Thanking Two Men I’d Forgotten to Thank 30 Years Ago: Mr. Denstaedt and Mr. Wentz

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After attending 25 years of high school graduation ceremonies, it finally dawned on me as I sat in my robe and was thanked by grateful students and their parents–I really didn’t deserve such nice seats.

Compared, to the folks who were really responsible for the pomp and circumstance, my hourly contribution was minimal.  Elementary teachers put in the long hours and are stuck with the kids all day long.  Middle school teachers are fighting the two-headed dragon of hormones and immaturity in a short, nasty body that hasn’t often developed a soul yet.

Within two days, Clawson lost two of its icons–John Denstaedt and Bill Wentz.  Both of them were outstanding educators and mourned by thousands.  Yet when I walked across the stage and grabbed my diploma in 1983 they weren’t there–or if they were, I wasn’t even looking for them.  I had moved on.  Clawson High School and Junior High (middle school without the sixth grade, back in the early eighties) are separated by long corridor with the pool in between.  But it might as well have been the Gulf of Mexico.

Clawson Junior High, 1977

Clawson Junior High, 1977

I think that deep-down, most high school students suppress those dark years of seventh and eighth grade–instead convincing themselves that they always did the right thing.  It’s like that shudder that makes you not dwell on what you may have said to have former boyfriend or girlfriend. 

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Yet someone has to do the dirty work, like Game of Thrones‘ Night Watch, protecting the southern kingdoms from the beasties on the other side of the wall…

White Walker or Middle School Student (deep down under)?

White Walker or Middle School Student (deep down under)?

After I shook hands with friends and relatives, I sought out those high school teachers who had made a difference–and they were immensely influential on my life and I invoked them aily in my career in the classroom.

But the teachers I didn’t think about that day perhaps affected me more.

Bill Wentz

Bill Wentz

When I received the startling news that Mr. Wentz had passed, it jolted me.  It was his second career, after serving in the Korean War and working as an engineer.  And he remained a teacher for 45 years.  He had the unenviable job of teaching seventh grade math–and I never faulted him for his speedy trips for a cigarette after each class.  I wouldn’t have faulted him for a trip to Ted’s Pub after what we put him through.

Bill Wentz (1934-2013)  Click for obituary.

Bill Wentz (1934-2013) Click for obituary.

Mr. Wentz was a staple at every sporting event, generally keeping score or proving a voice for the events.  The last time I saw him was at the scorer’s table, actually, just a few years ago.

John Denstaedt

John Denstaedt

A few days later, I heard that Mr. Denstaedt, my seventh grade geography teacher had died of a heart-attack.  His slide shows of his trips around the world were amazing.  And I still know the fifty capitals because of his humor, graphics and general good spirit. 

Don't stop thinking about summer vacation

Don’t stop thinking about summer vacation

He was my last hour of the day and my gateway to summer in 1978.  And to ease the pain of his final exam, he opened up his record player and played Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.  I still can’t not think of John Denstaedt when I hear “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” long before Bill Clinton and Al Gore did their awkward victory dance in 1992.

John Denstaedt (1945-2013) Click for obituary

John Denstaedt (1945-2013) Click for obituary

A year later, he was a chaperone for our eighth grade trip and his slides had convinced me in between to pick up photography and actually create a darkroom in my parents’ basement–after some lucky breaks at local garage sales for enlargers and trays.  I remember being on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at dusk as he and I discussed the best ways to create proper exposure for a shot of the mall and the Washington Monument in the reflecting pool.

It's all in how you sell it.

It’s all in how you sell it.

Yet it wasn’t until they both passed so near one another, that I realized their deeper influence on me.  Both had great, dry senses of humor and were devoted to their students’ success.  In both rooms, you’d walk in and get a wink and mustached smile and feel like you were at your uncle’s house and about to have a fun afternoon–even if he somehow convinced you, like Tom Sawyer’s fence-painters, that it would be great idea to mow the lawn or paint the garage.

Nobody wakes up and says, “Yes!  Today’s the day for long-division AND eastern European rivers!”  Nor did they roll into my composition classes pumped up about the amazing transformer-like quality of a gerund.  I knew how tough a sell I had and so did Bill and John (as if I ever thought of them as owning first names).

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And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like “honor”, “code”, “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline.

I truly believe that school districts should not only provide robes and invitations to elementary and middle school teachers, but they should be seated on the dais, not the school board members.

The Day Watch of Clawson Junior High, 1978

The Day Watch of Clawson Junior High, 1978

They are largely ignored or simply pitied.  Yet the best ones I know wouldn’t have done anything else with their lives.  Their love of their subject, your kids, and more importantly that quirky “middle” between child and adult makes theirs truly a calling.

Bill and John, you are truly thanked and missed by many–even if we haven’t realized it yet.

About Kevin Walsh

Before creating MyMediaDiary.com, Kevin taught high school video productions and language arts for 25 years. He is the producer of the web-series and blog, www.DiggingDetroit, founder and producer for MMD Productions at www.mmdphotovideo.com which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His text, "Video Direct," is used in 40 states. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two teenagers. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kwteacher
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19 Responses to Thanking Two Men I’d Forgotten to Thank 30 Years Ago: Mr. Denstaedt and Mr. Wentz

  1. Ann Walsh Quinn says:

    Great article, Kevin! Really, you paid both teachers a great tribute!

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks, Mom, as ever! It was great that you were able to build relationships with so many of my favorite staff members when you were hired at CHS after I’d graduated.

      • Sarah Muth Loop says:

        Kevin – I have to wave high to your mom here. She built great relationships with the students as well! I remember how kind and understanding she was – it was good to know that there was always someone who cared and took a moment to let us know that (especially me when I was in trouble šŸ˜€ ).

  2. Sue Sandtveit says:

    Thanks to Kathy Clemans, English teacher at Royal Oak Kimball High School in the 60’s. She cracked the whip along with being tremendously engaging. In my senior year we read an expose about the funeral home industry and went on a field trip to White Chapel Cemetery

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks, Sue! Isn’t it amazing how clearly we remember those engaging folks and their field trips or slide-shows or whatever made them stand out? (I’ve always had my suspicions of the funeral home industry! And when White Chapel added a “.com” to its big billboard on I-75, they grew even more!)

  3. cathy albery says:

    just wrote you a very well-thought-out response about the teachers i was influenced by and my experience as a middle school teacher and then lost it somewhere in my ipad. know it was good, please.

  4. Sarah Muth Loop says:

    Wonderfully written! They truly were 2 of the greats at CMS. Thanks for capturing that and reminding me of the others that truly made a difference in my life!

  5. Charles M. Burns says:

    Oh how they will be missed They did their job and did it well. RIP.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      I agree, Charles. And the best part for them and all of us was they didn’t see it as a job. They were like those entertaining guides who take you down the whitewater–or at least Disney’s Jungle Cruse with the corny jokes!

  6. Linda Taylor says:

    Thank you Kevin, Truly an amazing written tribute. You helped me to bring back many memories I had long forgotten such as did Ruth Mikus in the wonderful memories she spoke at Bill’s funeral in the High School Auditorium. I realize I am so much more of who I am today because of these teachers that realized my potential in those early years of school.
    Linda Taylor – class of 1973

  7. Lisa Murdock Stabile says:

    Great article! Bill Wentz, otherwise known as my “Uncle Willy” was an amazing man. I loved the pictures you shared, as my dad Jim Murdock (who passed almost 3 years ago) was pictured in the group photo I’ve never seen. Thank you so much for sharing, as it is inspiring to know that teachers can inspire and make a difference. I can only hope to touch the lives of my students the way my Uncle Willy did.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks, Lisa. I was a huge fan of your dad’s. He also possessed that great, wry sense of humor. He had a wonderful smile and a gentle teasing that made his class a blast! I’m sorry for your loss. I can only imagine it’s quite a vacuum with his absence.

  8. Cathy K. says:

    Kevin, I cannot tell how grateful I am to you for writing this tribute to Mr. Wentz. I unfortunately never knew Mr. Denstaedt, but Mr. Wentz will always hold a special place in my heart, and I too, was devastated at his passing. He was the first person in my life that made me believe in myself and feel like I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to, something integral to a bit of a lost girl from a divorced home. I will forever thank him for so many of the things in my life I’ve been blessed with and hope he is enjoying a good game of poker somewhere as he deserves it. šŸ™‚ Beautiful well-written article.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      What a beautiful tribute to Mr. Wentz, Cathy. Thank you for sharing. So many wonderful educators have made vital differences in our lives!

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks so much, Cathy. I apologize for the huge-delay in extending my gratitude for your kind words. They were both wonderful guys and each had a wry sense of humor that kids responded to well. That’s wonderful how Bill helped you!