Monday, April 2, 2012

Ken Tarpley

I guess every kid needs a mentor.  I was lucky.  I had three of them.  Unfortunately, one of my mentors was not my father (more on that later).

The nuns at St. Thomas the Apostle were not mentor-friendly to a young boy, although two of my teachers, Sister Anne Patrick (1st grade) and Sister Callista (4th & 7th grades) became friends after 8th grade graduation.

No, I had to wait until senior year at Crystal Lake Community High School to find a mentor, but I must say:  It was worth the wait!

Kenneth J. Tarpley had been around CLCHS a long time.  After I had a letter published about him in the Chicago Tribune two years ago, I heard from CLCHS graduates from the 1940's who had had Mr. Tarpley for English.

Mr. Tarpley used to smoke these Dikta-like stogies, and he had a free period just before our class so he fired one up in the classroom right before our Speech/Debate class.  I was usually the first one in the door, and when I walked in, all I smelled was cigar smoke.  The whole room reeked of it!  I remember thinking the first day of class that I was not going to like taking Speech/Debate.  Boy, was I wrong!

Mr. Tarpley was also one of the play directors, and I guess he must have taught theater at CLCHS because there was a stage in the front of the classroom complete with a curtain, and he even had a sound booth built in the back of the classroom so that he could show films without us hearing the clicking of the 16 mm projector.

Thinking back now, I believe that Mr. Tarpley must have been at the height of his teaching career when the first addition to the high school was built in 1954, and he probably designed the classroom to fit his specifications.

What a teacher Mr. Tarpley was!  He came in one day and read to us from the Bible.  We were all looking at each other--"What the heck is he doing?"  Tarpley closed his Bible and said, "Now you are going to put me on trial for violating the law of separation of church and state."

I was Mr. Tarpley's assistant defense attorney.  Tom Reed (the lead attorney) and I worked like demons to get Tarpley off.  Mary Ann Steger was the judge, and Hector Bringas, a foreign exchange student from Argentina was one of the prosecuting attorneys.  I had never worked so hard in school. 

Mr. Tarpley also introduced the class to Edward R. Murrow and Joe McCarthy.  He played us a film that showed Murrow going after McCarthy during the Red Scare of the early 1950's.  Later, when I taught at Fremd and at Monmouth College, I used the same film that Mr. Tarpley used.  I've read both Murrow biographies, and I have all his television programs on tape--even Person to Person--all thanks to Tarpley.

We also had great debates in Tarpley's class, one of which was Resolved:  the U.S. should get out of the United Nations--not a very popular proposition in 1966.  I argued for the affirmative (that the U.S. SHOULD get out of the U.N.) and began to really believe it.  When going to the library, I remember the librarian looking at me funny because I was in there actually working, not goofing off.  We lost the debate, and to this day I think we got robbed.  I still hate the U.N.--all because of Tarpley's class.

We did all the conventional speeches: informative, persuasive, etc.  The After Dinner Speech assignment I decided not to do.  I had just broken up with my girlfriend and was broken hearted and didn't feel like being funny.  Tarpley bugged me for days to do the speech, and I always said "no."  What an idiot I was! 

The Heartbreaker!  Homecoming 1965.
He gave me a "C" for the 2nd quarter, which translated into a "B" for the semester, even though I had an "A" first quarter and an "A" on the final (I did get all A's second semester in debate--the only other "A" I ever got in high school was in Mr. Bob Gross's General Science class).

I don't know if it was a set-up by Tarpley because of my broken heart, but my Impromptu Speech topic was "Why you should not date/should date girls/boys from other high schools."  My dad had just handed me about $20.00 worth of telephone bills the morning of the speech and told me that I was going to have to work over Christmas vacation in order to pay them off.  The charges were for toll calls from Crystal Lake to Woodstock, where my former girlfriend lived.  So during the speech, I whipped the actual telephone bills out of my wallet, waved them at the class, and told the class how one should NEVER date a girl from another town.  Tarpley loved it!  He talked in class about it for days.

I had some good teachers and some bad teachers in high school at Crystal Lake Community, but none compared to the greatness of Kenneth J. Tarpley.

Here's the letter I had published in the Chicago Tribune.  The Tribune asked readers to send in letters about non-family members who had influenced their lives.

Active learners
As a senior at Crystal Lake Community High School during the 1965-66 school year, I had certainly not distinguished myself academically. Then I took Ken Tarpley's speech and debate class.

Mr. Tarpley turned me and the rest of my classmates from passive to active learners. We actually put Mr. Tarpley on trial in debate class for reading aloud from a Bible. I was his assistant defense attorney. Instead of sitting in class listening to a teacher drone on, I became engaged in the trial, writing briefs, questioning witnesses and objecting to the prosecution's case. Mr. Tarpley was found not guilty.

Mr. Tarpley also introduced the class to Edward R. Murrow and Murrow's television debate with Sen. Joe McCarthy. All of a sudden, I realized I had become a student.

Last fall I took over the speech and debate program at Monmouth College. During the first meeting of the team, I couldn't help but think that Mr. Tarpley was watching over my shoulder.

Mr. Tarpley suffered a heart attack and died in his car on his way to school in 1972. He was 67 years old. At age 62, I hope I have enough time to teach the students at Monmouth College like Mr. Tarpley taught me.
James G. Wyman, Monmouth, Ill.

Thank you Mr. Tarpley.  Your kindness and love of teaching will never be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. Jim, that was a great article. You certainly captured the spirit of his class and his love for teaching in your essay. I didn't have the honor of having Mr. Tarpley for speech. I wish I had. I can remember a couple of speeches from my speech class, one of which was done by Rick Ohlrich. He was reciting a poem, and one of the lines went something like, "I get up every morning and read the obits..." I distinctly remember our teacher's critique. She said, "You should not have talked about reading the obituaries at the breakfast table. It's not the kind of subject that people find appetizing while they're eating." She was not particularly open minded. I remember her telling me I had a bad attitude, which was entirely possible. In any case, thanks for the memory and for your fine tribute to Mr. Tarpley.

    Bob Rosulek April 4, 2017