This article began with a hunch: that behind every success story lies the influence or inspiration of an extraordinary teacher. We were right. Invariably, the leaders and high achievers we interviewed eagerly recalled at least one teacher or professor who had made a difference in their lives and careers.
Here is what some prominent Americans had to say about the unsung heroes and heroines in their lives — their teachers.
H. Ross Perot, 64, the Texas billionaire, said he received inspiration at Texas High School in Texarkana. The year was 1948. The teacher was Mrs. Grady Duck.
“Mrs. Duck was always needling me about not making better grades,” recalled Perot. “I was doing fine in school, but her point was that I could do better. One day she said, ‘You know, it’s a shame you’re not as smart as all your friends.’ I said, ‘Mrs. Duck, I could make straight A’s if I wanted to.’ And she said, ‘Well, talk is cheap.’ I said, ‘Fine. I’ll make straight A’s for the next six weeks.’
“Well, I made all A’s for but one of the next six weeks, and then I made straight A’s for the rest of my time in high school. And that gave me the academic record I needed to get into the U.S. Naval Academy. The rest is history, thanks to her.”
Larry Kramer, 59, is a critically acclaimed playwright whose works include “The Normal Heart” and “Destiny of Me.” He was eager to talk about Mathilde Eiker, an English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.
“Our first assignment was to write an essay on what we had done all summer,” said Kramer. “About a week later, Miss Eiker said to the class, ‘I want to read to you one of the best essays I have ever had submitted to me,’ or something like that. She didn’t name who had written it. Then she started to read this essay — and, after a couple of sentences, I realized it was mine. I cannot describe to you the unbelievable feeling of joy that I felt.
“After class, she asked me whether I realized that I had written anything so good. I said no. And she asked whether I was interested in being a writer. I said I have never thought of it. And she said, ‘Well, I think you have the talent to be one, and if you’re interested, I would be happy to work with you.’
“And she did, for the three years I spent at Wilson [1950-53]. She had published several novels herself. She was caring, warm and supportive.”
Kramer went on to literary success and, in 1981, also cofounded Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an AIDS services organization in New York City. “Miss Eiker died shortly after I graduated,” he reflected, “and I always was sorry that she wasn’t around for some of my successes.”
Loan Lunden, 44, a co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” remembered: “I was a senior at Bella Vista High School in California, trying to decide what to do with my life, and I took a class with Pat Byrnes. She taught shorthand, typing, business, that kind of thing.”
“It was 1967, a rebellious time,” she continued. “You weren’t supposed to want to go the traditional route, and a lot of kids I was hanging around with were not going to college. Yet I knew I should. I was an A student. I had come from a family where my father was a doctor, and there was that little part of me that said, ‘I want to be a doctor too. I want to do something great.’ I was really struggling with these two things.
“From the ages of about 14 to 18, your parents seem really stupid — remember that? But Mrs. Byrnes was an authority figure who could somehow make the connection and give guidance without my turning her off because she was an adult. Instead of saying, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, you should go to college,’ she gave credit to my concerns and went forward with teaching me skills to join the workforce. She used it as an opportunity to say, ‘This is good. You’re being smart,’ and built me up to let me know her opinion, which was that I had a lot to offer and that, whatever anyone else was doing, I ought to go to college. She kind of snuck it in.”
Lunden entered college the following year.
Rep. Maxine Waters, 56, a Congresswoman from Los Angeles, said that one of the first people to make a difference in her life was a fifth-grade math teacher named Louise Carter at James Weldon Johnson Elementary School in St. Louis in the early 1940s.
“Beyond her skill at teaching math, Ms. Carter was a very loving woman who saw her responsibility as above and beyond teaching in the classroom,” Waters recalled. “I remember one Saturday in particular, Ms. Carter had planned a class picnic. However, that morning, my mother had not been able to get me ready in time to go. I have 12 brothers and sisters, and it was quite a chore for her to get us prepared, especially the girls, because it required that she spend time getting our hair all braided. My mother was so busy trying to do everything, she just hadn’t gotten to me yet. I thought I would be left behind.
“Then Ms. Carter came — she would not leave without me. She took me to her own home and washed and braided my hair and got my clothes together so I could go on the picnic. And it stayed with me forever that she would do that.
“If you think that a teacher really cares about you, then you try to live up to their expectations. Ms. Carter had high expectations for me, and — especially after that picnic — I tried my best to live up to them.”
Ken Burns, 41, whose documentary film The Civil War was the most-watched program in the history of public television and who recently scored another PBS success with Baseball, entered Hampshire College in 1971. His burning ambition was to become a famous Hollywood director. But he said, “The person who went into Hampshire is not the person who came out. The reason is a still photographer named Jerome Liebling, a professor of film and photography.
“I have never taken a formal American history course outside of high school,” Burns added. “Yet I feel a sympathy with the narrative of the United States in a way that can move me to tears. Jerry helped awaken my ability to express that in film and photography. He is the true definition of a mentor.
“His own work is gritty and realistic. It reminds you that the world we pass through rather thoughtlessly is filled with wondrous things. Even a trip to another town to do some errands was filled with learning. He would always be looking, snapping a picture of someone and moving me to an appreciation of the real drama and heroism of the ordinary.
“He also encouraged us to set up our own film company. I made a film for Old Sturbridge Village, which they still show. Others made films for the Springfield [Mass.] Symphony, a child abuse agency and other organizations.
“We grew,” said Burns, “but we returned something. That was Jerry’s influence.”
Other prominent Americans who recalled the special qualities of an important teacher in their lives:
David Halberstam, 60 — a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose book “The Fifties” was a best-seller — said of a former political-science professor at Harvard, Roy Gootenberg: “He was a kind of intellectual Santa Claus. He thought there ought to be laughter in life, and laughter in the life of a scared 17-year-old freshman.”
P. Buckley Moss, 61, a popular artist, struggled in school because of dyslexia, but her confidence was restored by a teacher, Sister Regis. “She caught me sketching at my desk,” said Moss. “Instead of punishing me, she surprised my by telling me I had real talent. She was determined that it not go to waste.”
Dr Michael DeBakey, 86, the renowned heart surgeon, spoke of Dr. Alton Ochsner, a lifelong mentor: “He was all that I imagined a doctor ought to be. He set a very high standard for us. Yet he never lost the human touch.”
Tracey Bailey, 29, winner of the 1993 National Teacher of the Year Award, remembered his high school science teachers Elmer Bowers and Carl Weaver: “They were curious and adventuresome. In my eyes they were scientists, engineers, builders and detectives, all in one. They made teaching seem the most exciting profession in the world. And it is.”