More than a Teacher: My time with Donald K Sickler

A tribute to a Good Friend who even now helps me remember what it means to be alive

Terry Gray
Written: 20 Mar 2005
Updated: 04 Nov 2005

The Beginning

I remember well the day my life changed more than any other... of course the import is only clear in retrospect. At the time, it was just a normal school day with an abnormal end to it. I don't recall the exact date --sometime in the Fall of 1962-- but my mental image of the event is vivid.

It happened in an algebra class during my Junior year at San Gabriel High School... I believe we were getting some homework papers back. After receiving mine, something possessed me to ask the teacher, Mr. Sickler, "What constitutes a good student?"

"By and large, one who is interested in many different things." he said. "And if you'd like to talk about that some more, stop by after school."

I did, and thus began a relationship with Donald Keith Sickler that was nothing less than transformative: the beginning of a perennial awakening. Today I remain filled with enormous appreciation for the new worlds he brought to my attention.

That afternoon we piled into his aged VW bus, and while he ran errands, the teacher taught and the student learned. This would be the first of many such trips.

Connections

My involvement with Don is characterized by connections: among disciplines, and among people. I don't know whether he followed James Burke's 1979 TV series by that name, but he would have loved the concept. Don was the first rennaissance man I had ever known. When I met him, he was teaching algebra; a few years later he was chair of the art department. He was also a faculty sponsor for the creative writing club, and was involved in the Thespians.

Don and I would discuss art, science, music, architecture, technology (especially automotive and aircraft), politics, literature, and human behavior. Often I would stop by his house after school, and while pulling weeds in his garden, we might debate the styling strengths and weaknesses of the newly-introduced Ford Mustang (too much chrome!), followed by a discussion of the merits of the John Birch society. Or there might be more errands to run, leading to a guided tour and tutorial on the architecture of the Green & Green houses nearby, or perhaps Wright's La Miniatura (the Millard house, also in Pasadena).

Sociology was his graduate major, but few subjects escaped his interest. He instilled and/or nourished in me a deep curiousity about life. Don's view was that "no subject is inherently disinteresting", and he punctuated every conversation with keen wit, and at least one pun. Those influences remain visible in me today, and I am grateful --even if my friends aren't always enthusiastic about my own puns.

In addition to being my Algebra teacher, Don arranged it so that I could be in his driver's ed class. After the appointed rounds in the dual-control vehicles, he'd often take us all to a Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. Ever broadening my horizons, he encouraged me to try their Expresso coffee ice cream, replete with crunchy coffee grounds, thus starting another life-long love. (Oddly enough, I later survived three years in the Navy without succombing to the coffee habit --it always tasted like dirty water to me-- but coffee ice cream is an entirely different matter!)

Don's classes provided a nucleus not just for intellectual exploration and connection, but for people connections too, including some life-long friends. One of those fellow-DKS-students happened to be the current editor of the school newspaper. She became a very close friend who introduced me to worlds as diverse as afro-cuban dance and journalism. In fact, Kathie was the reason I ended up editing the school paper the following semester. She, in turn, had a friend who was the source of my first real car, a 1949 MG-TC. (We're not going to count the 1960 Nash Rambler station wagon I had previously "bought cheap" from my parents!)

Cars

Like most teenage males of the era, I was interested in cars --but like Don, my taste tended toward sports cars and Formula I racing rather than dragsters and hot rods. Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, of Lotus fame, was one of my heros.

My first sports car had belonged to a physicist who worked on magneto-hydro-dynamic machines at Electro Optical Systems in Pasadena. Gary had moved up to one of the coolest sports cars of the era, a Volvo P1800. The MG-TC I bought from him was cool, too, but in different ways --some literal. It had 15" wire wheels and a gas gauge consisting of a wooden yardstick. It had a ragtop roof patched with two cottage cheese container lids, bolted back-to-back. It had right-hand-drive, and a crack between the wooden floor boards thru which water splashed on wet days. Cool, but not quick. Don was the first to observe that my MG had a top speed of "82 miles per hour, SAH... Standard Average Hill". (And for those who aren't familiar with automotive standards, that was a pun on "SAE", the Society of Automotive Engineers.)

Don was an auto enthusiast, and often ahead of the pack in his observations. In 1964, my girl friend Margie --another DKS student-- was about to go off to college and needed inexpensive reliable transportation. Don recommended a Toyota. Remember, this was 1964. Three years later, with enthusiastic encouragement from Don, best friends Paul M. and Paul S. would help me and my dad build a Meyer's Manx dune buggy while I was a senior at Northrop Institute of Technology. (And just how did I end up at a small obscure engineering college such as NIT? More connections: Margie's brother had gone there and recommended it to me.) Late in 1967, my new-girl-friend Colette conspired with Margie-the-artist and the Pauls to add a flower-print paint job to that Manx while I was at Naval OCS. ("Surprise!" --Isn't that what friends are for?) Little did they know that this car with their art work would take me to Naval Station San Diego every day for some months. (Have you ever seen a Marine salute a tangerine-red dune buggy with a flower-print top? Ahh, the sixties... )

In 1968, it was time to sell the MG-TC, and find something a bit more suitable for long road trips than the Manx (or perhaps less provocative to the Navy?) Don recommended I consider a BMW 1600. This was again avante garde, but again proved to be an excellent choice (especially since back then you could get a BMW for $3200 out-the-door). When I got out of the Navy in early 1970, I headed East to Bell Labs and felt I had to leave my beloved Manx behind in San Diego. It wasn't exactly optimized for New Jersey winters, after all. Some time later, Don honored me with a scale model of it that he had built, complete with the flower-print top paint job. And in 1994, Paul M. created a 3D computer graphics rendition of that very Manx, which you can see here. Both of these Manx manifestations, and the love and craftsmanship behind them, are still treasured today.

Like most good teachers, Don was also part thespian and/or ham. I remember several school stage productions where he and his tiny Isetta 300 figured prominently. He told me once he had a standing challenge to his car-obsessed students that he would race any of them, as long as he could pick the course. Turns out that there was a place on campus where there were two iron pipes blocking the roadway from vehicles... but Don's Isetta 300 would just barely fit through. No one else's car had a chance.

The Isetta 300 (he had two of them, actually) was one of Don's favorite cars. In fact, he also possessed an Isetta 600 (that model had *two* cylinders), and of course the VW bus. But my favorite among all the denizons of his garage was a small German car with exactly 50-50 weight distribution. Borgward perhaps. Or maybe a DKW. {Nope, I asked Don recently: it was an NSU Prinz}. In any case, it was a delight driving it down twisty mountain roads. Speaking of which...

Mt. Baldy

I had not known him long (outside of class), when Don first invited me to his cabin at Mt. Baldy. This became a not-infrequent treat. Sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes his wife, Kyle, and occasionally other students would come too. Those were some of the happiest times of my life.

At the cabin, after maintenance chores or grading papers were tended to, we would often go for walks on forbidden fire trails in the middle of the night. Sometimes with lots of moonlight to illuminate the narrow trails, sometimes with hardly any. It was exhilerhating. Mostly we would talk, either while walking, or next to a warm fire in the fireplace, or while listening to the stream below the cabin. I would think often of Oliver Wendall Holmes definition of happiness: "Four feet on a fireplace fender."

I remember one Saturday helping Don finish re-roofing the cabin during a huge downpour. Don was afraid of heights, and the cabin was on the side of the gorge with a pretty good drop, so I got to do the nailing near the edge. We were both glad to get back inside and partake of the fire and Kyle's hot chocolate.

Much later on, Don learned to fly and became a competent pilot. He told me recently that his motivation was in large measure to challenge and overcome his fear of heights.

I recall a time or two, maybe in the early '70s, being at the cabin by myself, just listening to the wind and water and writing songs or poetry. The place lent itself to that sort of thing.

While hiking with a friend in the area near Don's cabin one day, we heard piano music. Continuing further up the trail, the music grew louder. Other hikers with a boombox? No. Coming around a bend, we looked up and saw a small shell of a cabin perched above the trail, and a young man holding forth live and in person on all 88 keys. Honky tonk, if I remember correctly. "How did you get it up there?" we asked. "Twelve guys and a keg of beer," was the reply.

Sometimes we would write parodies for the high school newspaper, which by then (my senior year) I was editing. My favorite was Don's article about our ficticious jump rope team. "It's frayed ropes and cracked handles that put the question mark back into sports," said Coach John Seixes. And so on...

Music, Literature, and Humor

Music, literature, and humor were all really important aspects of Don's life. All the better when they could be combined.

I attribute my rather diverse and eclectic musical tastes directly to his influence. At his home, or cabin, or even sometimes in class, we might listen to a Javanese Gamelan, or early religious chants, or Karlheinz Stockhausen or Bela Bartok or Carl Orff (both his children's music and his "serious" stuff). And let's not forget Elmer Bernstein's "Tocatta for Toy Trains". About the time the Beatles became a phenomenon, I was trying to be sophisticated and was thus showing great disdain for that genre... Don would just say "actually they're very good musicians". And so they were.

Don was very widely read, and also wrote his own short stories. He enjoyed and was excellent at oral interpretation. One piece that he particularly liked to read aloud was by Dylan Thomas: "A Child's Christmas in Wales", some of which I remember even today ("Two small ants, not wanted in the kitchen --nor anywhere else, for that matter--"). Don introduced me to Tolkein long before he was in vogue, to James Stephens' "The Crock of Gold", and much much more. He took great joy in pointing out that Ian Fleming, famous for his James Bond novels, also wrote "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang".

Sometimes at the cabin we would read term papers written by Emma K. Bellinghausen. Emma was well-known among Don's former students. Emma was actually a pseudonym for Don's mischievious side. When a former DKS student found him or herself in some deadly college lecture class that required a term paper (one too big for the professor to know all the students), Don would be recruited to contribute a paper under Emma's name. Sadly, Emma never quite understood the basic ideas of the subject at hand; she would get some fundamental concept twisted, so her papers invariably infuriated the instructor, and invariably were graded D or F. It was great fun. Sort of a precursor to the Gilda Radner SNL character who later made famous the phrase "Oh, that's very different. Nevermind."

In my last year at SGHS (1964), I ran for office: Senior Class Treasurer. All the candidates were to do some kind of skit in an assembly; the theme was "Television". Don helped me write (well, actually he did most of it) my script. [See Exhibit A, below] It consisted almost entirely of names of TV shows of the era... and it was by all accounts hilarious. (I got the most votes in the initial election, but lost the runoff. This in spite of the fact that my platform, published in the school paper in Spanish, was that, if elected Senior Class Treasurer, I would waste no time in taking all the money and running to Mexico. Three years later I continued this tradition by conspiring with Paul S. to get my roommate elected Senior Class Treasurer at my college, even though he was not a student there. In our defense, Bob was by far the most qualified candidate, being an accounting major at UCLA --but the newly-elected Senior Class President at our college was not amused.)

After High School

That would have been at Northrop Institute of Technology, a now-defunct local engineering college I had chosen over the objections of my high school advisor (who had me pegged as an English major). I graduated in 1967 and, not wanting to either work in the defense industry nor become draft bait, I joined the Navy and became the Electronics Officer on a Guided Missle Destroyer.

In July 1967, before I headed to Navy OCS in Newport RI ("America's first --and last-- resort"), a fellow SGHS student planned a party for some of the old gang. To his eternal regret, Alan put me in charge of music. I immediately sought help from Don, who provided me with some selections that, to say the least, were not current chart-toppers, certainly not among 20-year-old party-goers. We came up with the wierdest party tape you'll ever hear. Of course I included some 20th century favorites such as Stockhausen, Bartok, Orff... but I was particularly pleased with the impact of Antill's Corroboree. Subsequent reports suggested that music was not perceived to be the strong suite of this particular party, but I had a good time. (In fact, that party proved to be a pivotal event in my life... but that's another story.)

For part of 1968, my ship was in the Long Beach Naval Shipyard for an overhaul. (I was on watch when Robert Kennedy was killed at the Ambassador Hotel, a few miles away in Pasadena.) The proximity of the shipyard to my hometown allowed me to stay in touch with Don and other friends and family more than in subsequent years.

The Flood

Late in 1968 (around Thanksgiving) there was serious flooding at Mt. Baldy and most of the small wooden foot bridges across the stream had been washed out. A month after the first flood (December 1968, I think... though Google tells me the most serious floods of that era were Jan-Feb 1969), Don, myself, and another friend went up to check on the cabin. The owner of a neighboring cabin had already rebuilt a footbridge over the stream, so we were able to get to the cabin by crossing downstream just a bit. It was raining again, but it didn't seem to be coming down very hard. We had a nice afternoon listening to the rain and the stream, noting that the stream was, however, rising. Eventually, Don said we better get going lest we discover the new bridge had also succommbed to the rising water. We were too late... When we got down to it, sure enough, no trace was left. Now what?

We returned to the cabin and then had to scale back up the side of the mountain and forge a path to the North where we would in due course intersect with the main road --and hope that it would be intact when we got there-- then cross the water and make our way back to the South to where the car was parked. Being very wet, steep, and slippery --without any defined trail-- made for a challenging trek. We did get to the main road, and it was intact, but a couple of feet of fast moving water was going over it. Don was in the right place at the right time to grab another stranded hiker who lost her footing while crossing over. I wonder if she remembers that day and how it might have ended very differently, very badly. In due course we made it back to the car, safe but very wet.

The 70's

Early in 1970, fresh out of the Navy, I was about to embark on a career at Bell Labs in a far-off place called New Jersey. Before heading East, I stopped by Don's house one day with a stack of blank reel-to-reel recording tape. I presumptuously asked if he'd mind recording some of his many classical records for me to take along on my new life. Characteristically he agreed, and characteristically, I didn't realize what an imposition my request was until much later.

After moving to New Jersey, and thence Portland OR, I didn't stay in close touch with Don (in part because I was in one of the few parts of Bell Labs where people worked a lot of overtime). Even after I returned to LA in 1973 for graduate school at UCLA, I did not see him too often... grad school was also all-consuming. We did make it back to the Mt. Baldy cabin together again once or twice. I think he sold the cabin soon after that... I remember him saying later that he had underestimated how much he would miss it. Me too.

While at UCLA I came to know John Neuhart, an old army buddy of Don's, who was a professor in the Design Department of UCLA's school of Art. John was/is a great guy too... even to the point of agreeing to serve as one of the "outside" members of my dissertation committee. Like Don, John was always interested in the intersection of disciplines, e.g. art and science. But being willing to participate in the review of my treatment of Network Job Control for a Computer Science PhD was a bit of a stretch even for John. He was a good sport though, and fortunately my key mentors in the CS department, Jerry Estrin and Bob (Buz) Uzgalis, both encouraged my hob-nobbing with people like John in the Art school, and Bill Mitchell --then at UCLA's School of Architecture and Urban Design.) John retired from UCLA in 1984 and now spends his time at the Neuhart-Donges-Neuhart design firm. Those were heady days of discovery... I met John because of Don, and through John, I met Charles and Ray Eames (even sat-in on one of Charles' classes). And so it goes.

Later Years

In his last ten years teaching at SGHS, Don taught remedial math. He didn't use a textbook, but got extraordinary results --many wondered what his secret was. In fact he was just a great teacher.

In 1994, Don retired from teaching at SGHS and he, with Kyle, moved to Northern California. Before making the final move, he had been traveling up north periodically to work on the shell that would become their new home. Early in his new rural life, we would exchange a little email, but spam soon overwhelmed him, and he gave up on email. He did send me a story he had written at one point, but I had long since stopped writing anything other than technical stuff, so I had nothing with which to reciprocate. I wasn't even reliable with holiday greeting cards. (Sigh... I can remember when I would have written "Christmas cards".) But we did speak on the phone a couple of times.

Reconnection

Perhaps as always happens with age, I recently found myself thinking about connections from earlier times in my life. I had been discovered via the Internet by one of my Navy shipmates a year or so back, and he encouraged me to come to a reunion of our shipmates. I'm not a reunion kind of guy, but I did go and was glad. So with those memories fresh, early this year, Anke and I resurrected some Christmas card lists that had been dormant for awhile, and sent out some notes on what was happening in the Gray house. In response, I heard from fellow SGHS student and dear friend Kathie, who had been in touch with Don recently. At that point, it had then been about a year since I had last spoken with him. From her I learned some troubling news, and resolved to do a better job of keeping in touch.

When I called in April 2005, Don told me that in March of the previous year, he had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and given three to six months to live. A year later, he saw the same diagnosing physician, who was extremely surprised to see him still very much alive. Don always liked being surprising! Upon hearing this encouraging report, I said to him "Very good... now be consistent" -- which were exactly the words he wrote on the paper of a student who had done very well on a high-school algebra exam some 40 odd years earlier.

Everyone can look back on important branch-points in their lives. In my case, most of them (personal relationships, joining the Navy, jobs) were a combination of circumstance and serious contemplation (if not perennial over-analysis). Most of those life-choices have turned out well; a few did not.

What sets that day in 1961 apart, and the reason my relationship with Don Sickler stands apart in my life, is not only the dramatic impact he had on my education and growth, but also that this relationship resulted from pure serendipity; nothing planned, contemplated, or analyzed, and never with any regret.

Because I went to engineering schools for college and graduate work, I've often said that I haven't had the benefits of a liberal arts education. If I have to some extent overcome that circumstance, I believe Don Sickler deserves most of the credit.

Postscript: 04 Nov 2005

Last June, around Don's birthday, I called but didn't reach anyone. Then I got busy with work, and one thing after another kept me from calling again until October. Again I dialed, and there was no answer; this time I left a message saying I'd try again later.

Tonight I was going to do that... but the thought came to me to first check the online SSDI records to allay my worst fear. That relief was not to be: the records showed that Don had passed on this past June 14th --which was his 74th birthday.

My best wishes go to Kyle, with great appreciation for Don's love of teaching and of his students. My debt to him is enormous.




Exhibit A

Don wrote the following script for me to give as my assembly speech when I was running for SGHS Senior Class Treasurer in 1964. The theme was "Television". (I transcribed this in April 2005 from a draft I found... I'm not sure whether or not it is the final "as given" version, but it should be close.) Not included below were some of the accompanying visual stunts, featuring Paul M. dressed as the Devil jumping out of a washing machine, and me saying, "What the devil do you want?" Etc...


I really couldn't decide whom to be --there are so many programs.
So, my speech is sort of a TV guide.
Somewhere in it you should find your favorite.

Here I am folks, the special of the week, Terry Gray.

Believe it or not I want to tell the truth today.
What's my line?
You asked for it!

The wonderful world of color, green for money and gray for me.
I am running for secretary of finance.

I will say when our budget reaches the outer limits, then go not one step beyond into the twilight zone, the breaking point.

I intend to combat those who might say let's make a deal or the price is right. I want to be one of those gallant men, a maverick, about whom people will talk, not a corruptor, a fugitive who would live the life of Riley.

I've got a secret which is my guiding light. Democracy is the greatest show on earth, one of the wonders of the world. It is the password to adventure tomorrow.

Your first impression will determine whom you trust with the untouchable bonanza of student funds. Play your hunch at the eleventh hour. Concentration on the name Terry Gray will make this election a thriller.


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