Karl Decker’s Famous Schools

Staples High School English instructor Karl Decker retired in 1999. Generations of students had been inspired by his stories. A recent “06880” post about Max Shulman inspired Decker to add his own memories of the famed humor writer and Westport resident. Karl recalls:

It was my 1961 summer job after my first year teaching at Staples. I was a “famous” reader of student assignments at the Famous Writers School in Westport. How I got the job I happen to forget, but there I was in a row of offices overlooking the inspiring Saugatuck River along with Mignon Eberhardt (mystery writer), Phil Reavis (Yachting Magazine), and next door to me Westport’s frisky humorist Parke Cummings.

Al Dorne, Famous Schools founder (and illustrator), called a meeting  of us all to think up some creative ideas for other schools that could become Famous too. Al Dorne sat at the head of the big table. There was Gordon Carroll (sometime editor at Reader’s Digest), Lloyd Fangel (I think he had a daughter at Staples), Mignon,  Phil and some I did not know. One other man who seemed in a rather sullen mood sat off to one side. Bennett Cerf had called to say he’d be late.

Random House founder Bennett Cerf, in a famous ad for his famous school.

Random House founder Bennett Cerf, in a famous ad for his famous school.

With very straight faces, Parke and I had just submitted our  proposal for the Famous Sculptors School. Everyone nodded politely as we described it.

Finally Mr. Dorne said, “This is the kind of creative  thinking I like to see around here. The only thing  that bothers me about this plan is that we’d have to build a railroad siding from the mainline so the students could send in their granite homework on flatbed cars.”

Parke and I expressed our thanks and said we are working now on a Famous Dancers School. Our plan for mail-in lessons was outrageous, but that’s for another time.

At some point however, I think it was Lloyd Fangel who saw the sullen fellow and said, “Max, you don’t look too happy today. Something wrong?” And then I realized this was Max Shulman.

Max replied, “Yes. My wife threw away my writing  pants. Said they were disreputable, dirty, tattered. I don’t think I’ll ever write again.”

The meeting ended. Parke and I took our sandwiches to eat on the banks of  the Saugatuck River, and work on our proposal for the Famous Symphony Conductors School.

Karl Decker, today

Karl Decker, today

21 responses to “Karl Decker’s Famous Schools

  1. Vivianne Pommier

    Hi Mr. Decker… great seeing you via 06880 (thanks Dan).
    All the best

    Vivianne Pommier

  2. Tom Kashetta

    He was the best teacher I ever had at Staples high school……..

  3. Steve Doig (Staples '66)

    Great story! And the Cerf ad reminds me I have some writing work to do today — but I have a restless urge NOT to write.

  4. Hi Mr.Decker…I have fond memories of classes at Staples. Westport school system was excellent I ended up an art teacher! Thankyou Westport !!

  5. Father Decker, you look just the same as you did in early 70’s AP class, only now with a white beard….I am wondering if you still ride your motorcycle, free spirit!

  6. Pam Barkentin

    Hello Mr. Decker! This is the most fabulous story! Parke Cummings was a dear family friend and kind of a second dad to my sister, Perii, and me. We loved him dearly, and your story brought tears to my eyes remembering his wonderful, mischievous, love of practical jokes. What fun you must have had that summer with Parke and those other creative minds! I am forwarding this to Parke’s daughter, Patsy, who is still a very close friend.
    Thanks, Dan, for this marvelous story of Westport’s past.
    Pam Barkentin (class of ’62)

  7. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    The moral of this story is Never throw away someone’s writing pants… or cap, for that matter!

  8. Karl regularly sent me home because my hair was over my ears or I wasnt wearing sox…. he wasnt so popular with many of us

    • Hi, Bill. You’ll want apostrophes for the contracted form of was not, hence, wasn’t. Pleased to be of help. Be well, be safe, Karl

  9. Patsy Cummings LoGiudice

    Dear Mr. Decker,
    I’m the daughter of Park Cummings. He was my hero in life. His wisdom and sense of humor enriched my life and all that knew him.. He was always there for me and my friends,, he loved kids. and they loved him. He was the young neighbors go to advisor when they had problems at home. Loved his tennis court and his gardens. Thank you so much for your wonderful memory of him
    warm regards,
    Patsy Cummings

    • Dear Patty, Thank you so much for your kind note. Your dad was a true breath of fresh air in an otherwise oddly stultifying community of characters. He was forever knocking on my door with “Karl, I have an idea…” and we would huddle over something until Gordon Carroll came harrumphing by. This was my first year in Westport and as I told Dan, Parke Cumings was a comforting and wise guide for me as well…advising me to always keep a sense of humor about this town… I had, in a way, hoped this post would brings some folks out of the woodwork, and it did–so very special to hear from you, however. Be well, be safe, Karl

    • I was lucky enough to be one of those neighborhood kids to hang out with Parke, drink his special iced tea, and play tennis. I was also lucky enough to receive sonnets from him as well. He and my mom, Annie Flood, had a great friendship. In the mid-late 70’s he would come to our house for holidays. He was a wonderful soul. Patsy, you were living out of the country, so I think we met only once or twice. And Pam and Perii – small world!! Thanks for the jog down memory lane, Dan. Tracy Flood

  10. Marcia Wright

    I shared a two-desk (and cramped) office with Karl for several years and found him to be a sensitive yet demanding teacher.
    My son loved his time in D minus Decker’s class.

  11. Oh, come on, Westport. We need MORE suggestions for Famous Schools. The limits of correspondence liberal education through the mails, especially in the pre-VCR eras, can’t stop here. We must press onward with ever more impossible Famous correspondence concepts in the Decker tradition.
    — Famous Bulldozing and Mineral Extraction School
    — Famous Tuba Quintet School
    — Famous Diesel Locomotive Engineers School (they would have joint appointments with the sculptors’ delivery service, I guess).
    — Famous Agnates School (inspired by my father)
    — Famous Astronaut Poetic Moments School (that’s one small step, godspeed John Glenn, Houston we have a problem, greetings to the good Earth, open the pod bay doors HAL, and the ever-popular it’s full of stars!)

    • Nancy Hunter Wilson

      Astronaut Chris Hadfield should be a member, having accomplished the last concept, and more.

  12. Oh my! School was difficult for me — well before Attn Deficit was acknowledged. Karl Decker kept me engaged and I so loved his class. Karl, my mom is Sally Deegan, who is going strong here in Naples, FL and she loves the 06880 blog – so she will see this. Our dog Molly came from a litter from your home. I was Staples class of ’66 — we have our 50th this summer & so hope you will come.

    Back then you wore a jacket & tie every day! Of course we girls were banned from wearing pants to school…times have changed.

    Thanks Dan Woog for keeping us connected!

  13. P.S. Mom turns 90 in May! She’s got the stories…

  14. Sally Kellogg Deegan

    Karl – I use to say, “if you needed anything or wanted to find out about something, walk down the Staples main hallway, shouting it out and Karl Decker would be at your elbow with the answer!” I loved “Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys!” You look wonderful. But was 1961 actually your first year at Staples or is that a typo?

  15. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    My late uncle, Al Parker was one of the founding artists at FAS. I’m not sure how much of the founders’ talent actually found its way into the curriculum but at least if Mr. Decker was involved it wasn’t a total waste of money. I never had him as a teacher but remember classmates raving about him. After 46 years I wish I could repeat some of those classes under the great teachers we had. Youth is wasted on the young. Enjoy your vitality, Mr Decker!!!!

  16. Dave Stalling

    Famous School of Tough Love: I first entered Karl Decker’s class in the role of obstinate jock with no interest in feckless topics such as English. With patience, wit and persistence he helped pry open my mind and instill a life-long (thus far) love for literature and writing. A great influence; a true teacher.