Mr. Strunk: the man who always returned

My grade school was St. Brigid’s, in northwest Detroit. The parish has been closed for 22 years, and I suppose the school closed before that. I remember getting half a day off school for Father Brennan’s feast day. I remember teachers like Sister Patrick Elizabeth and Sister Mary Eamon (Eamon, as in de Valera–the school had lots of green on St. Patrick’s Day).

More than anything, I remember my sixth-grade English teacher, Mr. Strunk.  He was only the second teacher I’d had at St. Brigid’s who wasn’t a nun, and the only one who was male.

In hindsight, I suppose I didn’t have a mental model for what a male teacher would be like.  I was disconcerted at first by how different he seemed.  I need to say that I had some very good teachers:  I don’t recall any of that whacking-with-rulers stuff that people seem to assume was mandatory in pre-Vatican II Catholic schools.

But Mr. Strunk was really different.  He said things that were funny, wry, unexpected.  He read to us from Mad Magazine–and may have been planting a crop of critical thinking with the seed-starter of parody.  He went far beyond the stuffy borders of our textbook.

Early in the school year, when he’d said something funny, I responded with with a sarcastic laugh.  (I suppose it was my ten-year-old’s critique: teachers weren’t supposed to be cracking wise.)  He said, not harshly, “If you don’t think it’s funny, don’t laugh.”

That was a door he opened just for me, but he spent a lot of time opening doors like it: “Think for yourself.  You can do it.”

He’d open them by assigning sixth graders a 1,500 word composition.  Topic: The Dime.  That was it; a two-word topic and a length.  What can you do with that?

Another assignment: a 48-line poem.  This time, he assigned the title: “The Last Voyage of The Albatross.

I don’t recall anything I wrote–but I have a vivid sense of enjoying the writing.  I have an even more vivid sense of what he wrote on my paper, because it leapt into my memory and has never left:

Your poetry improves, my friend,
with each brand new endeavor.
I wish that I had words to lend
to serve you as a level.

But while such things as kings and men
on your mind’s sea do toss,
don’t let this be the last voyage
of your young Albatross.

School was never the same, and a few teachers after him suffered by comparison.  I lost contact with him after going out of state for most of high school.  In pre-Facebook days, it was hard to track down someone out of state; in post-Facebook days, it can still hard to connect with someone who was over 25 when John Kennedy was assassinated.

Through a friend of my younger brother’s, I learned last year that Mr. Strunk was still in the Detroit area; he spent 40 years teaching and coaching.  The friend sent me an address, but warned me that his health was poor.  I wrote a letter that week; I’d sealed it and stamped it, then realized he might not be up to a written reply.  I reprinted the letter and included a phone number, on the outside chance that he might remember me and might be up to calling.

No such luck, but that was all right.  The important thing for me was to say to him directly, more personally, the kinds of things I’ve talked about here.

I have not seen Mr. Strunk since, I suppose, 1963.  Many of my classmates will remember one of his weekend gigs at the parish’s activities building: hosting a hootenanny (and that’s a word well on its way to joining “floppy disk” and “antimacassar) .  One of his standards was The MTA Song — about a hapless Boston commuter who lacked the “exit fare” and so couldn’t pay to get off the train.

And did he ever return?
No, he never returned
And his fate is still unlearned.
He may ride forever
‘Neath the streets of Boston:
He’s the man who never returned.

For me, Mr. Strunk was the man who always returned.  I decided to become a teacher in part because of his example. Even after leaving the education field, I would recall his intelligent encouragement, his genuine interest in his students, his respect for their intelligence that included challenging them.

I learned only today that Mr. Strunk died last month.  One woman wrote in the funeral home’s online guestbook, “My all time favorite teacher and I will never forget how honored I felt when he told me to call him Frank.”

It’d be hard to top that. I am grateful to be able to say “Mr. Strunk” and still feel his presence.  I’ve read comments from people who were students in his final years of teaching, and from classmates of mine–we who were the first class he taught, more than 50 years ago.  There are teachers I will always cherish–Brother Leo and Brother André, Father McKendrick and Dr. MacDonald, Professor Bauder — but there was only one Frank Strunk.


9 thoughts on “Mr. Strunk: the man who always returned

  1. Thank You Dave! I am VERY sad to hear of Mr. Strunk’s passing. He also has a great impact on me. I had a tough dad & time at home, the eldest of 5 children, 4 younger sisters. Per my father I did not do many things right and had little to be proud of, I did not like myself. Mr. Strunk changed all of that in just 1 day at 6th grade basketball practice. I was usually the shortest, skinniest boy but I over came or tried to overcome my short comings with heart!
    As we did a drill I slipped & fell , I immediately yelled out to my teammates ,” Keep Going..Keep Going” as I waved them on with my arm. Suddenly Coach Strunk stopped practice and loudly said to everyone, ” This is the kind of a heart a team player has, Jack was not selfish and only thought about his teammates and not if he was hurt! That is what I want from everyone!” Those words changed my life and self image. I went on to coach College Ball win Championships, Coach some pro, even 2 summers P/T with the Pistons…& in great part my life changed that day, as Mr. Strunk’s kind words erased so many other painful words that had been directed at me over the years! As I write this I am crying! wow 61 yrs old and crying as I write this!! WOW My thanks and prayers will be sent today and other nights to a great man..Mr. Frank Struck..a kids HERO! Dr Jack Grenan Blessed cancer survivor

  2. Initially I was certain you were the Dave Ferguson I knew at St. Brigid elementary school in mid 20th century. Everything was in place, geographically and chronologically: northwest Detroit, 1963, Pastor Fr. Brennan, Sister Patrick Elizabeth, 6th grade English teacher Mr. Frank Strunk and 1500 word composition assignments (JMJD in upper left corner). You’re definitely Dave Ferguson, THE Dave Ferguson.

    Doubt didn’t develop until the end of your tribute when I realized there was going to be no mention, by either you or Dr. Jack Grenan, of Mr. Strunk’s blistering pitching arm or verbal redirection for off-task behavior in the classroom. Specifically, Mr. Strunk firing blackboard erasers at students, and pointing his index finger and wrath at the attention deficient students, advising “You guys stop jacking off!”

    That was Mr. Strunk, his signature sans unequivoque. Apparently I got more erasers than essay kudos, ‘cause that’s what I recall. But we get what we earn.

    Thanks for the remembrances, Dave and Dr. Grenan, and Mr. Strunk.

  3. Tom:

    Yes, it’s me. And no, I didn’t mention the tossed erasers. For one thing, I don’t recall one ever being tossed at me. (To anyone else reading: Tom’s referring to the way Mr. Struck would sometimes fling one of those old wooden-backed felt chalkboard erasers at someone he regarded as out of line.)

    I think you make a good point — you’re recalling what had an impact on you (no pun intended), which is what anyone will do. I’m sure there were people who didn’t care for Mr. Strunk then, or any time later.

    Frank Strunk would have been all of 24 the year that you and I started sixth grade. I’m sure he made his share of mistakes as a male elementary school teacher with little (or maybe no?) experience. Like any good teacher, though, he pulled and pushed people into new ways of seeing the world. I’m truly sorry I didn’t have a chance as an adult myself to say so directly to him.

  4. I too remember Mr.Strunk, he was my 6th grade teacher.He was a great teacher, and a very kind soul. Among all my teachers at St. Brigids, he was top notch. Rest in peace.

  5. David Ferguson! What a shock to find this site – and you – after idly “googling” St. Brigid just to take a sentimental journey down memory lane. As I’m sure many of us do, I remember fondly our days at St. Brigid and often have wondered where life has taken us. I, too, was a sixth grade student of Mr. Strunk and also recall projectile erasers and a personality larger than life. I also remember, fondly, the Ferguson clan who lived across the street, and was honored that after decades, two of your brothers, John and Art, attended my father’s funeral in 2012. Hope you and your family are doing well; God bless.

  6. Ah, Mr. Strunk. How we loved him and wanted to please him. Such a different teaching style from the nuns. I went to a St. Brigid reunion in 2012 and learned he had recently passed. Sad to realized I hadn’t thought about him in a while. Great guy. Inspiring teacher. Thanks for the memories, Dave.

  7. Dear David, I’m pretty sure I was in your grade at St. Brigid’s though I had Sr. Mary Ralph for 6th grade and Mr. Strunk for English and Social Studies, maybe.
    We loved both of them. I will never forget that he made us memorize the Minnesota fight song before we could leave …,”rah, rah, rah for Skyumah…”
    May he Rest In Peace.
    Sharon OConnor

  8. I attended St. Brigid until the end of school year 1963 when our family moved. I remember Mr. Strunk as a memorable teacher. I also remember him with a guitar and teaching us different songs including the Notre Dame and Minnesota fight song, as Sharon O’Connor remembered. Just saw this and am very sorry to hear of his passing.

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