Tribute To Robert “Bob” Allen Westcott, a Teacher Who Impacted My Life

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Why Robert Westcott’s name popped into my mind just now, I have no idea. As a teacher, he impacted my life considerably, in an entirely positive way, but I never even knew his middle name was Allen until I Googled him and found his obituary listed in Helena’s Independent Record, circa 2005. Posted January 4 of that year, the entry was brief and to the point.

Robert “Bob” Allen Westcott died Dec. 27, 2004, at Evergreen Butte Health and Rehabilitation in Butte after a brief illness.

Bob was born July 18, 1923, in Pedro, Mich. After high school he enlisted in the Army as a foot soldier and spent most of his four years on the front line. After serving his country he moved to Montana and attended the University of Montana, graduating with a degree in education. Bob taught at Drummond High School from 1955 to 1979, a total of 24 years.

Bob donated time to the YMCA Camp Child and was caretaker for four years. At his home in Elliston he was an avid gardener and planted exotic plants and trees to see if he could get them to grow. One of his special friends called Bob’s place The Crown Jewel of Elliston.

Cremation has taken place and no service will be held upon his request. Memorials can be sent to the Elliston School in Elliston or the Florence Crittenton Home in Helena.

Interesting. To us he was always “Mr. Westcott”, our science teacher at Drummond High School and the man the administration most often used as the school’s enforcer. That is, if you did something wrong, you often had to deal with Mr. Westcott before you were sent to the Principal’s office–as I knew from personal experience.

During his first year on the job at Drummond, when I was twelve and in the sixth grade, I threw an infamous snowball through the Principal’s second story window, pegged it up there on a double dog dare so that it landed on the Principal’s desk in front of what must have been his startled face, skidding across said desk, possibly taking a few papers with it. When the school bell rang a few minutes later and I had to come out of hiding to reenter the building, Mr. Westcott was there, looming, not exactly threatening, but a force you knew you couldn’t mess with.

Off to the Principal’s office with me, to write a 500 word essay on Why Little Boys Shouldn’t Throw Snowballs.

From that time forward, though it would be a few years yet before I was old enough to take any of his high school science classes, Robert “Mr.” Westcott stood tall in my inner vision as The Man Who Would Catch You Out. He’d suffered some during the war, I suspected–at least, I noticed that he moved a bit carefully when negotiating steps, as if his legs could be trusted only so far–but the man was clearly indomitable to the max.

Later on, somewhere early in my high school years, I took to skipping out on study halls, ducking out the back door and down over the edge of the school grounds. Heading that way, the first house encountered was where one of my best friends lived. Wayne had dropped out of school the year before. We’d fill my study hall time with the vastly more important activity known as matching pennies. I got away with it once, twice…and then there he was, the mighty Darth Vader of Drummond, waiting patiently, just inside that back door. He’d figured out where I had to be.

Busted. Again.

He was never mean about it, though. Just straightforward and to the point, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

Matching pennies, a much higher calling than showing up for study hall--until the student gets caught.

Matching pennies, a much higher calling than showing up for study hall–until the student gets caught.

There were a couple of traits we students noted in Mr. Westcott. As a teacher, he was excellent, able to explain the dissection of frogs or chemical esters or the distillation of booze from scratch so that the slowest student learned while the quicker types–well, we were kind of born evil. If we could get him to talking about his experiences in the Army or with the Forest Service, we could derail actual study topics for a few minutes or, sometimes, an entire class period. (His time working for the Forest Service was not mentioned in his obituary. I’m guessing that happened after his military service but before he went to college, or at least before he graduated.)

The man wasn’t stupid. Far from it. Therefore, we had to develop as much subtlety as possible when applying our derailing tactics. Some of us were born sneaky as well as evil, though; we made do.

Like most military veterans who’ve seen action, he never shared one word about his time on the front lines. On the other hand, he would willingly–and to some extent gleefully–tell us about a young idiot lieutenant who had charge of their unit when the Army was occupying a portion of Italy. One story involved the officer’s announcement that he was going to practice firing their 105mm howitzer. That wouldn’t have made for much of a story in and of itself, but the looey also insisted on aiming the artillery piece personally…180 degrees in the wrong direction.

The enlisted men were barely able to get him to turn the weapon around in time, mere seconds before he would have triggered a round straight at an unprotected Itallian village positioned about a mile away.

105mm howitzer being fired at fleeing German troops near Carentan, France--on my first birthday, November 7, 1944.  Happy Birthday, Ghost!

105mm howitzer being fired at fleeing German troops near Carentan, France–on my first birthday, November 7, 1944. Happy Birthday, Ghost!

The other “most notable story” involved bears. Not the beloved Smokey Bear of Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires fame, but the real bears that often plagued the Forest Service employees working in deep timber. After a number of close calls and plenty of scares, the men developed a bear termination technique. A dead chicken would be stuffed with dynamite and dropped were Mr. Bear was likely to come calling. Wires trailed from the bait chicken corpse to a detonator situated a safe distance from the killing zone. The bruin would come along, grab that chicken up in his (or her) mouth, the trigger man would hit the plunger on the detonator, and…no more bear.

As Mr. Westcott described the scene, the dynamite blew the bear’s head to kingdom come, every time, much like I do to rattlesnakes with my Dad’s old single shot .410 shotgun. You could tell he relished the memory. Those bears had been very pesky before their heads exploded.

Some who read this will no doubt be offended on behalf of the “poor bears”. To them I say, hey, you weren’t there (not that I was), this was shortly after World War II, and Robert Allen Westcott had no doubt seen men’s heads explode. After that, terminating a bear that represented a clear and present danger to life and limb would not have counted as a big deal.

Yet all of this does not add up to my reason for paying tribute to Mr. Westcott as a teacher who impacted my life. The major impact hit me in late 1963, shortly after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I’d been working on a survey crew. Through exposure to the surveying process, I’d started thinking about going back to school for a civil engineering degree. That would require taking a lot of math courses, none of which I could access without first taking solid geometry as a prerequisite. High school courses had included algebra, plane geometry, and trigonometry, but no solid geometry; Drummond had not offered it even as an elective.

So, one evening after work, I drove into Drummond and looked up Mr. Westcott. When I explained my predicament and asked for his help, he agreed without hesitation. He began tutoring me in solid geometry, one on one, every Wednesday evening. All on his own time, without recompense.

We were just a few weeks into it when things changed. The military draft was breathing down my neck. I didn’t object to serving–in fact, as many of us did, I felt strongly that I owed my country the obligatory two years of service…and it was time to Get ‘R’ Done.

I volunteered for the draft.

With my induction date set, there seemed no point to continuing work on the solid geometry course. There wouldn’t be time to complete it before heading to U.S. Army basic training, anyway, so I let Mr. Westcott off the hook.

Later, while stationed in Germany, I did go ahead, taking a solid geometry course by correspondence–only to find out later that, for me, calculus was hard work. Civil engineering, shmivil engineering. After my Army service ended, I’d major first in agricultural science, then in agriculture, then drop out for a couple of years, then finally go back and knock out a degree in psychology–which I apparently needed rather badly.

But I never forgot Robert Westcott’s generosity of spirit, his willingness to give of his own time and expertise for no reward but the knowledge that he was helping a younger man find his way in the world. He was not my only role model, but he was a powerful one. Over the years, I would end up working as a live-in group home houseparent, working with troubled teens in need of a temporary harbor…adopt my third wife’s two teenaged sons…become a true stepfather to my current (7th) wife’s son…and generally adopt the principle that if there’s someone out there I can help without dynamiting my own head off, I need to do it.

Mr. Westcott deserves a portion of the credit for helping to develop my strength of character in such things. This is my tribute to the man, my way of saying thanks.

It may be a bit late in coming, but the sentiment is nonetheless sincere.

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