Q: Where did you grow up?
A: My father was on the staff of the University of New Hampshire. I grew up on on a small farm just outside it. Both parents were college-educated. My mother had taught Latin. I was going to be a farmer. I wanted to raise apples and small fruits and vegetables and own a farm some place in northern New England. But then the Second World War caught up with me.
Q: How did you come to be a C.O.?
A: My parents were both active in the local Congregational church. A new minister came to the church who had become a pacifist while servings a chaplain in the Navy and like most newly converted, he was very ardent. In the late '30s he had a very strong influence on me. I went through my freshman and sophomore years feeling my way. I had to be in ROTC. I remember my second year became almost unbearable for me and probably helped push me in the direction. I was drafted my junior year.
Q: I remember the patriotism and the fervor of World War II. You must have been a pretty unpopular guy in New Hampshire.
A: It certainly didn't make me popular with some of my friends and acquaintances. But Durham was a very tolerant town. If it had been other than a university town, I probably would have encountered a lot more animosity and hostility. I remember a girl I very much liked who ridiculed my pacifism. I found that disturbing.
Q: Was your family supportive?
A: Yes. My father had been in the Marines in World War I. I remember once being home on leave from CPS -- Civilian Public Service camp -- and walking along the street with m father and he said, "You know son, I think it took a lot more courage for you to be a conscientious objector than it did for me to be a Marine in the First World War."
Q: So what did you do?
A: I spent about six months in Oregon building roads in mountains for forest-fire protection. And spent some time fighting forest fires. The remaining six months I was in Wooster, Ohio, working at the Agricultural Experiment Station.
Q: How were you received in the community?
A: The only community where I had much contact with people was in Ohio. Out in Oregon we were back in the woods about 15 miles and I had absolutely no contact with anyone. Except for one farmer who wanted me to split some fence for him. It was a way of earning a little bit more money, 'cause we got paid only two dollars and half a month.
Q: How long was the tour?
A: It would have been for the duration of the war except that I got polio while I was in Ohio and they immediately discharged me. Didn't want to have anything more to do with me. 1944 -- when I got polio -- was one of those big epidemic years. I remember how much fear there was then.
Q: Do you think that changed what you did with your life?
A: Enormously. First, it made it impossible for me to realize my ambition to be an apple farmer. It's pretty hard to pick apples from a wheelchair. I decided -- partly under the influence of the guys that I was with in CPS, all of whom were going to go into education -- that I would be a teacher.
Q: How old were you when you got polio?
A: Twenty-two. After 16 months in the hospital I received physical therapy for about three years.
Q: You were in an iron lung?
A: For about a month. I lost completely the use of my legs and I don't really have much muscle except in my shoulders and arms. My abdominal and back muscles were affected.
Q: So during your recuperative period in New Hampshire you went back to school?
A: Yes. During my senior year I decided to take a couple of history courses with two professors whom I knew. Within six weeks I decided I wanted to teach history, not biology. One of those history teachers, a pacifist (and) a minister, taught intellectual history of western civilization. The other was a Marxist and I took European history with him.
Q: You are the combination.
A: Yes. In 1949 I was just about to start my student teaching and was looking around for a job for the following fall when one of the Quaker schools to which I wrote said that they had an opening. I had a professor who said, "You're going to have a hard time getting a job because of your handicap and you ought to take this."
I'd written to California looking for jobs and one of the people I wrote to said, "I don't think there's a ghost of chance that you're going to get a job at any public school in California. I have a friend who's much less seriously handicapped than you are and there isn't a school system in the state that will touch him." The discrimination against the disabled was really horrible.
It's rather strange because there were so many GIs coming back. I don't think that even a war hero in a wheelchair could have gotten a job in a school district of California at that time. It was just a general feeling that handicapped people were not capable of holding a job such as teaching -- and a lot of other jobs.
Q: So you took the job at the Quaker school?
A: Yes, Sidwell Friends, in the District of Columbia. The 71/2 years I spent there were very happy. Frank Barger was one of the most wonderful principals any school could have. A great big guy who'd played lacrosse in college. He'd say at faculty meetings, "Look, so far as I'm concerned with parents you are always right. So for God's sake will you please be right at least 50 percent of the time."
Almost from the time that I had set foot in the door at Sidwell Friends I had made it clear that I was very disturbed that Sidwell did not admit blacks. And some of the parents were disturbed -- this was the early McCarthy period -- that I was a communist and a subversive and a dangerous person to have on the faculty.
Frank told me a story about how he was invited to the home of two quite well-known public figures -- whose children attended the Sidwell Friends school -- for dinner. He'd no sooner set his foot inside the door than they started to talk about this communist teacher that he had on the faculty. Frank said, "I thought I'd been invited here for dinner as a social occasion. If you have some complaint about any teacher in my school please call my secretary and make an appointment to come in and see me. Please hand me my hat and coat." And he left.
Q: Are you now, or have you ever been . . . ?
A: No, my Marxism has mellowed out. It's sort of benign, certainly influenced by the Christian upbringing that I had, though I'm no longer at all religious. But that's still a very strong part of my heritage.
Q: So you never were at Sidwell when blacks enrolled.
A: I left in the spring of 1956, and they admitted their first blacks for the fall semester of 1956.
Q: Why did you leave?
A: I wanted to swim in a larger pond. I wanted to try public schools. So I came to Montgomery County. In the fall of 1956 I began teaching at Kensington Junior High. I came to Walt Whitman High School one year after it had opened.
Whitman from the beginning was kind of a special school. One teacher, Ruth von Doenhoff, was a strict disciplinarian. Her kids sat in alphabetical order. They spoke in deference to her in turn after being recognized. The only-out-of character thing I remember was a Redskins banner on the wall behind her. She took the kids to Russia over the spring break. I had spent some time in her classroom (as a reporter) and the next classroom I went to was yours and I thought Wow! What a shock. Here's this bearded guy in a wheelchair sitting in front of a ceiling-to-floor Mao poster. The kids are all sitting around in their stockinged feet, their shoes are over in a corner and they're drinking herbal tea. And calling you by your first name. Apparently there is more than one way to teach.
That reflects something of the strength of the school that there was room in that school for two teachers as diverse as Ruth von Doenhoff and I. I had lots of kids who survived both experiences.
Q: Did this very open casual teaching style just evolve?
A: One of the things that influenced my teaching was my own elementary school experience. I had a teacher who was just the dread of my existence. She was strict, unsympathetic, kept me in at recess because I couldn't learn fractions. Very strait-laced. She was the model of an old-fashioned disciplinarian. And I detested school.
I felt school ought to be a place that kids liked. At Sidwell Friends I felt sympathetic to the Irish kid who heaved a piece of chalk or a spitball in my class. I understood what it was like to want to throw a spitball myself in school and rarely had the courage to actually do it. I wanted my classroom to be a place where students would be comfortable, where they would not feel threatened and where there would be freedom to learn and at least reasonable boundaries to their behavior. I have had individual students who had a hard time dealing with that. But students like that more relaxed kind of environment for the most part.
Q: Have you noticed a change in the kids (from) 10 years ago?
A: Very much so. There's much less challenging of the status quo. Students back in those days used to ask why do we have to learn this? They wanted to know why it was important. I haven't been asked that question in several years now. Students seem much more willing to accept authority. So I felt mucless challenged in these last few years. I didn't feel pushed by kids to be doing things differently, to offer new courses, to change what I was teaching, the way I was 10 years ago.
Q: We were talking about this one student who had gone into archeology as a direct result of your inspiration. How did you get into teaching archeology?
A: Two students from Walt Whitman were involved in the Thunderbird site down near Front Royal, Va.
Q: Which is an established archeological dig?
A: Yes. Operated by Catholic University. They have a summer institute for high school students and they came back so enthusiastic that they felt we ought to have an archeology course at Walt Whitman High School. They came to me to try to gain my support. I thought it was a great idea. And that became an established part of the curriculum.
Q: I remember kids saying this guy teaches seven days a week and on weekends we load up his staionwagon, take packed lunches and went off someplace?
A: One of the students in my first class had grandparents who owned a farm in Anne Arundel County on which there had been an Indian village. They invited us down to excavate under the direction of the state archeologist. We spent the next two years excavating the pottery and projectile points and other artifacts.
Q: You brought them back and examined them in the classroom?
A: We laid out squares with a magic marker -- two meter squares on the classroom floor -- and would take the cracked stone and tools and pottery and lay them out in precisely the fashion in which we had found them in order to figure out what life was like three or four thousand years ago in Anne Arundel County.
Q: You seemed to always be digging and planting in front of the school there.
A: That was with a modern- world-history class I had.
Q: Of course, all modern-history classes plant trees.
A: The modern-world-history course has a secton on the Far East and I decided to study Chinese history. At that time it was Maoist China, and part of the program included doing calisthenics and reading Mao's Little Red Book. All students in China in those days had to do creative manual labor and so we cast around for some manual labor projects that might be useful for the school and hit upon planting some flower beds in areas where they wouldn't get trampled. So once a week we would spend the last period in manual labor, planting trees or pulling weeds.
Q: When you were doing all these offbeat things, did you ever get complaints from parents? Did the school administration say, "Richard, come on, let's come back a little bit?"
A: That's one of the remarkable things about the Walt Whitman community. I never got any complaints from parents. One summer, the National Enquirer ran a stories about me and I did get some national correspondence. One woman said I ought to get in my wheelchair and get pushed to China and stay. Most students looked upon it as kind of an adventure and realized that I wasn't trying to indoctrinate them or push anything onto them. That it was more of an intellectual game.
Q: Do you hear from a lot of your former students?
A: I hear from lots. They drop by the house, drop by the school, and write me letters about what they're doing and what kind of experiences, happy and unhappy, they're having. There have been so many students like that who have been my friends. That's one of the greatest rewards any person can have.
Q: Now you're retired?
A: Yes. I've been teaching for 36 years. Joyce and I already have a small orchard and a vineyard.
Q: You told me that guys in wheelchairs couldn't be farmers.
A: Modern technology has changed that. We have just bought a tractor that has a hydrostatic transmission. It's just like an automatic clutch in an automobile, so it's going to be possible for me to drive a tractor with hand controls. I'll be able to run a small farm and use the tractor and other mechanical equipment.
Q: And as that tractor goes along plowing up the land you're going to be watching for artifacts?
A: Yes, in fact we understand that there was once a one-room school located on the property. Maybe we'll do a little bit of digging down there for chalk and some of the artifacts that schoolchildren 50 or 100 years left behind.