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Remembering Lester Henderson
Ned Groth, October, 2010

(Author’s note: This biographical remembrance is based on documents and personal communications, including yearbooks, the Peg Board, class newsletters, a few encounters I had with Lester after Darrow,  anecdotes from other classmates and other alumni, and my own recollections. My goal is to create an honest and loving portrait of our former master, as we knew him. While I’ve striven for factual accuracy, I take full responsibility for any errors. This remembrance can be amended, if need to be, as others contribute their own memories to it.  –NG)



Lester belonged to a core group of brilliant, somewhat eccentric, passionately committed teachers that Lamb Heyniger had assembled at Darrow during the 1950s. He taught math, and many of us took both his sophomore and senior courses. He was a wonderful teacher, talented at keeping the material interesting and infecting the class with his own enthusiasm. Even for students like me who were not really into math, he made learning it challenging and fun.

Lester was a Midwesterner. Born in Iowa, he went to high school in Story City, then on to Iowa State University, where he majored in music, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. World War II interrupted his studies; in 1943, he enrolled as a V-12 student, in a program designed to increase the supply of commissioned naval officers, with a curriculum heavy in math and science. He was an ensign during the war, went back and finished his college degrees after the war while in the reserves, then went back into the Navy on active duty as a lieutenant, where he served until 1953. After mustering out, Lester went to Harvard and got a second master’s degree, in 1955. He began teaching at Darrow in 1956.

3He didn’t coach any sports, but we all encountered Lester in various ways: As the energetic leader of Hands-to-Work crews, as an affable table head in the dining hall, and for some of us, as the housemaster of Wickersham. As this candid photo from the 1961 yearbook shows, Lester was rarely seen without a cigarette, a2nd in the mornings, endless cups of coffee. The caricature of Les in student parodies portrayed him with a rattling coffee cup in one hand, an ashtray in the other, “coffee nerves” jangling as he strode into class. In his case, the caricature was pretty close to the mark. Another of his signature traits was his favorite phrase, “Look here!” He’d use that in class, to call attention to a critical problem-solving step, or in conversation, to emphasize a point he was trying to make. Students had a couple of fairly harmless nicknames for Lester. “Uncle Les” was a benign one, although he’d occasionally grouse that it made him sound as if he’d lost his mother’s brother. We also called him “Lestoil,” which had no meaning other than a play on his name and the brand name of a popular household cleaner of the day.

4Lester was a talented pianist, perhaps affirming the link between mathematical and musical ability. He had a baby grand in his apartment and used to play in the evenings, and on warm spring nights people walking between Wickersham and Brethrens could enjoy a free concert through his open windows. Peter Deri, who lived in Wickersham, recalls that when his parents visited, his dad would bring his cello, and he and Lester would play sonatas. Ron Emery and Richard Bethards often came over to listen. Pete recalls that Lester used to balance a sandbag ashtray on his wrist, while he carried a coffee cup in the same hand. “He struck me as having endless energy, regulated between coffee and cigarettes,” Pete muses. He also recalls that Lester used to offer the seniors in his dorm a “continental breakfast” in his apartment on Sundays.

5Lester was known for his wit, making Pete think of Tom Lehrer, the Harvard math professor who wrote and sang satirical songs. The clinician in Pete says “perhaps there was a bit of Aspergers” there, too, now that he thinks of it. Lester enjoyed puns, and he used to bet with students that he could make a pun on anyone’s name. I never took him up on that (too easy in my case), but I was there once when a freshman named John Armistead took the bet. Lester thought for a few moments, then told a story about two other students, Ted Low and Pete Munsell, who (for the sake of the joke) were in a horrible car crash, limbs strewn all over the place. They were rushed to the nearest hospital, where surgeons performed near miracles, and eventually the boys came back to Darrow. When Mr. Heyniger greeted them, he said, “Hmmm, there’s something wrong here. The face is Peter, but the arm is Ted.” This earned Lester a smile and a salute from John.

At a recent Alumni Day I heard a story about Lester from a member of another class, who lived in the four-man corner room on the fourth floor, overlooking the infirmary. Occasionally they would get rowdy, and Lester would come hurrying over from his apartment (at the other end of the same floor) to calm things down. Sometimes he’d take off one of his shoes, then run down the hall, hoping that the noise of his footsteps (i.e., pat-THUD-pat-THUD-pat-THUD) would sound like walking, giving him a few extra seconds to surprise the kids and catch them in some greater malfeasance. Pete Loomis also says he’d heard that story, though he wasn’t sure Lester was the master involved. It makes a great story, not that it really ever worked.

After our graduation, I lost touch with Lester for a few years, until I began writing the class newsletter, in 1968. At that point, I learned from Jack Van Vorst that Lester was teaching at The Athenian School, in Danville, CA. Danville is an hour or so from where I lived then, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, in the foothills of Mount Diablo. So I called Lester, then drove over for a visit. Athenian (photo below) was quite new then; it was founded in 1965. Lester had moved there from Darrow in 1966. It was then a small boarding school, with about 135 students, coed. Lester was teaching math, serving as housemaster in a boy’s dorm, giving piano lessons, and carrying out various other campus duties. When I visited, he seemed extremely happy. He was coaching a living room full of students on the day’s homework, then he shooed them off to their rooms at curfew time so we could continue with our visit. He enjoyed living in California, and being part of the vigorous early growth stages of a new school. He had spent 10 years at Darrow, and loved that, but this felt like “home,” he said. The big news when I visited was that he’d quit smoking, a week before, although he was still consuming great quantities of coffee.

A couple of years later, Alice and I had spent a weekend on the island of Santa Catalina, off the coast of Los Angeles. En route home, we changed planes at Long Beach airport, not exactly a major crossroads of the region. As we were sitting on the plane and other passengers were boarding, Lester came striding up the aisle. I cannot recall how he came to be on that same flight with us, but we had a good laugh and chatted through most of the trip back to San Francisco.

I saw Lester just once more, before I left California myself. Ron Emery had flown out to visit Lester, over spring vacation in 1972. The two of them drove down to Menlo Park for dinner at our house, described in the newsletter as “an evening of delicious food, wine and sparkling conversation.” Ron was enthusiastic about Darrow, which had just gone coed. Lester’s routine at Athenian had not changed much since I’d seen him in 1968, and he was still very happy with his work there. I wrote in the newsletter that “I’d swear he hasn’t changed a bit in ten years.” His life had changed, though, profoundly. As a result of the untimely death of a close friend, Les had become the guardian of two teenage children. Although they were old enough to be virtually independent, Lester suddenly had major new responsibilities.

Lester was not much of a correspondent; he never wrote me a letter for the newsletter, and all we knew of him came from personal encounters. After I moved back east, we’d get occasional word of Lester from visitors who had stopped in to see him. Richard Bethards did that in 1976, Gene Cook looked up Les when he was in SF on business in 1978, and my brother did the same in the mid 1980s. All reports were essentially the same: Lester was still teaching math at Athenian, and still enjoying it very much. He taught there until he retired, around 1990.7

Once I stopped writing annual newsletters (the last one was in 1982), I lost touch with a lot of people, Lester among them. We were saddened to read in the Peg Board that Lester died, at home, of a heart attack, on June 20, 1994. He was 68. No other details were available.

We will always remember Lester as our canonical math teacher, who as my brother put it, “made math challenging and smell like cigarettes.” Though time and distance attenuated our connection, he remains a prominent and indelible part of our four years at Darrow.

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