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Memorial EL SUPREMO Master Teacher
Eulogy for Howard Letke
By Dr. Fred Anderson
Published in the 1989 Branding Iron
I am honored to have been asked to present a eulogy for Howard. I know the comments I make will in no way do justice to Howard, yet I believe they project some reflections which are special to many of us here today.
Howard came to CCDHS in 1972 as a new teacher. Those of you who are familiar with our school recall that from 1971 until about 1976, the junior high and senior high were split shifted. High school kids arrived at 7:00 am and departed at 1:00 pm. The junior high came at 12:00 am and finished at 6:00 pm. All junior and senior high classes were held in the high school building. Howard was assigned to teach junior high social studies initially, and later a variety of high school social studies classes, including Psychology, which he dreaded with a passion. Teaching in Miles City during this split-shift era "tested the metal" of every teacher involved - leaving many cynical and "worn out," if not "burned out." Howard emerged from the experience a seasoned teacher dedicated to kids and education more deeply than ever.
I am not suggesting that Howard arrived in Miles City as a junior version of "Mr. Chips." One of his fellow teachers described him as half hippie and half rebel his first year - yet that free spirit was built on a strong foundation of commitment to his profession, the kids, and to excellence in education.
Howard was not an instant teaching success, but continued to grow and mature over the years - developing three prime ingredients of an outstanding teacher:
1. Howard had an outstanding knowledge base and recall of historic events, people, and places.
2. Howard developed a teaching style that involved students as participants in the lesson he was teaching.
3. He became an outstanding communicator with a degree of empathy for all of his students.
Many teachers that I have known have mastered one or two of these, but few, all three.
I arrived at the high school in 1979 and began working closely with Howard at that time. His love for history, the kids, and his loyalty to the school were immediately evident, as was his gift for relating to students and projecting excitement and enthusiasm into his class presentations. It was not unusual to have him present lectures on the Civil War in a full dress authentic soldier's uniform. Often he visited elementary schools in a uniform to bring the Civil War "to life" for the students.
If you ever saw the movie TEACHERS, Howard was the teacher who had his students arrange their desks in a row, pretending that they were in a boat - while he stood on the bow in George Washington's uniform, directing them across the Delaware River.
Often, we administrators can tend to drive teachers to distraction with paper work, procedure, etc. Too often, these "housekeeping items" can grow out of proportion in a teacher's mind and contribute to what many call "burnout." Howard never allowed that to happen. He enforced rules to the "T", but always in a light manner. He did not take class problems personally and was never vindictive towards anyone.
We often had a problem with Howard's classes - which was simply - too many kids wanted to enroll. We often had students auditing his class for no credit if they had taken the course from someone else. Several teachers also audited his classes during their prep period. Why would this happen? Was it an easy out from a study hall or an easy grade? NO WAY!! Howard was a very demanding teacher who insisted that his students achieve to his level of satisfaction, yet few failed. He was always there after classes and often had biweekly evening study sessions in his home to help those who needed it.
Howard believed in what he was doing. He loved history, he loved kids, and he was intelligent - these combined to make him the best. He brought history to life in his classroom. Figures became real people, historical events became material - I imagine that when Howard encounters General Custer in the promised land he will be able to tell General Custer some things about the Battle of Little Big Horn that even Custer didn't know.
Each year we sound out a curriculum survey to past graduates requesting that they rate each course and provide comments on how we can improve them. Without exception, Howard was noted as their "favorite teacher," "the one who taught me the most," and one who "was tough, but who made learning fun." Howard would lecture to classes on warm Spring days and keep their interest the complete period. Few accomplish that!
Some of the things that Howard did in the classroom include:
1. Game day - or World Wrestling Federation videos prior to test days to provide some variation and relaxation. Often he arrived at school on test days in his dark pin striped three-piece suit.
2. Involving all students by name.
3. Communicate to everyone in class that he cared.
4. He always had nicknames for students and faculty.
5. He infused stories about life in Chicago with the lessons.
6. He always had vivid characterizations about historical events and people.
7. He involved kids in school who had never been involved before.
He was a master at "picking up" on factors that were causing problems in a student's live - whether at home or school related, and seeking solutions.
8. He was always friendly in the hallway.
9. He made history a living thing.
Yes, El Supremo, as he was often called, was a master teacher!
My comments so far have focused on Howard's teaching, which is appropriate, yet I would be remiss to omit some reflections about other facets of his life. Howard's primary focus in life was his family. He was a dedicated father and husband - committed to enjoying life with Nancy, Tim, Tom, and to providing the best for them!
Howard was a person who brought a "Spark" to all those around him. In the lounge on many occasions, Howard would make an (outlandish?) statement about a subject (whether he believed it or not), just to get the folks all stirred up and "spiritedly discussing" until they left for class.
Howard would, however, have already departed, having planted his seed of "wisdom." His mischievousness took some of the "stiffness" out of teaching without eroding the substance.
Howard and another teacher who was similar in build and appearance used to trade name tags during the pre-school conference meetings. It would take some new teachers two or three weeks to figure out who was who.
He loved wrestling or "RASSLING" as he called it, in any form. I doubt if there are many pro wrestlers that he wasn't familiar with. He was constantly jousting with Jack Raymond or Bob Dickson about incorporating a few WWF holds into our program. Who here can forget Howard's debut as a pro wrestler in an exhibition right here in this Gym. Yes, Howard the Hammer, as many fondly referred to him, had arrived! Both Tom and Tim wrestle, therefore Howard rarely missed a practice or a match. I recall one afternoon when he leaned against an unlock barrier gate on the mezzanine while watching a practice and fell backwards some eighteen feet to the gym floor. He did a summer sault in the air, landing on his feet like a cat. Those watching feared broken bones, however Howard ran back up the stairs, giving the Victory signal and proclaiming himself "Super Fly." The story got better every time Howie told it. In fact, many students and teachers referred to him as "Super Fly" when he wasn't being identified as "Howard the Hammer." He often drove the team bus, helped coach, and provided motivation, support, and a great sense of humor for the wrestlers. Whether he was working as Assistant Activities Director, volunteer bus driver, a supporting dad, or just being a good friend - he was always there to help.
Howard lived to fish and had the