Tag Archives: Karl Decker

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.

What? No Famous Weavers School?!

A recent issue of the New Yorker offers looks backward.

There’s a tribute to founder Harold  Ross, followed by many old stories and cartoons.

Karl Decker — the longtime, legendary and now retired Staples High School English instructor — is a devoted New Yorker fan. The magazine sent him scurrying to his cellar, where he keeps his back copies.

All the way back to the 1930s.

Karl Decker, with his 1934 New Yorker.

He picked one — June 23, 1934 — and settled down to read.

There was a long article about Franklin Roosevelt; a cartoon by Peter Arno — and 500 words of “precious whimsy” by Parke Cummings.

In the summer of 1960, Karl and Parke — a famous author and humorist — worked together at Famous Writers School.

Al Dorne — one of the founders of the Famous Writers, Artists and Photographer Schools — was always looking for ideas to add to those 3 “schools” (all correspondence-based, and headquartered on Wilton Road).

An advertisement from the 1950s.

Parke and Karl had already submitted proposals for a Famous Sculptors School (which required a railroad spur, to ship in granite) and Famous Dancers School (huge pads on which students would ink their bare feet, then step out the moves on big rolls of paper).

Their latest idea: Famous Weavers School. The preface read: “The School will provide each student with 4 English Shropshire sheep, a shepherdess, and …”

Dorne told them he’d have to consult with Ed Mitchell before they went any further.

“Inexplicably, our workloads increased markedly after that,” Karl reports.

Remembering V. Louise Higgins

Anyone who attended Staples in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s knew V. Louise Higgins. The Radcliffe graduate influenced thousands of lives, as a revered English teacher and department chair.

That influence included fellow teachers and administrators, as well as students. Former colleague Karl Decker remembers V. Louise Higgins, who died last Friday at 92.

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I came to the Staples English Department in September 1960, along with many other new young teachers. “V. Louise” — “Miss Higgins” of course to us unproven neophytes — had come to my classroom for my first observation.

V. Louise Higgins, in the 1956 Staples yearbook...

V. Louise Higgins, in the 1956 Staples yearbook…

I was ready with a  great lesson, the students were ready with pencils  poised for note-taking, and I did all the right things. Miss Higgins sat in back taking notes on a yellow legal pad. Class ended, students left, Miss Higgins rose with her yellow legal pad and approached me.

“Dear boy,” she said using her frequent form of address. “A fascinating class. Tell me, for I am curious — just where did you get your material?”

“My fine college notes, Miss Higgins,” I replied. “You see, I saved them in case–”

“I thought so,” she said and paused. Then: “Tell me, have you considered burning them?” And with that she left the room.

As she passed by the wastebasket, she tore off the top sheet of her yellow legal pad, crumpled it up and backboarded it off the wall into the garbage.

If VL had a supervisory, mentoring objective, it surely was to get us to develop our own expertise, to work towards our own mastery of content and teaching skills. As she put it once to me, “I want you to be able to teach that class with your hands tied behind your back and without the crutch of a lesson plan — of specious value anyway — before you.”

...and in 1969.

…and in 1969.

Three years later I held a minor administrative position at Staples and had my teaching schedule halved. VL was clearly not pleased. One day she came to my new office and asked, “Are you going to be an administrator or a teacher?” I leaned back in the arrogance of my swivel chair and said I’d give it some serious thought.

“I want that serious thought done and over with tonight and your answer on my desk tomorrow morning,” she replied. I chose teaching. “The correct choice,” she said later. “Now, about the Shakespeare selections for the sophomore classes…”

So the years at Staples passed and eventually we went our separate ways. VL retired and devoted her later years to study of the ships and seafaring days of Southport. In 1999 I quit after 43 years of teaching to become a photographer and writer for 6 years at Vermont Magazine.  Then by chance we re-met when she was in residence at the famed 3030 in Bridgeport. I had begun work on a novel.

“A novel? Dear boy, do let me read your drafts,” she said. And for the next 2 years, I’d send her the chapters as they came. Her critical skills were undiminished–sharp, perceptive, acerbic and yet supportive.

“On page 145 you have a paragraph that make no sense at all…Oh, yes, and here on page 166, you have a terrible mixed metaphor…ah, there is a nice turn of phrase somewhere here…just can’t seem to find it right now…”

In December 2014 -- as she read his manuscript -- Karl Decker took this photo of V. Louise Higgins. "Note the color in her world," he says.

In December 2014 — as she read his manuscript — Karl Decker took this photo of V. Louise Higgins. “Note the color in her world,” he says.

In one of my later calls she asked, “Where are Chapters 21 and 22?” I sent them, but no reply, no critique came. In my last call a few weeks ago, I had asked how she was doing. Prefaced with unguarded and easy laughter, she finally said, “Dear boy, I am 92 years old. At 92 you simply, don’t start getting better.”

As an ex-English teacher I suppose I should be able to end this encomium (she loved big, precise words) with some brilliant quote from the great literature. But nothing seems to come just now. All I can say is I feel as if the chain to one of my several anchors in the world has been severed and for a while, I may be somewhat adrift.

Well. I do hope she likes the metaphor.

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

A New Frontier In Phone Service

Last Friday night, Frontier took over Connecticut telephone service from AT&T.

Many customers were unsure what that would mean. They found out quickly.

Karl Decker — an avid “06880” reader, and former English instructor at Staples — lost internet service until 4:30 p.m. Saturday. He was not the only one.

ATT FrontierFrom another phone — and after countless renditions of recorded “We are aware…thank you for your patience” messages – he managed to reach Frontier. A techie described what was happening as “all chaos.” He added, “thousands are offline.”

On Sunday, Karl was in Westport (Country Curtains had a 15%-off sale). The store still had no internet. Folks from Greenwich said they were still out too — along with everyone else they knew.

At noon on Monday, staffers at the Monroe Y noted that many friends remained without service.

“Is this news or what?” Karl asks. “When there’s an electric failure, it’s ll over the papers!”

Hear hear!

Mary Sings, And Karl Talks

Marta Morris Flanagan grew up in Westport. A graduate of Staples High School (1979), Smith College and Harvard Divinity School, she was ordained as a minister 25 years ago. 

Rev. Marta Flanagan

Rev. Marta Flanagan

She served Unitarian Universalist churches in Salem, Massachusetts — where she was the first female minister since the Witch Trials of 1692 — and 2 others, prior to her call to First Parish Church of Arlington, Massachusetts in 2009.

On Sunday she delivered a sermon to 300 people at First Parish. She talked about 2 people: Mary, Jesus’ mother — and Karl Decker, the former Westport teacher, whose words she’d read on “06880.” She said:

Reading

In keeping with this third Sunday in Advent, we just heard the choir sing the Magnificat. The words are from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, They are the words of Mary, an unwed teen carrying a child.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices.

What comes next in the song is dangerous stuff.

In the 1500s, in the midst of what would come to be called the Reformation, Martin Lather translated the Bible into German. Out of fear, Luther left the lines of the Magnificat in Latin. He did not want to offend the German princes who supported his struggles with Rome

Upon learning that she is pregnant, this unmarried woman chooses to sing about a revolution with an upheaval in values and an overturning of conventional mores. She sings:

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

 Sermon

It was oddly silent in the school when officers rushed in just 2 mornings ago with their rifles drawn. There were the dead, or the dying, in one section of the building. Elsewhere, children who had eluded the bullets were under orders from their teachers to remain quiet in their hiding places.

The 20 children and 6 adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, were each shot multiple times. The state’s chief medical examiner said it was worst scene he had witnessed in 3 decades poring through crime scenes and the bodies of people killed.

First responders described a scene of carnage in the 1st grade classrooms. With no movement, everything was perfectly still when the first responders arrived.

(Photo by Tom Kretsch)

(Photo by Tom Kretsch)

What would Mary do? Mary, the mother of Jesus? Mary, who sang the Magnificat? What would she do when 20 children in classrooms with construction paper on the bulletin boards are shot and killed?

When tragedies occur, we feel pain for those who suffer, confusion at the irrationality, and anger at the injustice of it all. We ask, “Why?”

Our need for an explanation often leads us to find something or someone to blame: a person, a group, even God.

There is certainly a time for seeking explanations, including investigating fault.

But we make a mistake in merely believing that explaining and blaming will help us escape the pain.

What would Mary do? Mary, the woman scripture tells us “pondered all these things in her heart?”

Newtown hopeWhen tragedy strikes, pain is something that must be borne, that must in a sense crash over us like a wave, shake us so that we truly feel our feelings; so that we can speak of them, share them, and exchange with others’ sympathy, empathy, and grief.

This kind of sorrow need not make us bitter. No, this kind of sorrow makes us better. This sorrow doesn’t make us smug at having an explanation; it makes us humble as we understand our shared vulnerability. This sorrow doesn’t make us put up walls of blame; it tears down walls as we feel our common humanity. This sorrow teaches us wisdom. It softens us, makes us more sensitive to the pain that others suffer. It forms compassion in us.

We often are tempted to run from this softening process. But when we share in an experience of tragedy, when we walk through the unrushable process of feeling and then healing, a Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Life, can form us into people who are more gracious, compassionate, and wise.

And doing so other questions will arise: How can I help?

Wendy flowerWhat question can I ask that will allow my neighbors to share their pain, their fear, their anger, and their sorrow?

How can we open ourselves that healing presence that binds the broken-hearted?

What would Mary do?  Mary who, like parents in all times and all places, offered her child his first lessons in love, a love made real in the simple acts of listening for a cry, of feeding, cleaning, and holding?

Sandy Hook, Connecticut, is not far from where I went to school.  In my high school, Karl Decker was an English teacher. On the web last evening, I read Karl Decker’s account of driving to Newtown yesterday to volunteer at the crisis center.  At the end of the day, he posted to his family and friends.

Just back from the crisis center, the…Newtown Middle School.  I got there just before 10.  The place was packed.  Police there, but in low profile….  No media allowed.  I went in … made myself known, signed the sign-up sheet for on-call counselors.  I signed up for 24/7

Karl Decker made himself available.  Still he wasn’t sure what he would do.  His story continues:

But as I left, my job brought itself to me: to greet people as they started walking across the parking lot from their cars. It happened at once. A family was walking towards me and I approached them and said, “My name is Karl. I’m a counselor. May I walk you to the entrance?” I had no refusals. And that was my routine until 3:30 when things thinned down, the sun fell behind clouds and a chilly wind came up.

In the few minutes it took to walk to the doors, Karl heard the stories:

My son’s little buddy was killed…
We know the family of…
The teacher was at our house for dinner a week ago…
We used to live in Sandy Hook…
My daughter doesn’t know what happened yet, how do I tell her…
I just wanted to be with people today…
And some just walked in silence…

Karl Decker wrote:

Little children, moms and burly firemen fathers held my hand the length of the walk…and there was a therapy dog (from Vermont!) outside, too, which we all stopped to pat. I’d take them to the door… and get back out for the next ones…groups of kids from the high school, the high school football captain came alone and then, after noon, counselors, psychologists began to arrive to volunteer–they came from all over–Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York City, Rhode Island, towns in Fairfield County. Some asked me for directions to a motel so they could stay in case called.

Two unusually well-groomed and lovely young women arrived in a car with Maryland plates.  Karl approached them as he did the others.  They turned out to be from the FBI. Their jackets read “FBI Incident Investigations.”  But mostly moms, dads, grandparents, and families, one after the other came. Then the food arrived. A truckload of pizzas, two SUVs from Panera’s, cases of water, a portable coffee canteen, and ice cream, and a cafeteria was set up.  Families bringing food.  Flowers.

Karl Decker

Karl Decker

Karl Decker wrote of a little boy named Casey who he had walked with.  There was a big children’s therapy room with art supplies. On his way out, Casey came over to show Karl the drawing he had made of his friends …  a row of colorful figures in joined hands with smiles and hats and toys and one figure, in black and white, clearly a skeleton.

A man brought out a ham and cheese sandwich and hot coffee for Karl.

I ask again what would Mary do?  It would be easy to end here, to summarize the very real need for kindness, for shared sorrow and for gentle love. But that would not be honest, or fair to Mary.

Mary was a woman living in a time and place of occupation. The Roman Empire ruled with a mighty fist. Caesar Augustus turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a power grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine. Mary knew that to call her soon-to-be-born son a “savior” was to repudiate Caesar’s claim to be “savior to the world.” Mary also knew that when a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered, this would tighten the empire’s grip on its subject people.

Think of German Jews and the Nuremberg Laws.  Think of undocumented workers in our country.

Knowing all this, Mary did not keep mum. She sang a song, a Magnificat. That song was a song of protest, a political analysis of the world she knows, a declaration of hope for what might be: “He has lifted up the lowly….”

Mary would not stop at helping to heal the brokenhearted.  She would say it is not enough to grieve and hold our children close.

Mary sang -- and Westporters protested.

Mary sang — and Westporters protested.

What song would Mary sing today?  She would sing of 20 first-graders killed with a semiautomatic rifle in a picturesque Connecticut suburb, 3 days after a gunman shot up a mall in Oregon, in the same year as fatal mass shootings in Minneapolis, in Tulsa, in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, in a movie theater in Colorado, a coffee bar in Seattle, and a college in California.

She would sing of an America whose gun murder rate is almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest and most populous nations combined.  And that every one of those nations has stricter gun control laws.

She would sing that we can’t just do as we did after Columbine, after Virginia Tech. She would sing that 8 children die from gun violence every day… along with 75 adult Americans.

She would sing while knowing that no legislation will eliminate gun deaths any more than safety measures have eliminated auto accidents.  But if we could reduce gun deaths by one-third, that would be 10,000 lives saved annually.

She would sing of her great hopes.

Newtown's first graders.

Newtown’s first graders.

She would sing of Australia. In 1996, a mass killing of 35 people galvanized Australia to ban rapid-fire long guns, with high-capacity magazines so a shooter can kill many more people without stopping to reload.  The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known in Australia, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those firearms remaining in public hands.

The law did not end gun ownership in Australia. It reduced the number of firearms in private hands by 1/5, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings.

In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings. In the 14 years since the law took full effect, there has been not one mass shooting. The murder rate with firearms dropped by more than 40 percent and the suicide rate with firearms has dropped by more than half.

Mary would sing that our central job as parents and as adults committed to a good future is to keep our children safe, so they can grow up. Easy access to guns keeps us from doing that job for Jalen, Vivi, Addie, Clara — 4 children who this congregation dedicated today — and all our children.

Karl Decker ended his account last night with these words.

So there are some fragments of the day. I do not know what tomorrow’s schedule will be, but I’ll be there.

What would Mary do? She would ponder all these things in her heart and she would sing of protest and of hope, a song moving us to speak out and to act, to create another way in our world.

Let us take a moment of silence to ponder our common sorrow before singing our final hymn.

The Crisis Center

Karl Decker spent 40 years as a Staples English instructor. In “retirement,” he’s a very active photographer and writer.

Karl lives in Monroe, not far from Newtown. Today, he volunteered at the crisis center in that devastated town. He wrote to family and friends:

Just back from the crisis center, the huge Newtown Middle School.  I got there just  before 10. The place was packed. Police there, but in low profile. Got hugged by the town’s youth officer. No media allowed. I went in, saw the DCF people, made myself known, signed the sign-up sheet for on-call counselors. I signed up for 24/7.

But as I left, my job brought itself to me:  to greet people as they started walking across the parking lot from their cars. It happened at once. A family was walking towards me and I approached them and said, “My name is Karl. I’m a counselor. May I walk you to the entrance?” I had no refusals. And that was my routine until 3:30 when things thinned down, the sun fell behind clouds and a chilly wind came up.

In the 30 seconds it took to walk to the doors, I heard all the stories: “My son’s little buddy was killed…we know the family of…the teacher was at our house for dinner a week ago…we used to live in Sandy Hook…my daughter doesn’t know what happened yet, how do I tell her…I just wanted to be with people today…” And some just in silence…

Many people in Newtown -- first responders as well as families -- took advantages of crisis counseling in Newtown today.

Many people in Newtown — first responders as well as families — took advantages of crisis counseling in Newtown today.

Little children, moms and burly firemen fathers held my hand the length of the walk…and there was a therapy dog (from Vermont!) outside, too, which we all stopped to pat. I’d take them to the door, turn them over to DCF and get back out for the next ones…groups of kids from the high school, the high school football captain came alone and then, after noon, counselors, psychologists began to arrive to volunteer–they came from all over–Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York City, Rhode Island, towns in Fairfield County. Some asked me for directions to a motel so they could stay in case called.

Two unusually well-groomed and lovely young women arrived in a car with Maryland plates, I approached them as I did the others and they turned out to be from the FBI. Their jackets read “FBI Incident Investigations.”  But mostly moms, dads, grandparents, families one after the other. Then the food arrived. A truckload of pizzas, two SUVs from Panera’s, cases of water, a portable coffee canteen, ice cream, and a cafeteria was set up.  Families bringing food. Flowers.

And then there was a little boy named Casey who I’d walked in with, who on his way out came over to show me the drawing (there was a big children’s therapy room with food, art supplies, etc.) he had made of his friends… A row of colorful figures in joined hands with smiles and hats and toys and one figure, only in black and white, clearly a skeleton. A man brought out a ham and cheese sandwich and hot coffee for me.

So there are some fragments of the day. I do not know what tomorrow’s schedule will be, but I’ll be somewhere anyway.

Love, Karl

Karl Decker And The People Of Townshend, Vermont

For 4 decades, Karl Decker was a legendary English instructor.

Generations of students knew him as “D-Minus Decker.” That’s the grade he traditionally gave — sometimes in the 1st quarter, sometimes all 4.

But those same students — in AP and remedial classes alike — adored their tall, bearded teacher. He taught them to write. He taught them to think. He taught them to care.

And, they knew — behind that gruff exterior — he adored them too.

Self-portrait, by Karl Decker.

“Mr. Decker” retired in 1999. Immediately, he embarked full-time on a 2nd career — one he’d pursued, part-time, while also teaching — as a photographer.

Now — appropriately, for an English instructor – he’s published a book.

The People of  Townshend, Vermont is a classic Karl Decker production. It’s a thoughtful, illuminating — and very loving — collection of portraits and stories of the men, women and children of the small town Decker has lived in (and admired) since 1934.

Farmers, fiddlers, families; a doctor, a beautician, a minister — 200 residents of the isolated community fill this handsome book. The photos are black and white; the stories as varied as the colors on an artist’s palette.

Decker is certainly an artist. A photographer since age 11 — over 6 decades ago — he studied at the New School in New York, attended the Maine Photographic Workshops, and earned a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Decker spent 5 years — from 1998 to 2003 — taking photos of his Townshend neighbors, and hearing their stories. He spent time doing both wherever the Vermonters were: in kitchens, barns, pickups, the post office or hospital.

Catherine and John Kenneth Galbraith — the John Kenneth Galbraith — are photographed right there on their porch.

Roger Griswold (in suspenders), and his friend Steve Utley. (Photo/Karl Decker)

The photos were exhibited throughout New England. But work on the book was set aside while Decker and co-writer Nancy Levine traveled throughout the state, photographing and writing 35 stories on small towns for Vermont Magazine.

Finally, The People of Townshend, Vermont is out. It’s impressive — and it’s impressed another Vermonter with Westport roots.

Jon Gailmor — a singer/songwriter and official “state treasure” who was Decker’s student in the 1960s — says:

Karl Decker loves the simple, elegant dignity of Vermonters. He always practiced and preached artistic honesty. He still does — you can read it in those faces and see it in his words. The folks of Townshend are a proud lot, indeed. This collection should make them prouder.

On Tuesday, October 30 (7:30 p.m.), the Westport Library hosts Decker. He’ll talk about his book, and sign copies.

Get there early. Between Decker’s 40 years of students, the many Westporters  who love Vermont, and our town’s appreciation of fine photography, the room is sure to be filled.

(For more information on Karl Decker — including how to order a signed copy of his book — click here. To hear his interview on Vermont Public Radio, click here.)

Jesse Lynn Gentlewolf and her daughter Miriabi. (Photo/Karl Decker

Karl Decker Remembers Ted Kennedy

Karl Decker, a longtime English instructor at Staples High School, sent along this recollection of the “Lion of the US Senate”:

Ted Kennedy, circa 1964

Ted Kennedy, in earlier days.

Smilin’ Ed was his nickname at our prep school:  Milton Academy.  He was in my class.  He was not a “friend”; his locker in the gym was next to mine.  He used to sting my naked butt, snapping a wet towel at me.  I got back at him one day by crushing graham crackers to powder in his jacket pocket.

He was a boarding student, and in retrospect, one among the many who led fairly lonely lives away from their families.  And there was a fair social separation between the day students and the boarders.  We rarely had any serious contact — at least that I recall.

He giggled a lot, fell asleep in class, squirmed in his chair, was often glancing around to attract attention, as the butt of practical jokes — but weren’t we all at that time trying to find ways to affirm ourselves, to be noticed, to find a way to relate, maybe not even aware of who or what we were?  Let alone what we might become.

Once I was invited to an afternoon social tea at the Kennedy home in Jamaica Plain.  I think Bobby and JFK were there.  I recall nothing more.  But I did go to our 20th Milton Academy reunion in Boston in 1970, and he was there.

I found myself on the deck of a luxurious condominium overlooking Boston Harbor.  He and I, oddly, were alone for a moment — except for one other man, not a graduate, in a dark suit standing nearby.  The Secret Service had been assigned to him after JFK’s death several years before.

Ted approached me, addressed me by name, we looked out over the ships in the harbor, and we chatted some I guess, but I recall him suddenly saying, “Karl, I no longer have any private life.  I can’t go to a store alone, I can’t go to the movies, I can’t walk on the street or the beach.  I am always accompanied by the Secret Service…”

That is all I factually recall.  Of course I followed his career — and watched him truly become a great man, seriously a dedicated champion of the social causes that even today need to be sustained and augmented.

Karl Decker’s Magical Vermont

After 43 years as an English instructor, Karl Decker might have looked forward to a relaxing retirement.

Instead, the former Staples icon spent 6 years traveling around his beloved Vermont, photographing and writing stories on 35 small towns for Vermont Magazine.

Karl Decker

Karl Decker

Now a new project beckons.  Decker and his magazine collaborator Nancy Levine are writing a book.  The Tour Buses Don’t Stop Here Anymore will use 1st-person narrative, experienced commentary and engaging photos to describe — bluntly, honestly, lovingly — some of the social and economic problems confronting small towns in that special state.

Tour Buses will also show how each community recognized, faced and tried to solve its problems.

“Rural Vermont communities tend to have a strong sense of community, and a keen, beloved sense of place,” Levine says.

Yet, Decker adds, “infrastructure woes, rising property values and taxes, generational poverty, crime, substance abuse, school closings, job loss, aging populations, poor medical care, agricultural failures, socioeconomic disparities, environmental disasters and land use issues all conspire to undermine life in the Green Mountain State.”

Many Westporters know Vermont only through ski slopes and summer vacations.  Tour Buses‘s stories and photos are sure to open eyes to this diverse, lovely and often misunderstood state.

(One more local connection:  When Decker and Levine presented a talk and slide show about their work to a local club recently, Westporter Jon Gailmor — a 1966 Staples graduate who moved to Vermont in 1977 and is now a statewide treasure as a singer/songwriter/educator — provided the introduction and closing.)

West Pawlet, Vermont (Photograph by Karl Decker)

West Pawlet, Vermont (Photograph by Karl Decker)