unassuming, nicest man I have ever meant. He treated everyone with respect and equality. Thank you Dave. You taught something to everyone you met. We are all lucky you were in our lives and are better for it.

  15. I’m so said to hear of Dave’s passing. To this day, I still think of him fondly and remember what he taught me. I hope he knows how many lives he touched.

  16. Truly an inspirational man. I look back on my experiences with the social studies faculty at Staples as simply amazing. As an educational leader I try to bring to my own day to day life the honesty and intellectual curiosity so evident in Dave’s work. Thanks Dave, for so many lasting and remarkable memories!.

  17. Don Willmott

    He made America’s intervention in the Philippines utterly fascinating to me. A great teacher!!

  18. Jan Halper Scaglia

    Very sad to hear the news. THE most wonderfully inspiring teacher. Everyone should have teachers like Dave, in fact every teacher should have the “Dave” qualities in order to teach our children. He will be missed.

  19. Giulio Bertozzi

    Dave was just a one of a kind teacher who made a lasting impression on me. I took European History from him my junior year at Staples and remember how challenging and interesting the class was – to the point where history remained one of my life’s passions. Dave taught us to bring analysis and intellect beyond our everyday capacity. My friends and I always regarded him as an incredibly talented and intelligent teacher – I know he always brought out the best in me.
    Thank you, Dave, for your contribution to the world. Rest in peace.

  20. I was moved to write a blog post about Dave: A Lesson on Staying Focused – With Thanks to a Terrific Teacher.

  21. Janet Crawford

    “Beware of ‘-isms’.” To this day, I often remember Mr. LaPonsee telling me that, even tho at the time I was an official “Problem Child” (the nickname my best friend & I laughingly agreed upon, despite the fact that it was all too true); thought he was “cracked”; & didn’t realize ’til years later that he was 100% right. Back then I was proud to call myself a “feminist,” & I didn’t see why one should “beware” of that particular “-ism” — that is, the simple principle that women were entitled to equal rights.

    But later I realized that “feminism” was a misnomer. People like me who sought equal rights for women weren’t advocating for “femininity,” after all, or even for “females” — as in being “pro-woman,” right or wrong, instead of “pro-equality.” “Feminism” was also a mischievous term, I realized, not only bc of the danger of confusing it with “pro-womanism,” but bc it suggested that, yes, one must ascribe to some sort of doctrine (an “-ism”) if one simply believed women should enjoy equal rights with men. Once one started imagining that one had accepted a doctrine, it could open the door to accepting a lot of unscientific nonsense, such as supposedly “feminist” (really pro-woman) notions that women are “naturally” more pacifist, nurturing, better at color-coordination, generally superior to men, whatever. (“Cuter, smarter, nicer,” as the kid in the old Roz Chast cartoon said of hamsters vs. gerbils, or was it gerbils vs. hamsters?) Or it could lead one to blindly accepting concepts like “rape culture” or “patriarchy.” (I’m not saying that such things don’t exist; just that one needs to have a specific understanding of what’s meant by the concept & then see evidence of it.)

    It was true that believing all people were entitled to equal rights was indeed a belief in something nonscientific — something moral — & hence, strictly speaking, it *was* in the nature of an “-ism.” But as I thought it over, thanks to Mr. L (like a prior commenter, Problem Child though I was, I could never call him “Dave”), I realized some moral beliefs are so fundamental — murder is wrong, slavery is wrong, all humans are entitled to equal rights — that they can be considered morally axiomatic, rather than doctrinal. And that it was crucial to distinguish between these kinds of moral axioms & “-isms.”

    As soon as I thought this thru, I immediately stopped calling myself a “feminist,” switching instead to “women’s rights advocate.” By then I was also an “LGBTA rights advocate” & I wondered why being a “women’s rights advocate” should be any different — politically, philosophically or semantically.

    I also started scrutinizing a number of “-ism’s” around me, including one — Freudianism — that, as a ’70s “psychiatrist’s kid,” I’d grown up believing was simple scientific fact. Thanks to Mr. L (and the research to which his advice led me), I soon realized Freudianism was nothing but an elaborate pseudoscience, a collection of theories that weren’t even subject to empirical testing. Then I moved on to a number of other “-isms”: Marxism, deconstructionism, structuralism, capitalism, libertarianism, liberalism, conservativism, existentialism, veganism, humanism, all religions, various forms of modern-day health-and-fitness snake oil — even criticism, in every sense of the term.

    I also remember the day in AP European History (into which Mr L creatively and brilliantly incorporated art history & music appreciation), when Mr L taught us how a fugue worked by dividing the class into 4 sections, playing Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G minor, & instructing each section of kids to take a giant step forward every time a new voice started the theme. I don’t think any of us was capable of forgetting how a fugue worked after that, or ever will be — even after reaching the stage of “You forget 70% of everything you learned in college” (let alone high school).

    I’m glad to say I’ve passed all this along to my son, while telling him about Mr L, the amazing teacher I had in high school. In a funny way, the best way, Mr L reminds me of Walter White in “Breaking Bad” (obviously not the parts about becoming a meth cook, self-serving liar, criminal kingpin, ruthless killer & cruel jerk, but I think you know what I mean), & so I think it’s important to “say his name.” (He also reminds me, with less cognitive dissonance, of Mr Chips, & Dr Arnold, the reforming headmaster in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.”) I’m deeply saddened to hear he has passed away, &, at 75, far too soon. Does the bell toll for us all, even though I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of former students will, like me, always carry him in their heads & hearts; even pass on his teaching – his wonderfulness as a person — to our kids? I’m afraid it still does.