Published in the Fort Wayne Sunday Journal Gazette
SCHOOL TEACHIN’ UNCLE GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
By Forest J. McComb
My uncle, DAVID O. McCOMB, was hired that year to teach the Bowser School (District No. 8, Perry Township), one half mile south of the Union Chapel Church on Road 27.
I was 12 years old and ready for the seventh grade. I also had him for the eighth grade, and it was many years before I realized how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to profit by his many years of experience.
When babies are born, I think each is given some special talent – something, when grown up, they can do better than most other people. When the child or man or woman doesn’t find this special talent, it is referred to as “a square peg in a round hole.” When Uncle Dave took up teaching, he was certainly “a round peg in a round hole,” for he had this talent polished to a high degree.
I didn’t know whether to be happy or not, when I learned he would teach our school. Certainly, he was a highly respected uncle, who lived only a mile away. But I hadn’t been around him enough to “really know” him. He was 40 years old, wore a thick brown, severe-looking mustache, and could look a hole right through a person with those blue eyes.
But it turned out, a boyish grin could develop under that severe mustache, and it often turned into hearty laughter that showed a gold front tooth. He had a great sense of humor, and needed every bit of it to teach the Bowser School.
There were about 40 pupils, and he taught all the classes. We were all in one room, and on the way up a kid got to see sentences parsed on the blackboard or square root defined, many times before he arrived at that stage.
The Informality Found Acceptance
We had always addressed the teacher, both male and female as “Teacher.” That seemed too formal for an Uncle, and I decided to try him on “Uncle Dave” and see how he reacted. He liked it, and soon all the pupils were calling him Uncle Dave.
The first thing he did was get the love and respect of the school. He could “roll with the punch” and taught a flexible school, yet kept strict discipline.
A few days after school started, he caught a boy named Joe whispering. He called Joe up to the desk, and Joe came shuffling up.
“You were whispering, weren’t you, Joe?” Joe admitted he was.
“You stand right over there, Joe, and face the school,” Uncle Dave indicated a vacant spot in the front of the seats. “You watch, and when you catch someone whispering, you can take your seat and they’ll have to watch.”
Joe took his position grinning, and the school thought this was great – some kind of new game. Uncle Dave was grinning, too. He already knew how it would come out and went about his business of hearing classes.
Joe stood about ten minutes, caught a girl, and took his seat. The girl was there about 20 minutes, and so it went, each one staying longer. Joe was caught the second time and finished the day watching. The next morning he resumed the job, and didn’t catch anyone all forenoon. In the afternoon, Joe began to get pretty tired. He was first on one foot, and then the other, while Uncle Dave ignored him completely. Suddenly, he turned to Joe and asked, “What’s the matter, Joe? Can’t you get anyone?” “No,” Joe said. “If I leave you take your seat, do you think you can stop whispering?” Uncle Dave asked. Joe thought he could, and so the whispering was stopped.
The weather was good, and Uncle Dave joined us in playing ball. He could still run, throw, and hit – and enjoyed it!
One day, we played long past the noon hour. We all knew it, but no one would say a word. Finally, he pulled out his gold watch and said reluctantly, “I guess we’ll have to quit!”
We wondered what he’d do now, but there was a way out. Taking up school, he called up the primer class, and said to an older pupil, “Come here, Virgil. Take this class over in that corner and hear them recite. He gave the first grade to a girl in another corner. The second went into another corner, and the third to still another corner. He called up the fourth for himself. Five classes were reciting at one time, and he was caught up.
He wouldn’t let us do it wrong, and kept up interest by having a competitive school. When spelling, one stood straight with chest thrown out; if a word was missed the next in line got a crack at it, and whoever spelled the word correctly moved up toward the head of the line.
One Stood Straight At The Blackboard
At the blackboard when working arithmetic, one stood just as straight, and was allowed a piece of chalk in one hand and an eraser in the other. After given a column of figures to add, we were forbidden to touch the blackboard except to put down the answer. Each column must be added up in your head, but we could short cut by running figures of 10 together when possible. It proved to be the quickest and most efficient method.
When reciting in class, you stood up straight, held a book directly in front of one, and spoke in a clear voice.
Uncle Dave believed in having as many afternoons devoted to spelling matches, ciphering matches, and even debates set up in the regular way with judges, but he was the umpire and kept the final say if any controversy developed. He made it fun to go to school!
One day winter, the lower grades were dismissed , and the four highest grades went
in bobsleds to visit another school. We arrived at the noon hour, and it only took five minutes for our bully to get in a fight with their bully. The fight was stopped, however, when the bell rang to take up school. The teacher here was a young and pretty schoolmistress. She’d dismissed her lower grades, so there was room for us. Their school sat on one side and ours on the other. The teachers had set up a ciphering match between the two schools.
The problems were in addition, and the rules were, one scholar from either school could only defeat three opponents in a row. He’d have to sit down then, but could come back later.
They both picked the best to start. The schoolmistress picked a girl named Ruth. She was 14 and “pretty as a picture,” and well dressed for the occasion in a white shirtwaist and blue skirt. Her beautiful black hair was combed in a pompadour and hung in a curl down the back to the hips.
Our whole school would agree that when Uncle Dave picked VIRGIL ROY to start, he’d chosen our best. Ruth looked formidable, but Virgil was a whiz at figures.
The problem was given, and the contestants told to add. Virgil drew his line and started as usual, while Ruth started pounding the numbers out on the blackboard. She’d hit with the chalk as many times as the figure was and the same with the next. While doing this, she made a terrific racket. It sounded like she was “going a mile a minute.” Poor Virgil became rattled and confused. He finally turned his back to the board and waited for Ruth to get the answer.
Uncle Dave then sent up a girl. She became confused, too, and the outcome was the same. I was sitting back and looking on, and I saw something! Ruth was noisy, but not fast. If I could get to the board, and keep my head, I could defeat her. Sure enough, I was called.
Ruth and I were separated by just a chimney, and her racket was terrific and disconcerting. It took me longer to add the problem than it should, but I had my answer and waiting quite some time for Ruth to get hers. Mine was correct, and I won. After I knocked off three contestants, we were getting into their “second stringers.” Our school, meanwhile, all caught on, and “we had a ball.” Later Virgil redeemed himself, whipping off his three.
I am sure the young schoolmistress also learned something, and I know Uncle Dave would’ve been sorely disappointed if our school hadn’t made the showing we did, and proved his teaching methods correct.
With relatives in the school, Uncle Dave had the extra problem of not showing partiality. There was his son, JIMMIE, in the first grade; and three nephews and two nieces.
One day, feeling a little foxy, I pulled on the braids of the girl in front of me who was industriously writing in a tablet. At the second pull, she leaped out of her seat and tattled on me. Uncle Dave didn’t like a tattler, but he couldn’t show partiality, so I received four cuts from the willow branch he kept handy over the maps. He made a good show of it, but I knew and he knew he could’ve stung me lots harder.
Jimmie didn’t believe in flexibility; he believed in being punctual and on schedule. It irritated him when Uncle Dave stopped to talk to someone and got behind. He, my brother FORDYCE (John at G. E.), who was Jimmie’s age, and I, were hurrying to school one morning to start playing. Uncle Dave stopped to talk to my parents, and Jimmie knew he’d be late. He was only six, but walking along swinging his dinner bucket, Jimmie said as seriously as possible: “When I get to be a man, I don’t intend to ever talk a single politic!” As far as I know, he never did as long as he lived.
We went through the seventh grade, and next year the eighth. The entire class graduated with honors, and we were through with Uncle Dave’s teaching and the Bowser school.
Several years later, an unexpected opening came up for the office of Allen County Superintendent of Schools. Uncle Dave went out for it, and got it. It was a political office, as the superintendent was elected by the township trustees. Part of the time, during his long tenure, Democrats were in the majority, and part of the time Republicans were. Uncle Dave must have been a real diplomat, for he held the job through thick and thin.
Under his regime, the centralization and bringing of high schools into the townships was an accomplished fact. He was in his best element. I never talked to any pupils but that loved to have him visit the school. Something special was expected when he came.
In 1937, while serving his 24th year as Superintendent of Allen County Schools, an illness set in that took his life. He had many friends, and was mourned by thousands.
While serving as superintendent, he founded the D. O. McComb and Sons Funeral Home in Fort Wayne. After 32 years, the firm is still under the same D. O. McComb name, and operated by two grandsons, David O. and Walter A., Jr., from the third generation that bears the same name.