For most of the past decade, John Mathwin's students wondered if their year was the year.
All of them wanted to know if their year would mark the end of Mathwin's legendary tenure as a Montgomery Blair High School teacher and adviser of the award-winning school newspaper, Silver Chips.
This spring, the speculation ended when Mathwin announced he was going to retire at the end of the school year, bringing to a close 35 years at Blair, 27 of them as the newspaper's adviser.
"There's going to be a huge hole in my life without Chips," said Mathwin, 60.
Anyone who knows Mathwin insists he is more than just a teacher. He was a patriarchal figure to thousands of student journalists and, some would say, the entire Blair community, which avidly read the newspaper. When he first took over Silver Chips, Mathwin said, he was an English teacher with no newspaper experience.
"I knew what a good sentence was, that was it," he said jokingly.
Over the years he has left an indelible mark. Silver Chips has been recognized repeatedly as one of the top high school newspapers in the country. Mathwin was honored in 1999 by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund as one of nation's best newspaper advisers. Children's National Medical Center named an award after him in its annual Student Journalists' Health Writing Contest, in recognition of Chips's annual sweep of the competition.
On May 23, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) paid tribute to Mathwin before Congress in honor of his retirement.
Colleagues, along with current and former students, also feted Mathwin before the end of the school year.
"The place was just filled with graduates from college, kids coming from out of town, adults just coming back because of what this guy meant to them," said Phillip Gainous, principal at Blair.
Gregory Lyons, 42, graduated from Blair in 1981 and served as editor in chief of Silver Chips his senior year. He hadn't visited Mathwin for at least 17 years, he said, and was surprised that his former teacher recognized him when he attended the retirement party.
"I was very impressed by the fact that he looked at me and focused on me and said, 'Early '80s . . . editor in chief . . . Greg!' " said Lyons, an attorney in Washington. "It was amazing. . . . It's one thing to remember your teacher; it's another thing to remember your students from that long ago."
Even more impressive, Lyons added, is Mathwin's ability to span not just different decades but entirely different technological eras as adviser to Silver Chips.
"Looking at Chips when I was there, I was flying the 'Kitty Hawk,' and they're flying Boeing 777s," Lyons said. "That's the real difference. When I look at the technology that they have and the depth . . . it's impressive to me that he's been able to fly both planes."
A few years ago, Silver Chips started an online operation that is recognized as one of the best student newspaper Web sites in the country. It publishes a print version of the paper seven times a year.
Indeed, when Mathwin's name comes up, superlatives soon follow.
"Legend," said Sherri Geng, 18, who graduated from Blair on June 2 and served as co-editor of Silver Chips for the 2004-05 school year.
There is a sense of distinction to being a part of the graduating class during Mathwin's last year as the Chips adviser, she said. "It's more than anything, a sense of pride to go out on top the way that he has," Geng said. "I feel really fortunate to work with him."
The feeling, Mathwin said, is mutual. He described his last few years at Blair as the best he's had as Chips's sponsor. "I'm really glad I stuck around," he said. "It's been so much fun working with these kids."
Mathwin said he's looking forward to spending more time with his parents, who live in Northern Virginia, and his five grandchildren.
Blair administrators have done what they could to delay Mathwin's departure.
"We had been squeezing this thing. . . . We had been begging and pleading to get him to do another year," Gainous said. "Finally he said, 'This one is the last one,' and we couldn't beg another year out of him. I guess we rode that horse as long as we could and didn't want to give up on it."
For the past two years, teacher Maureen Freeman has been working with Mathwin in preparation for taking over as the Silver Chips adviser.
Mathwin said his decision to retire was solidified when he realized that Freeman was more than ready to take over.
"He is a true maestro," Freeman said.
So, with Mathwin's retirement comes the end of an era. Among other things, students will miss his production day competitions. On late nights, as the paper was put together, Mathwin would call for wall-sitting contests, in which students would see who could press their backs against the wall in a sitting position for the longest period of time. Then, there were the races up the three-story stairwells at Blair and plenty of Mathwin's favorite newsroom snack: soy nuts.
"He's just a neat guy," Gainous said. "He is an institution."