Remembering Karl Decker

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.

Karl Decker

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.

Roger Griswold (in suspenders), and his friend Steve Utley — one of the photos in Karl Decker’s book about Townshend, Vermont. (Photo/Karl Decker)

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 merrdeck@aol.com. 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.”

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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.

Karl Decker in 1970. Many of those veteran teachers he learned from were still teaching then.

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.

Karl Decker, 1978.

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.

Karl Decker, 1995.

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.

Karl Decker was an avid reader of the New Yorker. He kept many issues — including this from 1934.

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.

Karl Decker, at his beloved Townshend, Vermont home.

36 responses to “Remembering Karl Decker

  1. Karl was my first friend when I moved to Westport in 1991. My daughter was assigned to his sophomore English class; several years later my son was with Karl for two years as a junior and a senior. I joined the staff of the high school in 1993 and got to know him even better and also Merrillyn as they graced our dinner table numerous times and we met their extended family over the years. He signed his book to me as someone “…who knows the storyteller I claim to be.” One of the best storytellers around and a loyal friend to so many people and generations of students.

  2. Mr. Decker, a Staples Icon for so many of us and I never had him as an English teacher.
    He did so much for us and with us, he helped make being at Staples each day the place to be.
    Thanks for including All of those familiar names in the story. Seeing those names conjures up images of them, their faces, their voices, our days at Staples High School.
    It was and is still an incredible place to learn. Our education was special, because of the educators we had in class and because our educators taught us more than the subject matter, they taught us about life and about how to treat each other.
    Mr. Decker, thank you!! Thank you for being a Staples Icon!!

    • Karl Decker was one of the greatest teachers I ever had; and growing up in Westport that was a high bar.
      In his packed classroom, I learned more than his curriculum sought to teach. I was fortunate to run into Mr. Decker at a time when I also needed a mentor, a friend, and probably a therapist. He listened, supported, challenged, and guided me – by showing us, his students, how to find and create life’s meaning through the written word.
      Though I can surely credit him for a greatly improved grasp of punctuation and my trance-like reaction to great literature read out loud, it was his particular blend of clearly-stated rules and nimble wit that inspires me every day- as a parent, as a human, and as a writer.
      I extend my heartfelt condolences to his family, who will surely miss him in their daily lives. One can only hope that they, too, will continue to feel his exceptional presence in their hearts and minds long after the bell has rung.

  3. Within moments of posting an announcement of his passing on the Staples Alumni Facebook page last night, there were dozens of reactions and comments. This morning, there are over 300.

    I posted on my personal page as well…

    I just learned that my sophomore year English teacher, Karl Decker, died. He was a tough teacher. He had a long beard and a deep voice. Thinking back on it, he would have made a great Dumbledore. He graded hard and went by the moniker D-minus Decker – and he was proud of it.

    He had a poster in his room:

    The Rivers of Hades
    Acheron
    Cocytus
    Phlegethon
    Styx
    Lethe
    Saugatuck (that’s the one that runs through the middle of town)

    It’s my understanding that more than one kid used this as an answer in the Myth and Bible class taught next door (Dr. Kuroghlian?) but that might just be another Decker story.

    Among my other favorite Decker memories:

    •He was sick as a child and never learned the order of the alphabet. This put him at a terrible disadvantage when they played dictionary races later in school. Who could find the word the fastest? He always started at the beginning of the book.

    • When someone in the class sneezed, invariably someone else said “bless you.” Mr. Decker would follow with, “and may G-d have mercy on your soul.”

    • My older sister and I both had him for sophomore English. My mother wore red shoes to parent teacher night in 1986. In 1990, he still referred to her as “the woman with the red shoes.”

    • He claimed he could give a spelling bee to the class in which everyone in the class had to write the words and predict who had spelled each word wrong. He then demonstrated the skill with INCREDIBLE accuracy.

    • He handed out a schedule of what you should eat for breakfast each day. I’m pretty sure I had him for first period on Tuesday. And Tuesday was Sally Lunn Bread, Butter and Jam. So, I made a Sally Lunn Bread and brought it in on Tuesday with butter and jam.

    • And we read some of the best authors. Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. If you haven’t read him, I can’t recommend picking up a collection of his stories enough.

    • Finally, the most fascinating story to me (now a Neuroradiologist) was that he claimed to raise Sleeping Goats and I think it was true. These were goats with a type of narcolepsy. If you ever want to watch a video on YouTube, they bound around like happy goats and then drop to the ground every few minutes. If it was not true, it was a GREAT story.

    I could never be an English teacher. I’m not sure how they do what they do. I could walk into High School tomorrow and bumble my way through a Math or Science class for a few days. But how do you impart an interest in reading and writing? How do you make a bunch on 14 and 15 year olds read and write about short stories by a long dead Russian (1852!!) and learn something new everyday? It’s like magic to me and I was lucky enough to have 3 English teachers in 5 classes during high school who could all do it. But Karl Decker did it with humor and panache and fear. And everybody loved him for it.

  4. Tom Duquette, SHS '75

    First, my condolences to the Decker family on their loss and thank you Dan for sharing this story. I had the good fortune of having had Karl Decker as an English teacher; he was indeed tough and uncompromising but he was also creative in his approach and he had a sharp sense of humor. He actually made you think and his rules taught you self-discipline. Like many kids; you try to get away with doing the minimum with class assignments but Mr. Decker wasn’t having any of that. He challenged you to do better and I like to think I am better for it.

    Educators like Karl Decker, Anthony Arciola, and Werner Liepolt (from Bedford JHS) made English class one of my favorites and these gentlemen were a gift to generations of Westport students. Growing up in Westport and attending K-12 at Saugatuck, Bedford, and Staples I took for granted what our schools offered back then; it wasn’t until I left that I could fully appreciate the experience. Rest in peace Mr. Decker and thank you.

  5. Karl Decker was one of the important cables that supported the bridge that became the Staples High School legend. That continuum of excellence sprung from a faculty that was as diverse as the student population wasn’t. By his own admission, Karl was an iconoclast, dedicated to his students and to the pure essence of learning. Regardless of how you got there, the destination in his classroom was always pre-ordained, clear thinking through unfettered creativity and highly disciplined hard work. As his tenure started, mine ended. But his reputation as a teacher of distinction was already in the mold and curing. Staples is fortunate to have had him for so long and even more fortunate to have used his educational mantra as a template for generations of teachers that followed his trail of breadcrumbs. Karl, we laugh out loud in your honor. You left your mark and it wasn’t a D-.

  6. Vanessa Bradford

    Mr. Decker, along with Mr. Leonard were my two favorite teachers at Staples. He called himself Father Decker and we were Sister (last name) and Brother (last name) . A very unique and authentic person, teacher, biker and man of nature, we were so fortunate to have him as our English teacher. Unforgettable!

  7. Rabbi Cantor Shirah Sklar

    I will always remember Karl Decker as the best teacher I ever had. He changed my life, taught me how to be a student, a writer, a reader, a learner. He was the consummate educator. His memory will forever be a blessing in my life.

  8. Michael Brennnecke

    I never had him as a teacher but I was well aware of how loved the man was. I didn’t know how good my education was until I got to college. We had some great teachers in Westport. Karl Decker was clearly one of them.

  9. A righteous man. Thank you Mr. Decker for teaching our kids.

  10. Werner Liepolt

    Such sad news… my deepest condolences to the Decker family.

    Karl was a wonderful teacher, a brilliant colleague, and source of both common sense and erudite scholarship. He defined the gold standard of the Staples English Department for a generation.

  11. Susan Woog Wagner

    Karl Decker was the best teacher I ever had. I loved his English class and creative writing. So glad he never went to Dobbs Ferry. Westchester’s loss was Westport’s gain.
    He really made his mark on this world and his students.
    Susan Woog Wagner

  12. Jennie Pickering

    I was always regretful that I did not have Mr Decker as a teacher, everyone who was taught by him seemed to be graced!

  13. “D- Decker” was not only a good teacher, he was a mentor who was passionate about teaching. He was a strong influence in my daughters’ lives. One of my daughters, now a successful somatic psychotherapist, was diagnosed with a motor-perceptual difficulty while enrolled in his class. Unfortunately, Staples would do nothing more than give her extended time tests, and leave it up to her teachers for further accommodation. Karl Decker was the only teacher who responded. He would let her talk through her outline for a paper while he recorded it. It made all the difference in her ability to succeed. I am so sad to hear of his passing, and so filled with admiration for the full life he led. I’ll laugh a little bit more heartily, just for you, Karl!

  14. A.David Wunsch

    When I would visit V. Louise , in assisted living on Park Ave in Bridgeport, she always spoke of him warmly. Thanks Dan for this fine reminiscence.

  15. He made a cameo appearance in my recent Knicks memoir, which I unfortunately did not share with him. But thankfully I did share with him a similar cameo appearance in a book I wrote many years ago; both had to do with the daily journal he had us keep in the fall of 1968 in sophomore English class.

    That journal was one of the best writing exercises I ever had in any class, high school or college. There were no grades involved and we were free to write about anything. He simply wanted us to get in the habit of putting pen to paper and not to be afraid of expressing ourselves.

    Even though there were no grades with respect to the journal, he couldn’t go an entire semester without commenting on my penmanship, noting at one point that it looked like a drunk chicken had stepped in an inkwell and walked across the page. I had a good laugh reading that.

  16. Jonathan Gailmor

    A lover of words, a lover of laughter and, most importantly, a lover of humanity. Karl was my teacher, my mentor and it always felt as though we’d known each other our whole lives. Our friendship had a depth without a bottom. Regardless of how many months or even years between conversations, the next one would always begin with “and…” And then there was our Vermont connection. His camp in Townshend and it’s residents meant the world to him–and he to them. Karl’s masterful photographic tribute to his adopted home, in which he took a photo of every resident and gave each of them the choice of setting and companions (human or otherwise), is a profoundly moving and eloquent piece of work, indeed. From the first moment we were together, in that Journalism class many summers ago, I was struck by the dignity with which he treated every living creature, two or four-legged, young or old, by the value he placed on every word he spoke, by his passion and compassion, and by his brilliant, limitless and often questionable sense of humor that I could always relate to. The perpetual twinkle in Karl’s eyes could and did light up the worlds of anyone fortunate enough to cross his unique path, as well as the world at large. Being around him made me better in countless ways and I shall miss Karl Decker way beyond words. My love goes out to his beloved Merrilyn and his beautiful family.

  17. Amazing piece. I really loved the interview.

  18. What a fine tribute to an old friend.

  19. A wonderful tribute Dan. Thank you.

    I don’t think Karl Decker liked me much at first, and in hindsight I don’t blame him.

    I was more interested in football than English, didn’t complete most assignments, skipped classes, got in fights, clowned around and drank too much. Once, he took me to the dean’s office and called my father because he smelled alcohol on my breath.

    Then one day we went outside for class and sat around a tree that Karl called a sugar maple. I corrected him, told him it was a red maple, and showed him how to tell the difference. He seemed surprised, and impressed. I explained to him how my father had taught me about trees and that I spent a lot of time in the woods and loved all things wild.

    Several days later, when I was struggling with and ignoring some Shakespeare readings, he handed me a novel called “The Big Sky,” by A.B. Guthrie, about a troubled young man named Boone Caudill who leaves home and heads to Montana to become a mountain man.

    “I think you’ll like this,” he said. “Read it and write a report for me.”

    I did, and it changed my life. I learned to love reading, and literature, and writing, and Montana — where I’ve lived for the past 36 years.

    Years ago, while visiting Westport, I went to a photo exhibit Karl was hosting at the library — remarkable portraits of people from Vermont. I had a chance to tell him how much he changed my life for the better.

    That’s what great teachers do. Karl Decker was one of the best.

    My thoughts are with him, his friends and family.

  20. D- Decker, I had the pleasure of having him as my English teacher for
    Sophomore, Junior and Senior year!!! He was tough, yes, but also fair and interesting. He was skilled to say the least. And he shaped my life dramatically. Firstly, he taught me the word “that” is way overused. I try hard to think of other ways to phrase things without using “that”. Secondly, to write and do the work, not for the grade, but for the satisfaction of completing a well thought out product. He taught us this by grading early papers, randomly, A-Z! Also, humility- everyone’s work was put up at some point, as either an example of how to do the work correctly or an example to be critiqued by the entire class. You never knew which one it was, until he started speaking.

    The largest impact he had on me was why I chose to become a Special Education teacher. When it came time to do in class essays, I would never complete them. I had an undiagnosed visual impairment that slowed down my ability to read. He discovered it, my mom had it diagnosed and then he made accommodations for it in his class. I thought I was the only one he did this for. My sister was also diagnosed with a learning disability 2 years later, through his observing a disconnect between the way her testing and homework was done and he also accommodated her. He had been modifying for many students in his classes throughout his years at Staples. I was so moved by this, I went into special education, and made a career of making sure kids had their educational needs met. Because when they do, they can succeed.

    My condolences to his family and friends who knew him best. He touched so many lives, and his work continues as those he helped and taught, help and teach others. He will be missed!

  21. Dan, so sorry I didn’t read this earlier. Mr. Decker was an inspiration.

  22. Decker inspired me to write and go on to be a journalism major. In his office he had a trash can that said “Windham County Jail” on it. When I asked him about it, he said that he had been arrested for vagrancy in Windham NY. When he was released, he told the desk sergeant he would empty the trash can for him, but he kept it and kept on going. That was Karl Decker

  23. Thank you Dan for this wonderful tribute. I did not have Mr Decker, but remember him so well. We had become FB friends in recent years, and liked each other’s posts. So many of the names of teachers mentioned bring that early community back. I did have Mr Arciola—MOBY DICK and HUCK FINN. I remember the curriculum, balance of writing, literature and grammar, and a sense that the teachers brought their own enthusiasms to the table—and those who saw each of us, where we were at that moment, and how so many of our teachers took us new places we needed to go.

  24. H. Justin Cosell

    What a brilliant and wonderful colleague. He was a true original, and I am so lucky to have known him. I am so saddened to hear this news. My sincerest sympathies to the entire Decker family.

  25. David Humphrey

    Thank you so much for this wonderful remembrance of a great teacher.  I am so glad I had Karl Decker for English.  When I got my first essay back, he gave me a C and added this comment, “Clean your typewriter keys!”  I told my father and he gave me an old toothbrush and a can of Gumout.  I got a B on my next paper.

    When my parents attended Back to School night, Mr. Decker was interrupted by an announcement over the school’s P.A. system.  He walked over to a toggle switch that was hanging on a loose wire, flicked it, and silence returned.  “A student made that for me,” he said.  “God bless him!”

  26. Dan — Thank you for your wonderful memory of a teacher both my children were fortunate to have. They suffered, they swore, they persevered. And they learned from Mr. Decker. And when Dave (Always, and still David to us) came home and reported his “protest,” we were more taken by Dean Franzen’s (?) not at all supportive reaction than by what he did. Yes, Mr. Decker helped his students discover who they were.

  27. Thank you, Dan, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking “in memoriam” of Mr. Karl Decker, and interview worthy of a New Yorker article themselves. As a new student in Westport after my Dad’s transfer from Chicago, Mr. Decker’s English class remains memorable to this day despite my prevailing interest in science and history and typical high school concerns beond the classroom. My writing, primarily in emails, to this day tries to measure up to his examples. I recall watching occasional films in his classroom, including a Frederick Wiseman documentary or two and discussions on literature of the day and past. I remember most vividly the day when Mr. Decker summed up each of our individual abilities – mine were spot on as quick-thinking, but perhaps at a pace that would exceed my speaking. Thank you Mr. Decker fot your service to us and explaining why my Dad became an English major before his ad man days in NewYork.

    • Zelmo: I believe it was in Karl Decker’s class where I met both you and Nils—and where we all became friends after discovering, among other things, our mutual love for basketball.

  28. Roseann Spengler

    Karl Decker had a profound influence on my son’s high school career.
    An extraordinary man, I remember being invited by my son to attend one of Mr. Decker’s after school “bull sessions” in which students could bring a guest and speak on any topic. We all sat on the floor. I was blown away by everything about Karl Decker, including his ability ( a gift really) to engage the kids in conversations with openess and trust. Thank you Dan for this wonderful memory.

  29. It’s ashamed he wasn’t paid enough to actually live in Westport.

  30. Jonathan Maddock

    I was 5 in 1960, and spent the summer at my grandmother’s house in West Townshend, VT. I lived in East Jamaica for 3 years after college. I love the area.
    The teacher/author/photographer, Karl Decker, was a teacher I did not have at Staples, but he is so recognizable. Reading what others have said about him, I feel I missed out.

    It was destiny that I buy this book. I found it used online.

    Jon

  31. I have too many fond memories of “Mr. Decker” to share here. He was my English teacher. I graduated Staples in ’67. I went to Berkeley (nuff said) and moved back to Westport in 2003. I reached out to Karl Decker and he remembered me. He sent me a copy of his book and I sent him a copy of my dear Westport friend Jeb Brady’s book. I had written the foreword. Mr. Decker was impressed. It made me feel so good. I know he changed my life for the better. It was the ’60s. He was exactly what I needed. Roll Tide Mr. Decker…Ellen (Barker) Naftalin.

  32. What a wonderful tribute. Staples HS and our world was lucky to have him.

  33. We Fooled Mr. Decker

    Janet was in Mr. Decker’s Staples High School English class in 1968/69. Mr. Decker found out that Janet had an identical twin sister and boasted that he would be able to tell us apart. The challenge was on! Margie, my twin sister, and I decided to switch our English classes which conveniently met in the same period at the end of the school day. Margie’s English teacher, Mr. Bradley, was aware of our plan.

    Margie walked into the classroom and notified the students that she was Margie and not Janet before Mr. Decker arrived. Everyone was excited to see if Mr. Decker would notice the difference. Unfortunately, Mr. Decker decided to have a pop quiz on a book that Margie had not read, From Whom the Bell Tolls. Miraculously the class was able to talk Mr. Decker out of giving the pop quiz. Crisis averted! The class continued and near the end Margie identified herself as Margie and not Janet. He was shocked and upset that he didn’t know the difference and demanded to see us together. Margie ran to her English class to get me so that we could stand together and show Mr. Decker that we really did switch and fool him. We all thought it was a good trick to play on Mr. Decker! Mr. Decker, eventually, was a good sport about the experience. We never switched again!

    Mr. Decker was a wonderful teacher and I enjoyed his classes tremendously and to this day I still have fond memories.

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