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Woog's World / A teacher of unforgettable lessons

Published 3:22 pm, Saturday, October 27, 2012
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Last week, "Woog's World" celebrated John Chacho. For nearly 50 years, he's dedicated himself to the sport of wrestling. Finally, he'll be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. I talked about how, for much of his career, "Coach Chacho" flew under the radar. It's nice, I said, that he'll finally get his due.

But when, years later, we finally get around to thanking those who made their mark during our younger, most impressionable years, athletic coaches are exponentially more likely to be remembered than the teachers we had in elementary and middle school.

Lee Hawes was one of those influential educators. He spent much of his career in Westport, teaching social studies to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. At that age, kids obsess about themselves, their friends, their own little worlds. History and government are the furthest things from most of their minds.

But Lee Hawes loved those subjects. And he loved teaching them to youngsters who didn't know they needed to know them. He was passionate about our planet, and all the people on it. He was eager to show it, explain it, expose it to Westport boys and girls who would not appreciate his words and work until many years later. At which point they may even have forgotten the always-smiling, ever-energetic man who gave them the important knowledge and insights they finally put to use.

I never had Lee Hawes as a teacher. But, working in the school system, I got to know him. I heard stories about him. I heard his own stories. And I realized that -- although Lee Hawes remembered nearly all of his students, and cared deeply about their lives after they left his classroom -- it did not matter whether they remembered him or not. All he cared about was that they cared about the world.

As self-absorbed as most young teenagers are, they didn't realize how multi-faceted their instructor was. Kids don't ask about teachers' lives. But his was a particularly interesting one.

Born in Providence, R.I., in 1924, he went south to college. At the University of Alabama, he lived in a rooming house with a student who'd grown up dirt poor in that state. His name was George Wallace, and Lee Hawes knew him well.

It would be easy for a Northerner to make fun of that connection. He could tell stories about the ignorant racist who went on to become governor, to stand in the door of that same university in a photo-op stand against segregation, to run for president on a platform of hatred and negativity.

It would be easy, but Lee Hawes didn't do it. Whenever he spoke of George Wallace -- and they stayed in contact long after graduation -- it was to explain who the man was, why he acted as he did, how George Wallace became "George Wallace." Lee Hawes never excused George Wallace's actions, but he always tried to instruct his listeners about them. As any good teacher would.

A signalman in World War II, Lee Hawes earned two Bronze Stars for his valor in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. His naval squadron was the first to land occupation troops in Japan at the end of the war. (On his ship was Joe Rosenthal, who photographed the historic flag raising atop Mt. Suribachi.)

Like many veterans, Lee Hawes didn't talk much about his war days. He was far more comfortable describing his two years in Kaiserslautern, Germany, where he taught in dependent schools for the Department of Defense.

Education was Lee Hawes' life, and he approached it in many ways. During his many years in the Westport school system, he also taught history at the University of Bridgeport. He was an active member of the Westport, Connecticut and National Education Associations.

But he found time too to serve on the Redding Parks and Recreation Commission, and Commission for the Elderly. He was a proud activist on his town's Democratic Town Committee. He volunteered with the Boy Scouts and was president of the ecumenical Association of Religious Communities. He edited the Connecticut United Nations bulletin. In retirement he wrote the "Forum on Faith" column in the Danbury News-Times and articles for the Redding Pilot. (As a young man, he'd been a cub reporter for the New Haven Register.) A deacon, he also sang in his church choir.

Lee Hawes died this month, at 88.

It will come as no surprise -- whether you remember him now as an influential former teacher, or have just learned about him through this column -- that his family named two recipients for contributions in his name. One is the First Church of Christ Congregational in Redding. The other is the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.