Karl Decker — a legendarily tough but superb and much-loved Staples High School English teacher, who had equally rich careers as a writer and photographer — died on Thursday at his Monroe home He was 88 years old.
When Mr. Decker retired in 1999, he was the longest-serving faculty member at Staples High School — and as much an institution as the building itself.
The Boston native grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and the extended family farm in Townshend, Vermont. Two great-great-great-aunts were Brigham Young’s wives, and the only ones to accompany him in 1847 on the Mormon immigration to what is now Salt Lake City.
Karl graduated from Milton Academy in 1950 (the same class as Ted Kennedy), Colby College and Columbia University. During military service he married Merrillyn Anne Healey.
In the 1960s the couple founded and edited the Monroe Courier. He was also a supervisor in the Fairfield County Soil and Water Conservation District.
An avid photographer, in 1987 he studied the craft as a fine art with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He began a documentary project, photographing and writing stories about the people of Townshend. His book — “The People of Townshend, Vermont” — was published in 2012.
Karl taught at Staples High School from 1960 to 1999. After retiring from education, he spent 6 years with Vermont Magazine. He traveled the state, writing and photographing stories of life in small towns.
His observations on the critical social and declining economic conditions there culminated in a lecture presentation — “The Tour Buses Don’t Stop Here Anymore” — at New England colleges.
After writing a dozen short stories, and 2 residencies at the Vermont College of Fine Art, Karl began work on a novel. “Seeing Emily Home” was set in the Depression years in a small Vermont town.
Karl is survived by his wife of 65 years, Merrillyn; daughter Christine Lowry and her children Brian Jeffries and Danielle Marenholz, with their spouses; son Lawrence Decker and his wife Holly, and their children Bryce, Silas and Carly; daughter Karen Decker and her sons Matthew and Jonathan.
A celebration of Karl’s life will be held at a later date. Messages may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributions in Karl’s memory may be made to the American Civil Liberties Union, Doctors Without Borders, and the Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend.
Karl’s last words were, reportedly, “Don’t mourn for me. I’ll be close by whenever I hear your laughter.”
In 2004, I interviewed Karl Decker at his Monroe home. Here is that chapter from my book “Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ History.”
I went to college on the GI Bill. My first teaching job was sixth grade, in Scarsdale, New York. It was temporary, and lasted a couple of years. I interviewed all over Westchester County, and almost took a job in Dobbs Ferry. But I got a call from [Staples principal] Stan Lorenzen. I knew nothing about Westport. I went to the AAA Guide, which called it “a quaint fishing village and artists’ colony on Long Island Sound.” I was not interested, but I went to see it.
The old Staples High School on Riverside Avenue was abandoned and shuttered. I called [assistant superintendent of schools] Frank Graff, who urged me to come to his office. I had that day one of the most fascinating interviews of my life. Frank and Stan took me to lunch at the Clam Box, then back to their office. It was a lengthy conversation. I was 28 years old, and they got to know me as well as anyone had at that time. We talked about me, my life, what I read and thought, my sixth grade classes, and my military experience. I kept waiting for a question about my [college] grades, but they never asked. I had not seen the likes of Stan Lorenzen in any of my best professors. He was a gentleman – old school – preppy perhaps, yet a man who commanded your attention and respect.
At the end, Frank and Stan looked at each other and said, “Should we tell him the bad news?” They were going to hire me without telling the department chairman. Frank asked, “Do you have any objections to working for a woman?” I said no. He called V. Louise Higgins. She sounded like Auntie Mame: “Dear boy, I understand you’ve been hired over my dead body.” “Yes ma’am…certainly ma’am…” et cetera, et cetera. I had no idea what I was getting into.
Staples was moving into its liberal era. Parents were very involved in the schools, and they were liberal people. Staples embraced the Kennedy years.
But there was also an overlap with some grand old people: Albie Loeffler, Edna Kearns, Jeannette Atkins, Charlotte MacLear, Dorothy Keith, Bea Wolynec, Hans Johnson, Harold Allen. Either I gravitated toward them or they embraced me, but I was looked after by them. That old gang had been at the old school with its creaky floors in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Now they’d come up to North Avenue, and suddenly were surrounded by lots of young teachers. It was probably hard on them, but they made a point to speak to the young teachers. They were in touch with us, and took us seriously. I sensed a very caring relationship.
Louise was busily nurturing her new department. She visited my class, and with a fascinating look asked me where I got my information. “My old college notes!” I said with enthusiasm. “Interesting. Have you considered burning them?” And she walked out. But at the same time, she encouraged me to learn to teach all the sophomore classes. People ask why I stayed at Staples so long. Even in the early days, people wondered. I think it was because I was left alone. I was trusted.
I was given an office with Tony Arciola. I thought it was remarkable he’d been teaching for seven years! One of the first things he told me was: “Find out where the kids are; find out what they need – then take them there.” That stuck in my mind all the years I was there.
When I came in 1960 there was a massive book called “Scope and Sequence,” written by V. Louise and Gladys Mansir. That was the curriculum, and you followed it. It provided new teachers with the books, writing and grammar lessons they needed. That was okay for the ’50s, but it disappeared when electives came in.
I taught 2D with Garry Meyers. Stan Lorenzen’s instructions were: “Keep the kids in the room for the length of the period.” They were a great bunch of kids. We took them to New York on field trips, and they carried my own young kids around on their shoulders. We wrote, read and had homework every day. That’s when I started journal writing and the daybook concept, which I later used in other classes.
The mid-‘60s brought changes so big and swift that V. Louise quit as chairman. Tony Arciola took over. Rhoda Harvey was the voice in the middle: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” She and V. Louise both saw that the traditional core of instruction – literature, vocabulary structure, formal writing – was being threatened by electives that were being pushed by new teachers like Joe Duggan, Frank Weiner, Jay Heitin, Rich Bradley and Garry Meyers.
In English 4E – Experimental English – the kids built the curriculum. There was modern dance, theater, photography, lots of journal writing, field trips – we all tried to make it look viably English. That was the beginning of the electives program. We responded to what the kids wanted and what the parents were saying, about the need for women’s studies and black literature. All kinds of things became semester courses.
English 2, 2C, 3, 4, 4A lost their definition during the experimental years. So we had to spend a lot of time in the ’70s and early ’80s writing curriculum guides. The concept of the old analytical essays was dropped, thank God – they were cumbersome, tedious, and had nothing to do with what students thought, felt or knew.
I taught grammar, composition and Myth and Bible, but eventually I went back to full-year courses because I missed the continuity with the kids. We’d just get into something, and the semester was over – or even the quarter, because we also had quarter courses. Then in the ’80s I became enamored of teaching all four years: freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.
I taught 1C and 2C. I followed Tony’s advice: “Find out what the kids need, and take them there.” Some were angry kids with problems. We did relevant reading – Jon Krakauer, the same as the Advanced Placement kids were reading — not watered-down young adult literature. We read stories out of the New Yorker, Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine. It may have taken three weeks to get through one article, but they read it, they wrote about it, and they did vocabulary based on it.
I taught A-level sophomores – scrubbed, bright kids — and senior English, which was not leveled. I called my junior and senior classes English 3AAA and 4AAA. [Principal] Marv [Jaffe] once asked, “Karl, what the f— is this AAA?” I told him and he said, “Screw you” – but he hung around to find out what it was all about, and he supported me.
But the changes we’d been through had been absolutely right for the times. [Principal] Jim Calkins came at the right time for Staples, and accommodated the changes. He didn’t wear a necktie. He wandered the campus, and talked to kids. He was so visible. Some things failed miserably, but he was willing to try everything. We had speakers – Paul Newman came – and productions. Adults were always popping in to class – you would find them in the cafeteria, all over. They had come to Westport for great schools, and they wanted to be part of it all.
The English department was probably seen as a bunch of liberal-radical oddballs. I remember older teachers in other departments like Werner Friess, Frank Gilmore and Charlie Burke vilifying us at every turn. But others, like Clarence Berger, would hang around the English department, wearing his old filthy lab coat. A bunch of us ate lunch in Room 615 every day – Clarence, Tony Arciola, Harold Allen — a great cross-section of old-timers and young bucks.
I had the nickname “D-Minus Decker.” I established very clear protocols, very early on. Everything was spelled right out. Late papers: I don’t accept them. Missing papers: I don’t accept them. The initial squirming and squealing ended after the first couple of weeks – after the first person lost out on a paper.
I had a style sheet: You prepare your paper this way. No extensions, no exceptions – and I stuck by it. I said, “If you have a problem with an assignment, have it before it’s due.” I spent very little time fighting and arguing with parents over grades, because they knew. Of course, there were exceptions. When a girl fell through the ceiling of the auditorium, I told her in the hospital, “You’ll have an extension.”
Everyone else ended up giving A’s, and I did not. I told the students: “I do not grade you fairly; I grade you accurately.” [French teacher] Jeannette Atkins clued me in on that: If you give an A early, you can’t show how they progress or don’t progress. She started everyone off with a C. No college ever sees that first grade. You have to show where kids are going, not where they were or are.
By the time [department chairman] Jerry Brooker arrived, each of us knew our courses exactly. We were teaching to our strengths. But mastery tests were being whispered about – this was the early ’90s, maybe earlier – and there was more pressure to spell things out exactly.
Standardized testing never served any purpose for anyone at any time, anywhere, anyhow. It got a foothold at Staples because of state politics. There was a teacher enhancement grant back in the ’80s. The idea was to make salaries more equal across the state. Salaries up in Danielson were 30 to 40 percent less than in Westport. So the state legislature needed to make sure teachers were doing the work. That was the beginning of the state mastery test program. As far as I’m concerned, tests serve the superintendents, boards of education and real estate people. This was a matter over which [principal] Gloria Rakovic and I had words. One day 20 of my kids walked out, led by Dave Fuchs, and into the cafeteria. She asked what I had told my students. I said, “They asked my opinion of the tests, and I did what I always do: I told them.”
We ended up all teaching the same thing, at the same time, in the same way. That eliminates the idea of “Where is that kid, and what does he need?” It also eliminates the teacher’s talents, and what he can give. I prepared the kids for the tests, I gave them samples, I showed them how to do it – but it kills inquiry, it kills creativity, it kills discovery. It kills the very purpose of what a classroom should be: a place to find out new things, find out who you are, what you believe, where you want to go. You need the freedom to look around and ask questions. Before every class started, we always had those questions. And 9 times out of 10, they started the class off the way it needed to go.
Don’t get me wrong. When I came in 1960, I had absolutely no sense of how long I’d stay. But I never looked anywhere else. I retired in 1999. I always liked Monday mornings, and I always looked forward to September.