By Bill Henk – Somehow it’s only fitting that I use words to honor Harry Graff. He was an extraordinary English teacher after all. But he was so VERY much more.
During my senior year in high school, I had the privilege of experiencing one of Mr. Graff’s classes. You’ll notice that I didn’t say “being in” or “sitting in” his class, because that’s not what students did there. His classroom was vibrant and fun, and learning occurred so naturally and joyously that we almost failed to notice. It didn’t feel like work at all. We were fully engaged academically, socially. and emotionally.
Now, as I write this tribute, I realize that my words can’t hope to do justice to the inspiration Mr. Graff provided — to me, my classmates, and thousands of other lucky students over the course of his 36-year career. Nearly all of us were low-middle class, blue-collar kids growing up in three of the less idyllic suburbs of Pittsburgh.
Those of us who aspired to college would usually be the first in our families, and we could tell he enjoyed teaching and encouraging us. Some of the students who didn’t have those dreams, though, were pretty tough kids, and many ended up in Mr. Graff’s classes, too. Other students were afraid of them (and probably some of the teachers, too), but he wasn’t — or at least he never showed it. We called these kids “hoods” back then, and they intimidated pretty much everyone.
But they never “jerked” Mr. Graff around. And believe me they could have.
He was one of the few teachers spared their chronic misbehavior. The others who escaped were big, brawny, gruff, Cro-Magnon men — the no-nonsense type with a powerful teaching presence. They could put the fear of God in you with one look. You didn’t learn much in those classes; you just behaved. But that’s not how Mr. Graff kept his challenging students in line.
Instead he somehow managed to strip away the harsh veneers of the hoods with love, respect, and kindness. Nothing more. The sheer force of his humanity overpowered them. When they realized how much he genuinely cared, they cared about him right back. And he also kept seniors like me, who were quite full of themselves, on track, under control, and feeling cherished.
You know, I looked forward to that class EVERY single day. It didn’t matter what we were studying. I would have endured almost anything to be there learning from him – God awful grammar, crusty old literature, and mystifying poetry. He made sure even that off-putting stuff came alive within his four walls.
I’ll conclude below with the words I’d use to describe Mr. Graff in a wordle or word cloud if you will. He’d like that. And it’s probably better than my clumsy writing up to this point. But before I do, let me share the story of the last time I saw him, because it’s telling.
One Last Time
More than 30 years after graduating, in 2001, I visited my old high school. I went there to see my sister, who worked in the business office at that time. Mr. Graff’s name came up, and she asked if I wanted to see him. She told me it would be his last year of teaching. For some reason, I hesitated, maybe fearing that the magic would be gone, but thankfully I got over that concern and decided to go. It occurred to me that due to time and distance I might never see him again if I didn’t.
On the way, I imagined the look of surprise on his face when I revealed my identity. That’s because I had grown more than six inches and put on more than 50 pounds in the time since I graduated. And I’m almost certain he didn’t know my sister and I were related, because she had a different married name.
Anyway, after we reached the second floor, she knocked on his door, and he emerged, clearly looking older, but with the same loving smile on his face that I remembered so well. “I have someone I want you to meet,” my sister said.
Before another second passed, he blurted out, “Billy Henk, class of 1970, sixth period, second row, fifth seat.” And then he started naming all of the other kids in the class, where they sat, and the highlights of that year.
His remarks stunned me, especially when I realized that he was exactly right. Talk about a priceless moment. We chatted pleasantly for a short while, and he seemed very proud that I had gone on to become an English teacher and later a college professor. He needed to get back to his class, though, so we wished each other well and parted ways.
A Consummate Teacher
Afterwards I wondered how in the world Mr. Graff could have remembered so much. It should have been obvious.
He had never approached teaching as a job. At a minimum he treated it as a profession. But it was much more to him — it was a labor of love, his very identity, his calling.
At Marquette, we train teachers to “Be The Difference.” That was Mr. Graff’s lived experience.
The multitude of students he had touched over the years were the fabric of his life, and he would leave all of them, including me — a veteran educator in my own right — thoroughly transformed and with the fondest of school memories. I’ll bet every one of us would describe him similarly to the way I’ve done just above on the right.
Harry Graff was an extraordinary human being after all.