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.
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.