Have you ever wished you’d said “thank you” but never did? For me, it wasn’t too late. This essay was adapted from a letter* sent to my favorite teacher. I just learned Mr. Wally McGreen passed away on March 19, 2022 at age 83, so share this essay as my parting tribute.
Dear Mr. McGreen: It’s a funny thing about life. It takes time to realize how thankful one should be. And, so it is with me as this letter is long overdue. I’ve thought about writing it over the years but always found more pressing needs to consume the moment. Today seemed perfect: St. Patrick’s Day, snowing, my children off to events, with an unengaged afternoon.
It was a very long time ago, September 1962. I left the K–3 world of Byron Kibler elementary and began a fresh journey at a new destination, J.J. Smith. I was one of the fortunate 4th graders to experience our first male teacher, a young man fresh out of college named Mr. McGreen. The other five classes were taught by women, as had been every teacher at Kibler. Plus, my new best friend, Jeff Eldridge was by my side. Surprisingly, this new teacher lived on my street in a boarding house of sorts, just a stone’s throw from our home.
That fall Mr. McGreen organized the boys of our class into a football team. Sorry girls, you were stuck playing four-square or jumping rope. He drilled us daily through simple plays at recess. Over and over we practiced those few calls. Mr. McGreen entrusted me with the role of quarterback and Tim Thomasson as halfback. Most plays were similar––I took the snap and handed the ball to Tim while linemen pulled left or right. Mr. McGreen then scheduled a series of football games between ours and the other 4th grade classes. Though we lacked the pure talent of other teams, our tightly choreographed snaps and daily drilling resulted in clockwork plays. We crushed every opponent in that ad hoc 4th grade league.
One day, Mr. McGreen invited me to stay after school. He pulled out a deck of cards and taught me to play cribbage. It was a great game for improving arithmetic skills and understanding odds. For weeks we’d play most days after school. Soon I was good enough to play with my grandpa who also loved the game. Decades later I taught my own children just as he’d taught me.
The annual 4th grade field trip in spring took us to the Museum of History & Industry, Ballard locks, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. What a delight to see a real hydroplane up close and personal. Or seeing huge gates open and close watching boats magically rise and fall. Mr. McGreen was our guide. While eating sack lunches, he sat next to me. Our last stop was the waterfront where we examined curios in a store with a real mummy of a Wild West origin. What a thrill for a young boy from Enumclaw, but more important was the affection I felt from my teacher.
Near the last days of school, Mr. McGreen announced a class auction with currency from credits students had earned. We each brought in our trinkets and collectibles for all to admire until the big day, when we bid in a real auction for the items we’d lately grown to cherish. The excitement and anticipation were no doubt better than the real thing. I don’t recall what I bought, but my best friend Jeff purchased comic books based on classic tales like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. They seemed so sophisticated compared to the Archie and Superboy comics I read.
The 9th year of my life was not without its challenges. On more than one occasion I disrupted class and was banished to the hall for Mr. McGreen’s classic discipline, a primitive form of yoga––sitting with your back against the wall in the shape of a chair, but without one. This was punishment with a purpose: to improve one’s posture, develop muscle strength, and test your ability to sit uncomfortably for long periods, all the time remembering what had brought you there. My behavior improved decidedly after a few trips to the hall.
I did well in most subjects earning A’s in social studies, spelling, and arithmetic; B’s in most others, and a C in reading. But Mr. McGreen delivered the only ‘D’ of my school career––in penmanship! Still, he cared. Mr. McGreen sent home writing lessons administered by Mom where I spent hour after boring hour practicing better handwriting. The exercise books contained pages of blank lines to be filled by copying and recopying illustrated samples. I carefully inscribed print and cursive characters within tight parallel lines over and over––diligently trying to make my penmanship legible, or at least less awful. Their dedication toward my self-improvement paid dividends a decade later during college finals when scripting readable answers in blue books.
That school year ended and another began. Again I was blessed with the only male teacher, Mr. Thornburg in 5th grade. He too was fresh from college and lived a few blocks away in a garage apartment. It was another wonder-filled year pierced by tragedy that November. The assassination news came over the intercom that Friday morning with students immediately sent home.
During the 1960 election, Mom supported Nixon while Dad voted for Kennedy. Thinking the thoughts of a 10-year-old, I asked her, “Are you glad Kennedy was shot?” She sat me down and gently explained, “Of course not. Kennedy is our president and after an election, he became my president too.” I still had a lot to learn. A few months later the Beatles hit America. I had a crush on a girl who showed me her Beatle cards and told me everything about four guys from Liverpool. My affection for that girl never blossomed yet never faded.
A year and a half later I entered 7th grade at an imposing, three-story brick building on Porter Street. The first day brought good news, Mr. McGreen now taught junior high and would be my homeroom and social studies teacher. Life with Mr. McGreen in junior high was a transforming experience. He entertained us with stories of growing up in West Seattle, his college years, sorority panty raids––all of it filling me with dreams of one day attending college. Each Saint Patrick’s Day, the very Irish Mr. McGreen came to school decked out in a bright green suit. In my 7th grade yearbook, he affectionately wrote, “To the little general – from Mr. Wallace McGreen.” The next year he scrawled, “To little Billy Kombol.”
In 7th grade, Coach McGreen guided us through flag football. It was the last year many of us turned out for that fall sport. It was also when I first realized my youthful sports prowess would soon be eclipsed by small size. As I look back at the photo, all my friends were there, in one place. That winter he coached our 7th grade basketball team through drills and inter-squad games played in the girls’ gym. After practice, we took long showers under hot water that lasted forever, then walked home in winter air as steam rose from our still-damp hair. Could life get any better than this?
The cleverest assignments he ever gave, but only to select students was to create countries of our own imaginations complete with maps, history, and customs. No extra credit was given. We worked on our projects for weeks. I regularly compared notes with Les Hall and Wayne Podolak, who were also in on the game. What a brilliant and inspiring activity for cultivating fantasies. It was a remarkable way for a teacher to challenge pet pupils.
One of our biggest thrills were the State “A” Basketball Tournaments. Mr. McGreen invited a few of us (Jim Clem, Gary Varney, Les, and Wayne) to pack into his fastback Mustang, pure status for 12-year-old boys in Enumclaw. After driving us to the UPS Field House we experienced a menagerie of teams and colors competing for the state title. Later we stopped at Cubby’s on Auburn Way South for burgers and fries. Back home I swam in the glory of the evening just spent. You can’t make this stuff up––an engaged and enthusiastic school teacher expanding his students’ horizons by offering new experiences. It was an amazing way to grow up!
Time marched on. I said goodbye to junior high and left Mr. McGreen behind. New teachers, coaches, friends, and interests arose. High school beckoned and so did a driver’s license, after-game dances, chess team, Boy’s State, Hornet newspaper, Courier-Herald sports writer, summers selling popsicles, Saturdays working at the mine office, water-skiing, movies, malls, graduation, then off to college. Upon graduating in 1975, I received an unexpected congratulatory card from my 4th and 7th grade mentor. Mr. McGreen remembered me after all those years. Being a foolish young man of long hair and little regard, I hadn’t the presence of mind to write a proper thank-you note. Decades passed and still, I hadn’t.
Many years later, I attended his retirement party where we exchanged pleasantries. The next time I saw him was at my Mother’s funeral. His kindly face had aged but it touched me all the same. I began to consider that I was but one of thousands of students he taught. Yet he made me feel so important. Did he know how profoundly he’d impacted my life? A thank you message was long overdue. A year later, I sat down and finally wrote my rambling letter much of which is replicated here.
Mr. McGreen was one of the best people in my life. The seeds he sowed took root and my life became richer for it. Though eons ago, his mentorship was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received.
So I’ll end where I began. Perhaps there’s a Mr. McGreen in your life who never knew the extent of your gratitude. Maybe this could be the day your letter is written and that gratefulness acknowledged.
* Adapted from a letter written to Mr. McGreen on Saint Patrick’s Day, 2012, from his former student, Bill Kombol.