A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
2015, Richard Archer
E.K. "Charlie" Salls was
my German teacher. He was also a man who had a profound
effect on my life... yet I never had the slightest idea during
the time I was a student.
Mr. Salls was without a doubt the most
intense teacher I have ever known. He had a style
completely of his own.
Salls was a distant man. Although Mr. Salls was
approachable and encouraging, there was always a wall. Unlike
Mr. Curran who developed a close rapport with his students, Mr.
Salls was all business. It was always
Mr. Salls taught
what should have been a boring subject and
yet he found a way to keep me totally engaged. I was never
bored in his class. He impressed me
with his ability to keep me interested in a subject I
had absolutely no use for.
His success was a
mystery to me. How did he do it? After all, Mr. Salls did not use humor. Mr.
Salls did not tell stories. Mr. Salls did not seek to
establish rapport. What he did do was teach a rapid pace and
insist we pay attention... "or else".
Later in life when I
became a dance teacher, I patterned myself more after Mr.
Curran. I preferred to use "fun" as a teaching tool, I
liked teasing my students and I enjoyed getting to know them on a personal basis.
Yet at the same
time, I found myself constantly drawing on memories of Mr.
Salls. Whenever I wondered about ways I could better hold
my students' attention, I would find myself analyzing the
techniques of Mr. Salls.
He had an amazing
challenging us to keep up with him. Each class was a
battle of wits. A master of pace, Mr. Salls matched his
questions to our ability. We answered just enough to feel
proud of ourselves, but never enough to feel cocky.
Mr. Salls was the Assistant Headmaster behind Mr. Chidsey.
Mr. Salls was the details guy who handled the day to day nuts and bolts
of running of the
However, his main passion was teaching German.
He loved to teach German and he was very good at it.
was my German teacher for Grades 9, 10, 11. He was forced
to step down in Grade 12 when he assumed the role of Headmaster
following Mr. Chidsey's retirement.
languages were important at St. John's. Despite my initial
disdain, I would discover I was pretty good at learning languages. I would
go on to add two years of
Latin and two years of French to my four years of German.
Taking a language at SJS
was mandatory. Science was mandatory as well. I didn't
want to take either one so imagine my
thrill when I discovered I could put off Science till my senior year.
However, no such luck with the mandatory language requirement starting in the
9th grade. I hated being made
to take a course I had no interest in. However, following
the 8th grade, St. John's had just granted me a full scholarship
that would run throughout high school. Therefore I was
feeling a bit more cooperative than usual.
If the school
expected me to learn a foreign language, then so be it.
I selected German on a whim. I didn't know a thing
about German other than it wasn't Spanish. My mother's
escapades with the Mexican men had created antipathy towards all
things Spanish. That made it a coin flip between French and
German. It really didn't matter to me. I wasn't
interested in either language.
I wasn't the most
worldly kid. Unlike my wealthy classmates who actually visited
places like Paris, Barcelona, and Berlin on their extensive
European vacations, my mind wasn't able to conceive of any possible
reason to learn a foreign language other than Spanish... but we
already know that particular language was out of the question.
Finally I picked German
simply because I liked World War II movies. Now isn't that a
mature reason? Maybe I could finally understand what the Nazis
"Achtung, ja gawohl,
Herr Kommandant! Siegheil."
When I first met Mr.
Salls in my freshman year at Saint John's, he scared me to death.
cannot remember another man who ever made a more striking first
impression. In a way
quite similar to Mr. MacKeith, my highly respected Chemistry
teacher, Mr. Salls immediately grabbed my attention with his
take no prisoners approach.
The first thing I
noticed was my teacher's
stern, weathered face. Then I
dark his complexion was. This was apparently a carryover from
a lifetime spent in the sun plus natural dark skin tones courtesy
of distant Mohican Indian bloodlines.
had the gruffest voice. He spoke in a low guttural rasp.
Since German isn't the prettiest language to begin with, even
his voice had me intimidated.
Finally there was
his erect stance.
Mr. Salls looked tough.
He seemed so forbidding that I
wondered if Mr. Salls had ever been in the military.
It turned out to be a
good guess. Mr. Salls was in special forces during the
war, a tidbit I learned long after my time at SJS.
I was very intimidated
by Mr. Salls.
I quickly learned he was a disciplinarian. I had heard a
legend about Mr. Salls. One time there was damage to school
property, perhaps graffiti. No one had any idea who had done it, but Mr. Salls
was infuriated by the senseless damage. He immediately got on
the school's public address system and barked in that harsh voice,
"I want whoever is responsible for the recent damage to report to my
office within the hour."
The student showed up
five minutes later.
I do not know if the
student was scalped or beheaded, but I wouldn't put either
punishment past Mr. Salls. I was completely terrified of the
And yet I was also drawn
to him. Mr. Salls was a source of endless fascination to me.
Perhaps it was because he was so mysterious.
Mr. Salls could smile on
occasion. For example, every year around Christmas time, he
would trot out his beloved mandolin and we would all sing Christmas
carols in German. "O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum".
That was probably the
only time Mr. Salls ever let down his guard. The rest of the
time he was all business.
Mr. Salls was a
no-nonsense guy. He made it clear that he was passionate about
his subject and that he wanted us to be passionate as well.
We are here
to learn something,
so let's get
.... "whether you like it or not" was the underlying
We did not fool around in his class. Mr.
Salls demanded we pay attention.
I remember him as the most alert person
I have ever met. He missed nothing. Students who
whispered to a friend or those whose minds were drifting did so at
their own risk.
I promise you I paid
attention. Let me amend that... I never took my eye off the
man for fear of my life!
In the second week of
was gazing out the window with the classic daydream expression on
his face. Mr. Salls noticed the boy was lost to us. He
called on the boy to answer a question, but he didn't respond.
So Mr. Salls picked up an eraser and threw it at the kid's desk.
He didn't lob it either. Mr. Salls chunked that eraser in
there with steam! The eraser missed the boy, but it hit the
front edge of the desk and
bounced straight in the air.
Suddenly it was snowing!
White chalk dust went flying everywhere. Startled, the poor boy screamed bloody murder. I am
sure he could be heard across campus.
Covered in chalk dust,
all color drained from his face and he wrapped both arms around his
chest in fear. Indeed, I think the kid
nearly had a heart attack. Now that I think of it, I almost
had one too. From the hush in the room, I think we all did.
From that point on, I was petrified of the man. I
never wanted to make Mr. Salls mad at me! Oddly enough,
at this moment I briefly thought of Mrs. Ballantyne. Now there were two people I was
One thing I liked about
Mr. Salls is that he chunked those erasers at the girls too.
Even better, he threw at the girls just as hard. The girls would get
all that nasty chalk dust on their pretty red jumpers and be so
embarrassed. Some of them turned on the wet works. Mr.
Salls didn't care. Let them cry.
Amidst the crocodile tears, Mr. Salls would just say 'let's pay
better attention next time'.
I loved it. No sex discrimination
in this class!
Eraser politics aside,
Mr. Salls did seem to be more gentle with the girls than the boys.
I did actually see him smile at the young ladies on occasion.
Katina Ballantyne was in
my class. I did not know it at the time, but her family was
close to the Salls family. Apparently they had a Galveston
beach house nearby, so I imagine Katina knew Mr. Salls better than
the rest of us. That probably explained why she was the only one who did not cower when
someone was struck by the eraser. Instead I would see her
What did Katina know that the rest of us didn't?
From that point on, whenever Mr. Salls threw the eraser, I would
turn to Katina to catch her reaction. While the rest of us were terrified, Katina
Well, Katina's invulnerability aside, seeing that no one was immune from the man's wrath, I paid absolute
attention. Whatever I did, it worked. Mr. Salls fussed
at a lot of people to keep up, but he never once rebuked me in the
three years I was his student.
Who would have
guessed German would become my favorite subject? It
certainly didn't start that way.
In my Freshman
year, I wasn't very happy when I showed up for Mr. Salls'
first class. Who cares about German? This is
Houston, Texas. I was a poor kid who thought Galveston
was a far off place. What am I doing learning German?
Weren't the Germans the bad guys in the war? What an
enormous waste of time. How
exactly do I intend to use my German skills? Instead, why not offer
something useful like an auto
mechanics course or typing?
Let's face it, I took German for one reason - they
made us take a language.
Salls turned out to be a brilliant teacher. I was
mesmerized by the man. I began to love German because
I respected Mr. Salls so much. I took to his training
like a duck takes to water. I willingly worked hard in
his class because I wanted his approval.
Did I become the teacher's pet? Oh, heavens no. Far
from it. Mr. Salls wasn't like that. He kept
everyone at arm's length, Katina included. If Mr.
Salls had any favorites, he never let on. I will say
one thing. Although Mr. Salls was very formal with me,
he did give me a lot of compliments on my effort. He
could tell how hard I was working and rewarded me. I
really came to like him. I lived for those
If someone wonders if Mr. Salls
was a father figure to me, well, sort of, but not really.
I didn't think of him in that way, probably because he was
so aloof. He never interacted with me on a personal
level like Mr. Curran did. Mr. Salls
never once said a personal word to me in the four years I
I think 'role model'
would be a better description. I was always so
impressed by him. I enjoyed
watching his tremendous bearing and self-control and how he
carried himself with so much dignity. He certainly had
Because I was so
fascinated with Mr. Salls, I longed to know more about him.
What made this guy tick? Where did that amazing vigilance come
I remember many
mornings where I would forget about German for a moment and simply
watch Mr. Salls in action. He was so animated when he taught
that I could see he clearly loved to teach. As a future
teacher myself, I could not have picked a better example to study.
However, there was something about him that infuriated me... Mr.
Salls rarely let his guard down.
I wanted to know what he
was really thinking!! But I got absolutely nowhere.
Considering Mr. Salls
had the most formidable exterior of any man I had ever met, when I think back about
my teacher, the word 'hawk' comes to mind. With his stern
demeanor, penetrating stare and furrowed eyebrows, 'hawk-like' is an
accurate description. Mr. Salls never let his guard down and he never missed a thing. Mr.
Salls was inscrutable. I never had the slightest clue what he
thought about me or any of the other students.
Later in life, thanks to
conversations with Kim Salls, Jr, his oldest son, I finally learned
things that would shed some light on this mysterious man.
Mr. Salls was born in
1911 on Vinalhaven, a small island twelve miles off the coast of
Maine. His parents were frugal, hard-working people who struggled to
make ends meet.
There were two
tragedies in his childhood. Mr. Salls became an only
child after the sudden death of a younger brother.
Then when Mr. Salls was 15, tragedy hit again when his
father, money was a
real problem. The only two industries on Vinalhaven were granite quarries and fishing. From what I gather,
Mr. Salls worked a series of jobs to help with the family finances.
No doubt at some point Mr. Salls came to dislike cod as much
as I disliked strawberries.
There is a great
mystery about Mr. Salls' childhood. After he finished high school, he
continued his education for one year at the prestigious
Philips Exeter Academy in
New Hampshire. Exeter has long been considered the best
college prep school in America. Over the years, the school has
educated some of the most powerful people in history, including
presidents, senators, governors, business leaders and Nobel Prize
I would imagine Exeter was
a miracle to Mr. Salls as St. John's was a miracle to me.
The mystery is that no one in his family knows a thing about how
Salls was able to pay for the place or how he gained admittance.
Mr. Salls was just as secretive with his own children as he was with
students like me.
How on earth
did Mr. Salls get the kind of education on that remote island to
allow him to qualify for Exeter?
find it very unlikely that Mr. Salls received a top-flight education
on Vinalhaven. This was a tiny island that measured out to five miles
by ten miles with a small population. Given the limited
enrollment in his high school years (1925-1929), I can envision some sort of
country school along the lines of Little House on the Prairie
where the third graders are mixed with eighth graders.
I cannot imagine Mr. Salls graduating with more than two or three
other students his own age.
Furthermore, what kind of teachers could he expect to find in this
remote outpost on the edge of civilization? No disrespect
intended, but I doubt they matched the talent of the teachers I had
at St. John's. One can assume that Mr. Salls was a good student, but surely the
quality of his education did not lend itself to the highest levels of academia.
Furthermore, where did
the money come from? I noticed that Exeter
had a tuition twice as large as St. John's. Mr. Salls' father
had died when he was 15. That tragedy left Mr. Salls, a teenager
working odd jobs, and his mother, a
woman who grew vegetables in her yard to sell, scrambling to eke out
a living. In other words, they were poor. Something
doesn't add up here.
I have no choice but to
believe Mr. Salls got a scholarship to Exeter. What other
explanation short of robbing a bank or a rich uncle's donation could
there be? I imagine the circumstances of his scholarship would
make for an interesting story, but try as I might, I don't have a
factual answer. My best guess is that Mr. Salls took a test at the
school and placed high on it. Then Mr. Salls threw himself on
the mercy of the administrators and explained the circumstances of his hardscrabble
But how did he ever ace
that Exeter test? I already know that
Mr. Salls was brilliant. Perhaps as a boy, he was self-taught. Perhaps he read every book in sight in his spare time. What other explanation could there
I would imagine the
Exeter scholarship was the break of a lifetime for Mr. Salls, no
great miracle of his life. Hmm. Now where have we heard
that expression before?
The parallels between
what I know of his childhood and my own are unmistakable. Mr. Salls was an only
child with only one parent, he worked odd jobs after school to help
with finances, and received an improbable scholarship that became
his ticket out of a lonely existence on a remote island at the edge
of civilization. As for me, my bio runs stride for stride.
Given my uncanny
fixation with Mr. Salls, it was very unsettling to discover
that Mr. Salls and I shared such a similar background. What an
odd coincidence. Of course I knew none of
this during my years at St. John's. I had heard that Salls attended
Exeter and Harvard, but I had always assumed he had risen from a life of
affluence similar to the boys and girls around me at St. John's.
On the contrary... Mr. Salls grew up poor
just like I did.
Considering how I felt about my own
scholarship to Saint John's and how drawn I was to this mysterious
man, is it possible I sensed a kindred
spirit? Was there some part of me that guessed Mr. Salls
had once struggled just as much as I did?
All I know is that
I was strongly drawn to this
man in the same manner that I was drawn to Mrs. Ballantyne without any
conscious idea why. Without a doubt, he and I shared an inherent drive to
succeed against the odds.
I wonder if it was possible that Mr. Salls recognized
some of himself in me. If so, he certainly never let on.
After Exeter, Mr. Salls
went to Harvard, most likely on a scholarship as well. I read
an article that said he wrestled, played baseball, and football.
To my surprise, I ran across a caption that said he even
organized school dances as well.
"A list of ushers
for the Lowell House Midseason Dance to be held Friday evening,
March 9, has been announced by
Elwood K. Salls '34, chairman of the dance committee."
Wonders never cease.
Somehow Mr. Salls also found the time to
attend to his language studies.
His decision to study
languages, German in particular, was a fateful decision indeed.
As "Dance" would one day define my life, "German" would define his.
Mr. Salls' love of
German not only created his career, it also led him to the love of
After graduation from
Harvard, Mr. Salls spent the next year abroad in Germany as an
exchange student at the University of Munich. Considering
Germany was in the midst of the Nazi takeover, 1934-1935 must have
been an unusual time indeed. Indeed, he viewed several
military parades with Hitler in attendance. In a box on a
shelf at home, Mr. Salls had a collection of pictures he took of Der
during the rallies held in Munich.
When Salls returned to the
USA, he sent his resume to several prep schools in the Boston
area. He was hired as a language instructor at the Brooks
School in Andover, Massachusetts, a prestigious prep school in its
own right. Mr. Salls would spend six years there.
In the summer of 1937,
Mr. Salls decided to return to Germany on vacation.
Alternating between a bicycle and a rented car, he rode all over the
German countryside and put his German skills to good use. In
addition he visited neighboring countries such as Hungary, Austria
and Czechoslovakia as well. While in
Germany, Mr. Salls was surely alarmed by the increasing possibilities of war. One has to wonder what tales he could tell about
Nazi Germany on the eve
of World War II. Indeed, in early 1939, Nazi tanks would make
Czechoslovakia disappear from the world map with other countries
such as Austria and Poland soon to follow.
Meanwhile, there was
another American visiting Europe that same summer.
Her name was Catherine
Morgan. Catherine was a beautiful blonde debutante from Paris, Texas.
Catherine had sailed to Europe with three
high school girlfriends and a chaperone in
July 1937. This trip to Europe was her high school graduation
present from Hockaday, an exclusive private girls school in Dallas.
Departing by ocean liner
from New York to Cherbourg, France, these four young ladies
planned to visit the great cities
of Europe by train. Their trip had quite an itinerary - Paris and Brussels, then
on to Venice, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Heidelberg,
Cologne, and Amsterdam. Following Amsterdam, they would cross the
English Channel and finish the
trip with a week stay in London. One can imagine this
two-month trip was quite an adventure for a seventeen year old girl.
On July 21, their train
arrived in Munich from Vienna. This was an important day in
Miss Morgan would write two important letters this day.
She began the day by writing a
serious letter to her boyfriend Bill back home in Texas. She had decided to break up with him.
As her diary reveals, she felt miserable about hurting this young
man as she placed the letter in the hotel's outgoing mail box. Catherine
spent the rest of the day despondent.
To cheer her up, that
girlfriends suggested they visit the Bürgerbräukeller,
a beer hall made famous years earlier by Hitler during his notorious
Munich Beer Hall Putsch. Apparently this beer hall was very popular
with the American college crowd.
One must assume
spirits had been restored because she would later write about her delight at
the visit of one man after another. Apparently her beauty was
ample. Miss Morgan commented on her fortune to be picked out in the teeming crowd by a succession of
suitors. As she would
write, Miss Morgan was first approached by a nephew of
JP Morgan, the world-famous financier. Discovering they had
the same last name, they had a flirtatious talk about whether they
might be related and what a scandal it would be if they dated. Next came several young men from Williams College.
Miss Morgan was quite taken with the Williams boys until suddenly someone new
caught her attention. A young man eight years older sat
down at the table across from her without being invited.
I will let Catherine
tell the rest in her own words. She would finish her memorable day by
writing this tale in her travel diary:
"There were a bunch of Williams boys there and I was quite
interested in them until the most astounding thing happened!
A boy came up to me and sat down on the opposite side of the
table. He said 'hello'.
didn't think much of him one way or the other at first but it
finally came out that he had gone to Exeter. The next
thing I knew, he had known my stepbrother Gregory well.
Then I realized this was the same boy Jane and Mary Jo had made
such a fuss over in Budapest. He caught me by the hand and
I thought he would hold it forever. I blushed when I
realized I didn't mind.
name was Charlie Salls. He asked me to go riding with him.
Ben, our escort, consented and before I knew it, I was off in a
whirlwind with Charlie in his gray convertible. We went to
Benz, a place he guaranteed there would be no Americans.
had a simply wonderful time. Over champagne, we
learned that he was indeed the same boy I had admired in the elevator in
Budapest days earlier and I was the same girl he had thought was lovely in the
blue bathing suit in the hall.
What a small world!
talked and talked. He told me all about his life.
Very interesting! He is 25 and teaches German at Brooks.
We decided that Fate had brought us together.
Something special happened tonight. I have never known a
person as well in such a short time. He is the first boy
with any object in view that I have been interested in. He
is swell and we have a date tomorrow at 2."
As one can gather, Miss Morgan was very taken with this young man.
The eight year age
difference hardly mattered. As Catherine said, Charlie Salls was
by far the most dynamic man she had met on this trip. Although
they parted the next day, they planned to meet again in London a
couple weeks later. Her travel diary spoke a great deal of the
time they shared in London that August. They would then resume their
romance back in the States.
Unlike Mr. Salls who
emerged from humble circumstances, Ms. Morgan grew up to affluence.
In 1937, Ms. Morgan graduated from Hockaday, a prestigious women's
boarding school in Dallas, Texas. She then attended the Holton
Arms school for girls in Bethesda, Maryland, as a post graduate
1937-38. This of course was the same Holton Arms that a
certain Jackie Bouvier attended from 1942 to 1944.
Upon graduation from
Holton Arms, Catherine moved to New York City to attend
in 1937-1939. Finch was a junior college finishing school on
the upper east side in New York. Better still, it was just a
200 mile train ride from the Brooks School where Mr. Salls taught
language. The two made good use of the phone during the week
and the train on the weekends to see each
I have no doubt Mr. Salls
kept close track of the train schedule. As
a society debutante who was both highly educated and quite
beautiful, Catherine Morgan was no doubt quite a catch.
And then came the war.
Following Pearl Harbor, Mr. Salls enlisted in the Navy. Surely
that was a heartbreak moment for both. Like many young lovers of that
era, it had to be terrifying for Catherine to see her sweetheart go
off to war and leave her behind.
things worked out thanks to an amusing drama that expedited
Mr. Salls was first
assigned to an aircraft carrier as a lowly mechanic. In short
order, his commanding officer learned that Salls was not a particularly gifted mechanic.
As a young man, Salls had spent his entire life studying books, not
tinkering in workshops.
One day Salls hurt
himself when his socket wrench slipped and somehow caught him flush
on the chin. Salls immediately began cursing... in
German. Everyone stopped what they were doing and
stared at him in horror and suspicion. The engine room went
Oops. Looks like
Charlie Salls had some 'splainin' to do.
A sheepish look came
over his face. Salls told his buddies he had learned to swear
in German because it was more polite than swearing in English.
Now the commanding officer appeared. This was not a coincidence...
one of the men had gone to fetch him.
"So, Seaman Apprentice
Salls, is it correct that you were heard swearing in German?"
"Yes, sir, that would be
"Well, isn't that
interesting? You and I should take a walk back to my office.
I think the captain wants to speak to you." Oh, to be a fly on
the wall for that conversation!
Mr. Salls was exonerated
swiftly enough. The moment the captain discovered that Salls spoke fluent German
and that the young man was
familiar with the German countryside, he wired his superiors.
Mr. Salls was immediately
reassigned to Naval Intelligence where he could be far more useful
to the war effort
than tightening lug nuts.
As luck would
have it, Mr. Salls was now stationed in New York City.
This fortuitous development allowed him to to marry his
sweetheart Catherine in 1942. They were both deeply in
love. This marriage was a perfect match for both.
made a discovery... she was pregnant.
Kim Salls, Jr, in 1943. After the war, there would be
three more children... Cal, Randy, and Elissa. All
four children would attend St. Johns.
remainder of the war, Mr. Salls rotated between NYC and
Washington, DC. He was fortunate to be able to bring
his wife and son with him wherever he was stationed.
Since his work
was classified, little is known about his years in military
intelligence other than Mr. Salls attained the rank of
Lieutenant Commander, a rank just below Commander and
Captain. That said, I was given one very tantalizing
hint as to his importance.
son told me that Salls was in training with an elite special
forces team at the end of the war. The plan was to
parachute into Berlin and take out Hitler in a commando raid.
Due to his fluent German, Salls was a key member of the team.
Salls was to pose as an SS Officer and do most of the speaking if
necessary. After all, Mr. Salls certainly looked the part and
he definitely talked the part. His German accent would be
convincing if necessary.
Hitler took his own life before the mission launched, so no
action was necessary. Knowing Mr. Salls, there is
absolutely nothing about that story that surprises me in the
least. As we say about that generation, they were the
After the war ended,
Charlie Salls, Catherine, and their 3 year old son Kim moved to
Texas. During the latter stages of the war, Catherine had heard an
interesting rumor. She knew people in Dallas who knew people
in Houston who knew that a new college preparatory school named Saint
John's was being built.
learned that some very wealthy people
in Houston had obtained a large piece of property on the edge of
River Oaks. The property was large enough not only to build
Saint John's Episcopal Church, but also St. John's Preparatory
School. Although St. John's School was loosely affiliated with
the church next door, the school had no religious ties.
Catherine quickly passed on the tip to
Mr. Salls who wasted no time applying for a teaching position even
though he was still in the service.
impressive credentials... Exeter, Harvard, six years teaching
experience, five years distinguished war service, I imagine Mr.
Salls was what one would refer to as a slam dunk shoo-in. On
the spot, Mr. Chidsey hired him as second in command at the new
As for Mr. Salls, he was meant for
a role like this. He was able to participate from the ground
floor in the growth of this new school. I believe
St. John's was very fortunate to have a man of Salls' caliber in
place right from the start. If ever there was a man who exuded
integrity and responsibility, that would be Mr. Salls.
In 1946, St. John's took its place as Houston's second college
prep school. St. John's quickly established a mostly
friendly rivalry with Kinkaid, its prep school counterpart founded
earlier back in 1906.
Upon his hire in
1946, Mr. Salls moved
his family to an apartment on the SJS premises. He
would serve as second in command to Alan Chidsey for twenty years,
then later become headmaster for ten years on his own.
From what I
gather, Mr. Chidsey and Mr. Salls worked very well together.
Mr. Chidsey became the face of the school. A
gregarious man who enjoyed socializing and schmoozing with
the River Oaks elite, Mr. Chidsey relied on Mr. Salls to
handle many of the day to day details in running the school.
outgoing friend Mr. Chidsey, Mr. Salls eschewed fanfare. Mr.
Salls preferred to operate behind the scenes. It was during this period
of rapid growth at St. John's that Mr. Salls fine-tuned his stealth-based modus
school needed something, Mr. Salls would make a quiet phone
call to any of several patrons who loved the new school as
much as Salls did. The following day a generous check
would appear anonymously. Mr. Salls was very effective
at these sort of clandestine maneuvers, a habit he
surely picked up during his years in the spy service. As one
can gather, his idea of running the school was to operate
under the radar as much as possible. No pomp and
circumstance for him.
Mr. Chidsey and
Mr. Salls were obviously quite a team because St. John's
grew by leaps and bounds.
Back in the early days, the
area west of St. John's was mostly cow pasture and forest.
Westheimer was only paved to the edge of St. John's at the corner of
Buffalo Speedway. Out west
past the school Westheimer was still just another country dirt road.
So Mr. Salls bought
Gene Autry's jeep if for no other reason than to negotiate the often
After his jeep was stolen in 1957, it was found
badly damaged in thick brush where Houston's posh Galleria now stands.
At this point, Mr. Salls would buy his shiny red jeep, a
vehicle which he clearly loved from the bottom of his heart.
Parked daily in a sea of expensive automobiles at St. John's, the
red jeep was considered to be something of an eyesore by discerning
eyes. Although I personally
was very amused whenever I saw Mr. Salls joyriding in his open air jeep
with that huge grin on his face, I can see how people with
refinement might say the jalopy stuck out like a
jeep was how Mr. Salls reminded himself of
where he had come from and who he really was amidst so much
SIDE OF MR. SALLS
Yes, indeed. Why is it so easy for me to accept without
question that Mr. Salls was a spy during World War II? Honestly,
I have never met a more formidable man than the taciturn Mr. Salls.
Stories abounded at
St. John's from both students and teachers alike about Mr. Salls
and his intensity. I clearly wasn't the only person who was
terrified of the man.
I once told
Mr. Curran how stern Mr. Salls was in his German classroom. Mr.
Curran laughed and shared a funny anecdote about Mr. Jackson, a new
teacher at the school.
During his first year, Mr. Jackson had gone to
Mr. Curran to clear the air. He was afraid Mr. Salls didn't like
him. Apparently the new algebra teacher
passed Mr. Salls in the hallway nearly every day. Each time
Mr. Jackson would smile and say hello, but Mr. Salls never
responded. Salls never said a word, not even once. Mr. Jackson concluded that Mr. Salls must be upset with him,
so he asked Mr. Curran what to do about his worries.
Mr. Curran suggested Mr.
Jackson make an appointment and tell Salls what was bothering him. So the
algebra instructor did just that. He went to the receptionist who said
Mr. Salls wasn't particularly busy. Why not knock on the door and ask to
So Mr. Jackson did just
that and got permission to enter. Jackson
said, "Mr. Salls, I'm sorry to bother you, sir, but could you give me
an idea if I am doing the kind of job you expect from me?"
Mr. Salls looked at Mr.
Jackson in the eye for a couple seconds. Then with that bemused smile
of his, Mr. Salls replied, "Mr. Jackson,
if you were not doing a good job, I would tell you so. You may
assume I am satisfied."
At this point, Mr. Salls
realized that his new instructor needed reassurance, so he asked
Jackson what was bothering him.
Mr. Jackson replied,
"Well, Mr. Salls, since you never speak to me in the hallway, I got
the feeling you regret that you hired me."
"Mr. Jackson, rest your
fears. I speak to you every Monday morning and that should be
more than sufficient for the week."
Not only was the staff
intimidated, my fellow students were terrified as well. Truly, my
German teacher had eyes in the back of his head. One day, Mr.
Salls was doing his vocabulary drill. This was a lightning round.
He would say an English word and we had to reply with the German
word equivalent as fast as possible. As he spoke, Mr. Salls had his
back to us as he wrote something on the blackboard.
We all raced to see who
could say the correct word first. Then we would laugh if
someone gave the wrong response and hear Mr. Salls rebuke the
student without even looking at him. The effect was like being
chewed out by the Voice of God.
I noticed two boys had
begun to poke each other in the side with pencils. Why not?
Mr. Salls had his back to them.
Suddenly Mr. Salls
whirled around and launched an eraser at a boy in the back of the
The eraser sailed at bullet speed right over the boy's head and hit the window with
a giant thud. Then a piece of chalk hit the second boy square
on his shoulder. Both boys turned white as a ghost. I
instantly thought of Zeus and his lightning bolts. That was
how electric the effect was. I watched in rapt horror as Mr.
Salls glowered with annoyance at the boys who visibly shrunk before
his foreboding stare. Mind you, these young men were
ordinarily cool, confident teenagers, but right now they displayed
as much courage as some kid in Kindergarten.
One boy's lip quivered.
'Oh no, please don't cry', I thought. He would never live this
down. Then I looked at Katina. She was looking down at
her textbook to disguise her face, but I could see she was laughing.
Why so afraid?
Because it was supernatural, that's why. Mr. Salls had his
back to these boys the entire time. I was incredulous.
How did he ever see those boys??
And get this... Mr. Salls
never said a word to them. Not a single word! Nor did he
stare at them to reinforce his message. Instead he simply turned his back again and
continued his vocabulary drill as if nothing had happened. The
two boys visibly trembled for the remainder of class. When the
bell rang, Mr. Salls barked, "Herr Bates and Herr Johnson, you will
report to Penalty Hall this afternoon at 3:45. Please be
Both boys were so
nervous they flinched at the words. I looked at the two
boys... they were too scared to even look up at Mr. Salls lest they
evaporate in smoke upon gazing at him. They kept
their eyes down and nodded that they got the message.
Mr. Salls picked up
his briefcase, said "Guten Tag" (good day) to the class and briskly
strode out the door. None of us dared moved an inch until we were
completely sure he had left. Then for the first time in twenty minutes we
all began to breathe again.
Yes, indeed, Mr. Salls
made quite an impression on me. He was an amazing teacher.
In fact, I would call him a master of his craft. I have never
seen anyone take control of a class like Mr. Salls did.
In the beginning, I paid
attention out of fear. However, it wasn't fear that made me
continue to behave. Mr. Salls kept my attention because he
made his subject fascinating. He moved so fast it was a real
challenge to stay up with him. It felt like a game to me.
I wanted to see if I could answer those questions quickly enough.
I took real pride in showing Mr. Salls I could match his pace. I still can't totally
understand how he kept me so interested in what should have been a
boring subject, but he did.
Curran, my favorite English teacher, had it easy. Not only was
Ed Curran a friendly, outgoing man who made me laugh with his jokes
and his good-natured teasing in class,
I enjoyed the material he covered. I was laughing one minute
at something funny that Mr. Curran said,
intrigued by William Shakespeare's webs of
deceit the next. It was a snap for me to pay attention in
Not so with German and
Chemistry. Yawn. Since I had no use for either subject
later in life, I was prepared to be bored out of my mind. I
was convinced of that. But that boredom never took place.
Even though German and Chemistry were subjects I had no interest in,
I found myself paying attention anyway due to the unusual competence
of their instruction. Mr. Salls and Mr. MacKeith, his
no-nonsense Chemistry counterpart, never ceased to surprise me with
their teaching ability.
Despite the stern
demeanor of Mr. Salls, I always suspected it was an act.
Perhaps it was Katina
Ballantyne's ease around him that gave him away.
She would often go up to his desk at the end of class and
talk to him. That was something I didn't dare do, but
I made sure to linger and watch. I couldn't help but notice Mr. Salls would
often smile at her. I was fit to be tied. Where
did Katina get her courage? What were they
For that matter, Mr. Salls was downright friendly with Katina's
mother as well.
Several times I
saw Mr. Salls
laughing in the hallway with Mrs. Ballantyne, the sharp-tongued
They would be
walking down a corridor side by side and talking up a storm. My secret
candidate for Best Mother clearly had a great relationship with my
eagle-eyed German teacher.
Salls chat with ease around Mrs. Ballantyne and Katina,
I began to suspect when no one was looking, Mr. Salls was a really
nice guy. I speculated it was his role as Assistant
Headmaster that forced him to maintain his imperious
Mr. Salls gave
other hints as well.
I would see Mr.
Salls beam from time to time when class was going well or
one of his lagging students suddenly 'got it' after a long
Oh my gosh, Mr.
Salls just smiled! Is it possible the man is human after all??
In my Junior
year, I heard a
story that offered further proof Mr.
Salls might actually be a normal person if someone dug deep
enough. As I mentioned
earlier, I was the statistician for the football team.
That meant I rode with the football team on the bus to each
of our out-of-town football games.
On one of our
trips, a senior on the team told a
group of us a wild
story about a practical joke Mr.
Lee and Mr. Osborn, our football coaches, had played on Mr. Salls.
Due to the sensitive nature of the tale, this was a
hush-hush tale if there ever was one. The boy said his Dad
had told him the story, then ordered him never to repeat it.
The senior said if we swore we would keep the secret and
never reveal where we heard it, he would
Barely able to
contain our excitement, immediately we made our pledge.
long ago, the two football
coaches had gone hunting in South Texas. One of the men had
shot a coyote and cut off the tail as a souvenir. On the way
home, over a few beers meant to enhance the drive, the two coaches
cooked up a devilish plot. Why not have a little fun
with that coyote tail?
When they got home, they
modified a wire animal trap to suit their purposes. They put a
latch spring inside the cage that could be released by
pulling a secret string.
To the latch spring they attached the coyote
tail. Then Mr. Lee put out the word that they had captured a
live mongoose on their hunting trip and that they were keeping the
exotic animal in
their office as a pet. To sell the story, Mr. Lee said that the
ranchers were using these mongooses to control the snake population
and that their particular mongoose had put up a furious fight before
its capture. The mongoose should be considered very dangerous.
It didn't take long. Hearing a knock on the
door, Mr. Lee said, "Come in."
The door opened.
Mr. Lee did a double take. Uh oh. It was none other than Mr. Salls,
Assistant Headmaster at the time. Sure enough, Mr. Salls of
all people was the first
person to stop by the coaches' office to inspect this dangerous mongoose.
Mr. Lee gave Mr. Osborn a worried look. Should we do this?
Mr. Osborn shrugged and grinned. Why not? What did they
have to lose besides their jobs?
Mr. Salls as always was
unusually formal. "Gentlemen, good day to you. May I come in?"
Hiding his concern, Mr. Lee
cooly replied, "Yes,
of course, Mr. Salls, please join us. How can I help you, sir?"
"May I see your
There's a little problem. The mongoose
has just eaten and I don't have the leash on him to bring him out of his
cage. It might be easier if you just had a look at the cage.
Be careful, he might snap at you."
The coaches had
deliberately kept their office dark to conceal their ploy. Mr. Salls
noticed the cage with the bushy tail in it, but had no idea what he
was looking at. Mr. Salls was immediately curious. As he walked over
to the cage, Mr. Osborn readied the secret string.
Just as Mr. Salls leaned
down to get a better look at the animal in the dark, Mr. Osborn pulled the
string. The coyote tail shot out of the cage like a guided
missile, hitting Mr. Salls right in the chest.
Mr. Salls shrieked
bloody murder in a
high-pitched voice. Instinctively, he assumed a fighting stance with both hands
raised to protect himself from further attack by the fierce snake
Screaming horrible oaths
in guttural German, Mr. Salls turned his head in every direction.
He was certain the mongoose was somewhere in the
room preparing to rip his face to shreds. But then he looked down at the
floor and spotted the lifeless coyote tail. His eyes grew
wide. Why wasn't the mongoose moving? Once he realized
what had happened, Mr. Salls slowly looked up at the two coaches who
were trying as hard as they could not to explode with laughter.
Without a word and with
as much dignity as he could possibly muster, Mr. Salls turned on his heels and marched out.
The men could hear him
swearing more choice words in German as he closed the door. The two
coaches did not need to understand German to know that Salls was
furious at falling for their trick.
The two men could no
longer contain their mirth. They slapped each other's hands
and roared with laughter. Then Mr. Osborn stopped. "Do
you think Salls kept on going or is he just outside the door
listening?" With that, Mr. Lee had a look of panic. What
have they done?
Now Mr. Lee and Mr.
Osborn were worried. This was the Assistant Headmaster!
Why of all people did it have to be him? Mr. Salls did not seem at all pleased with their little prank.
Not at all. As the men put the coyote tail back in the animal trap, they could
not help but wonder how much trouble they were in.
They need not have
worried. Just a short ten minutes later, there was another knock.
Both men stopped breathing. That knocked sounded exactly the
same as the knock before. Sure enough, as the door opened, it
was Mr. Salls again. However, he seemed to be smiling.
Furthermore, he had someone else along with
Standing erect in the
doorway, Mr. Salls politely said, "Gentlemen, have you
met our first-year Algebra teacher Mr. Jackson? Mr. Jackson
has just explained to me that he is very interested in seeing your
captured mongoose. Do you think the animal is through eating
Mr. Lee calmly replied, "I'm not sure, Mr. Salls. Perhaps Mr.
Jackson should come over here for a closer look..."
THE MAP OF
Mr. Salls never
dropped his instructor mask in my presence... except once.
remember the one time that Mr. Salls genuinely smiled at me.
I really love this story.
class assignment was to trace out a giant map of Germany on poster
board. One day we all turned in our maps. My eyes bulged
when I compared my own pitiful job to the map of Elsa, one of the
girls in the class. Elsa's map was a tour de force.
What bugged me was that
I had taken this assignment seriously. I had spent days on
this project and believed I had done a great job. Wrong.
There was no comparison between Elsa's map and mine. The moment I saw
Elsa's map, I
gasped in disbelief.
How could anyone draw something so
My own map consisted of two colors: black and white.
Not this girl. Elsa's map was a veritable rainbow!
Germany itself was lush green. My gosh, the girl had drawn out
the forests of Bavaria and had colored the North Sea dark blue.
She had artistically drawn the major rivers in light blue complete
with tiny blonde Lorelei mermaids singing along the banks of the Rhine.
had shaded all the German borders in black and red trim, the colors
of Germany. She had drawn in the great foothills of the Alps
in southern Germany complete with the famous
Castle. Elsa had used a Gothic stencil to label the
regions. The German flag was in one corner, the German coat of arms
in another. Meanwhile a German opera singer and a miniature Oktoberfest
drawing occupied the other two corners.
Her map was so pretty! It wasn't just a map, it was a work of
art. I stared at that map like it was the Mona Lisa.
Seriously, a professional could not have done a better job. This
girl had considerable talent. I could not stop shaking my head in
Mr. Salls and I were alone in the room. He looked up
and saw me staring at that beautiful map with my befuddled "I am not
worthy" stare. Mr. Salls involuntarily laughed out loud.
He knew exactly what I was looking at. Hearing him laugh, I
His words... "Girls. Aren't they amazing?"
And then he flashed me the biggest grin!
Fortunately, Mr. Salls
was kind enough to overlook my mediocre map-making skills. I
made straight A's in German all four years.
I was indeed a good
student, but my personal problems led to serious discipline problems
at St. John's. I will explain shortly why I believe I was one of the
most complicated students to ever attend this school.
Discipline issues aside, when it came
to the classroom, I valued my education with a passion. German
class was the perfect example. I worked very hard in German.
I always paid attention, I turned in my homework promptly and I
wouldn't dream of giving Mr. Salls anything but my complete
cooperation. I answered every question he asked of me without
hesitation. I was always prepared. If Mr. Salls was a
master teacher, then I responded in kind by giving my best effort.
Not once did I have an
eraser thrown at me for the simple reason that I was determined to
be just as alert as my instructor. Mr. Salls gave his
best effort day in and day out to explain German to us. I was
determined to give my best effort in return. That was my way
of showing Mr. Salls the respect that he deserved. To me, it
was an honor to receive high marks from the finest teacher I would
MAKES A SUGGESTION
In 1967, it was
Mr. Salls' turn to become headmaster. After twenty years at
the helm, Mr. Chidsey, my
benefactor who had given me my high school scholarship, had finally decided
to retire. Mr. Chidsey turned over the
reins to Mr. Salls, the Assistant Headmaster.
From what his son told
me, taking the job was not an easy decision for Mr. Salls.
He preferred not to accept the promotion, but the Board of Directors
appealed to his sense of duty. After they told Salls how much
the school needed him, what choice did he have?
Now that he was the new
Headmaster, Mr. Salls reluctantly gave up teaching his beloved
German class. His loyalty to the continued progress of St.
John's was too strong to permit him to follow his heartfelt desire
to continue teaching. One has to respect him for the sacrifice
I was very upset to
discover that Mr. Salls would not return as my German teacher for my
Senior year. Although I liked Mrs. Anderson, my new German
teacher, a great deal, I really missed Mr. Salls.
Perhaps if he had returned for my Senior year,
things would have turned out differently, but as we will see, his
loss would lead to great hardship.
German, another one of Mr. Salls' favorite duties was helping students apply for
college. He was the person the seniors went to see for
advice on which university to attend.
Fortunately, Mr. Salls
decided to continue his role as the school's college
counselor for one more year until a replacement could be trained.
There were qualified German instructors to take his place, but no
one he trusted could replace him in the college counselor role.
In early September of my
Senior year, I received notice that it was my turn to meet with Mr.
Salls to discuss my college options.
As I entered his office,
I was greeted with "Guten morgen! Wie geht es ihnen, Herr
Archer?" (good morning, how are you?)
As always, I responded,
"Ich bin sehr gut, Herr Salls, danke." (I am very well, thank you)
I grinned. It was
good to hear his harsh, rasping voice again. This was the
first time I had spoken to Mr. Salls in my Senior year. I was
thrilled to be reunited with this man I admired so much.
I expected at least a
couple more pleasantries, but that was it. Typical Mr. Salls,
all business. I was disappointed that there was no further
recognition of the unspoken student-teacher bond that we had shared
for the past three years. However, if you knew Mr. Salls, then
you knew this was his way. Mr. Salls was not a man to chat.
With a shrug, I hid my disappointment and settled into my chair.
I had just realized how much I missed him.
I handed Mr.
Salls my worksheet. I had listed the schools I was
interested in and the various majors I was considering.
I was expected to write down a few notes on the kind of
college experience I wanted... small school, large school,
certain major, possible career ambitions, whatever.
I was tempted to
write "GIRLS", but thought the better of it. Instead I
put down "East Coast, West Coast, doesn't matter, but
nowhere near here."
As I hoped, Mr. Salls
smiled when he read that. I was tickled to see he appreciated
my sarcasm. I wondered if he had the slightest idea how crazy
my life was.
While Mr. Salls
studied my worksheet, I noticed his face was nearly as
rugged as mine. Of course I had noticed his craggy,
weather-beaten face before, but now I found myself staring
at his face intently.
I realized I had
never given his uneven face a second thought. I had always
considered Mr. Salls to be a handsome man. It occurred
to me it was his bearing and his sharp eyes that impressed
me so much. Who cared about his craggy face? If
anything, it gave him character. Then I hesitated.
No, what gave him 'character' was his brilliance.
I wondered about that
for a moment. Perhaps someday people would see my own
acne-scarred face and care less about my rugged features just I like
did with Mr. Salls.
It was the
person within that mattered most. I took that
realization to heart.
Now Mr. Salls looked up from my worksheet and I sprang to attention.
To be honest, I
wasn't expecting much.
I already had my
mind made up where I wanted to go. The only reason
I had looked forward to today's meeting was simply to see
Mr. Salls again.
Mr. Salls' basic
advice was to apply to at least three schools - your fondest
dream, your best match, and a school you were certain to get
into. A practical man, yes?
I had a
different strategy. Although my heart tugged at me to
go to beautiful Rice University here in Houston, a place
where my dog Terry and I had happily visited many times
during my youthful bicycle adventures, I was determined to
get out of town and escape my mother.
Since my strategy was to go as far west or as far east as
possible, I had chosen Pomona in California and
in Washington, DC.
Pomona was just
an afterthought. I had my heart set on Georgetown.
Georgetown was an impressive school built on bluffs
overlooking the Potomac River. Uncle Dick and Aunt
Lynn and their four children lived in McLean, Virginia, just
five miles away. I wanted so much to be near them.
The chance to become part of their family was absolutely
To me, today's meeting
was just a formality. My SAT scores had me placed in the upper
4% of college-bound students. I was determined to go to Georgetown and I had the grades to do
In fact, I had
been daydreaming about Georgetown when Mr. Salls interrupted
Mr. Salls began by
asking if he could make a suggestion. Why not consider
Surely he was kidding.
I had never heard of the school. I didn't even know where it
Mr. Salls handed
me a Hopkins brochure.
I took one look
at the picture on the brochure Mr. Salls handed me. Ho
hum. I was not impressed. Forget it.
said that Hopkins was on par academically with Rice University.
He added that Hopkins was just one notch below the Ivy Schools.
In his opinion, this school matched my academic
performance perfectly. He
added that Johns Hopkins was a perfect fit for my talents.
Those were his exact words.
I was baffled. Why
was he pushing this school? What was wrong with Georgetown?
Mr. Salls was
legendary for his role as the college admissions counselor.
I was told Mr. Salls was very good at this. Since I
knew Mr. Salls so well from German class, I certainly
believed the rumor. Mr. Salls was probably excellent
at anything he did.
But this time he
had me stumped. Why would he care about this place?
Or better yet, why did he think I would care?? This
place meant nothing to me.
However, it was in my
interest to play the game, so I lamely asked Mr. Salls where the
school was located.
I estimated Baltimore was about an hour, maybe an hour and a
half from Northern Virginia.
That was close enough to Lynn and Dick to at least
consider the place, but why bother? No way. Who
wants to go to school in Baltimore? I asked a couple more
questions and then came the killer.
When Mr. Salls mentioned
this was a
men's school, my mind screamed in protest. Oh, for heavens
sakes, c'mon now, Mr. Salls. You've got to be kidding.
school!?! No f...g way!
Due to my monastic
existence at St. John's, a men's school was out of the question.
Considering I had never had a single date in my life thanks to
my ravaged face, when I hit college, I had a lot of catching up to
do with the fair sex. I couldn't imagine how this Hopkins
school would be the right place to help me chase
I stared at him for a
moment. He stared right back.
It took all my will power not to simply shake my head 'no'
and be done with it.
So far, not one thing Mr. Salls had said made me even remotely
interested in this school. I couldn't care less if Hopkins
was a good match. Georgetown had an excellent academic
reputation the equivalent of Hopkins. And it had
Mr. Salls broke the
silence. "I highly recommend you apply to this school as
well as the other two."
I was very taken aback.
had just personally asked me to apply to this "Hopkins" place. Mr. Salls was a man I
respected tremendously. If Mr. Salls asked me to apply
there, then I would do so simply because he asked me to.
"Yes, sir, I will be
sure to apply to Johns Hopkins as well."
And that was the end of
the meeting. I had been in there all of ten minutes.
As I left his office,
inwardly I groaned. Not another college application fee!
I had paid the Pomona
and Georgetown application fees out of my own pocket. One was
$50 and the other was $75. With tips and salary, I made $2.50 an hour at
Weingarten's grocery store. If this Hopkins application fee was $75 like the last one,
it would take me another thirty hours of work to pay for it. I
groaned. Thirty hours!
Since I worked twenty
hours a week, Mr. Salls had just made me kiss away nearly two weeks of
work to apply to a school I had no intention of going to. What
a complete waste of money.
However, I had given Mr.
Salls my word. I would apply to Hopkins.