A cool thing happened just before I delivered my keynote address Friday for the 100th birthday celebration of my alma mater, Spokane’s Franklin Elementary School.
The hero of my speech tapped me on the shoulder.
I hadn’t seen Don Kolb in years. But he still looked athletic and trim, and I recognized him easily. With him was Charmaine, his beautiful bride of 47 years.
Kolb was my seventh-grade teacher at Franklin. His influence changed my life.
“Doug,” Kolb once told me, “anytime I can see a kid like you stay out of Walla Walla, it makes me feel 20 feet tall.”
I get a lot of humor mileage out of my wild-kid past. But the truth is that as I entered my teen years, I was running with a tough bunch, getting in fights and heading for bigger trouble.
I couldn’t put the blame on a bad home. My parents were great. My dad was a tough-minded guy who had ethics and a terrific sense of humor. My mom was a loving, stay-at-home June Cleaver who packed my lunches and dutifully drove me to trumpet and guitar lessons.
I was always a pretty good musician. But what I excelled at was playing my teachers like a virtuoso.
Until Kolb came along, that is.
Teaching at Franklin, 2627 E. 17th, was just Kolb’s second teaching job, the first in his hometown.
It still amazes me that he was teaching at all.
Kolb had been a star baseball player with North Central High School’s undefeated team. He attended college at Eastern, where he was All-Evergreen Conference and led the league in hits. He was named MVP as a junior and “most inspirational player” two years in a row.
Kolb graduated. The Yankees offered the pitcher and outfielder a $10,000 signing bonus to join one of their farm clubs.
But Kolb turned down the Yanks – to teach.
Hard to imagine an athlete making such a choice in today’s “me first” age.
And so I delivered my keynote speech before an attentive audience of Franklin students, who sat in the sun, and a group of more elderly alumni, who got the shade.
I told them how I loved every brick in the old school. I told them about the time I carved my name in my desk, a wood-topped contraption that was equipped with an inkwell and already was an antique.
I carved: “Doug Clark – famus.”
I was quite proud until one of the smart girls walked by.
“You misspelled famous,” she remarked in a haughty tone.
My first of many run-ins with an editor.
I told them about some of the former Franklin students I’ve interviewed over the years.
Frank Ohme, for example, attended Franklin from 1919 to 1927. Ohme got a big write-up in the paper in 1927 for being the city’s champion at marbles, which in Ohme’s day was apparently as popular as online poker is today.
In 1943, a girl named Joan was in a Franklin play with a kid named Don. Joan played the fairy princess. Don played the woodchopper.
The Saylers – Don and Joan – got married right after attending Lewis and Clark High School. They had a son named Jon, who went to Franklin and turned out to be one of Spokane’s premier architects.
I finally got to Mr. Kolb, who was a lanky 24-year-old when I first entered his classroom in the fall of 1963.
Kolb saw through my baloney in a split second. He was plenty tough but equally fair. He set standards. He believed in accountability. He taught me that it was better to use my wits than my fists.
Kolb was only at Franklin a couple of years, moving on to other jobs within the education system. After my speech, I joked with him that he didn’t need to stay at Franklin after working on me.
Kolb agreed. “I figured I’d conquered Mount Everest,” he said with a laugh.
Sure, I love Franklin School. It’s a piece of Spokane educational history.
And I sure hope no yahoos down at the school district office ever get the itch to tear down Franklin and replace it with a more modern structure.
Franklin should be preserved and cherished. I’d love to see the school expertly restored and updated, like Lewis and Clark. I’m betting thousands of Franklin alumni agree with me.
But the bottom line is that Franklin is still just architecture.
As much as we all love these old bricks, it’s the Don Kolbs – the concerned, dedicated and caring teachers – who make a building a school.