If “nice guys finish last,” as the Baseball Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher has been ascribed as saying, there’s no place I’d rather be than last because that’s where I’m sure to find my longtime friend, Steve Kohler. And if, Matthew 20:16 is correct that “the last shall be first, and the first last,” should you come looking for Steve on Judgement Day, I’ll surely be able to direct you to the front of the line. For although written in an entirely different context, truer words could not be used to describe Steve than Eddie Vedder’s declaration of “Can’t find a better man.”
I can humbly and with tremendous gratitude say that I have more very good friends than anyone deserves, but I have had only one brother-like friend in my life for a longer period of time than Steve. From the moment I met Steve – me a first-year teacher and he beginning his second at Sandusky Central Catholic – there was a connection.
Strangely enough, for as much as we have in common, we often find ourselves on opposite ends of various spectrums. Whereas Steve is a political conservative, I am proudly a left-leaning liberal. Whereas Steve is staunch in his Catholic orthodoxy, I tend to be a bit more of a Doubting Thomas. Whereas Steve is neat and orderly, I’m much more comfortable with chaos. Our friendship even overcame the fact that Steve is a diehard Buckeye while I am equally devoted to the Wolverines.
It may have originated from our similar upbringings as middle children in very large Catholic families filled mostly with boys, somewhat stern fathers, and saint-like mothers. It may have been our similar taste in music. It may have been our dry senses of humor. It may have been our shared belief that the National Anthem should be sung the way it was written, and as a side note, no one sings it better than Steve Kohler. Most likely, I believe, it was our mutual love and regular frustration with the Detroit Tigers. Whatever it was, we hit it off and spent the next two years sharing apartments, laughs, and mostly Steve’s groceries as I am an inveterate mooch. Steve never complained.
What we share most in common, however, is a love for our profession. I have had the honor to work with many outstanding teachers during my career, but I can attest with all honesty that Steve is the only one next to whom I feel inferior. Please excuse the lofty comparisons, but in my mind, I will forever be Lou Gehrig next to his Babe Ruth, John Oates next to his Daryl Hall, James Madison next to his Thomas Jefferson. And I’m cool with that.
A part of moving our family back to Sandusky was due to wanting our children to have the privilege of sitting in his classroom, where he teaches with erudition, humor, and an unmatched passion that inspires his students to think big thoughts, to recognize their responsibilities as citizens and their place in America’s long struggle towards a “more perfect union,” and, most importantly, to believe in themselves as someone who matters if only because Mr. Kohler cares about them enough to push them to be better scholars and people than they ever thought they could be. For that gift to my own children, I will be forever grateful and in debt. Countless are the stories my boys and their friends share of “that time when Mr. Kohler . . ..”
I like to think of my years at SMCC as a sort of Camelot. When I left twenty-six years ago, my biggest regret was having to leave behind the amazing people, both students and staff. Even then, I knew there was no one I would miss more than Steve. Trying to match his enthusiasm in the classroom, brilliant lectures, and the high standards he set for himself in general were a constant source of inspiration. I still rue the many years we have been apart as educators and still harbor a desire to one day serve on the same faculty once again and maybe even co-teach a course in American Studies.
I think it was on the night of my wedding rehearsal – a wedding in which Steve was one of my groomsmen and which he made sublime by his move-me-to-tears rendition of the “Our Father” – that for the first and only time I told Steve I loved him. Being the stoic that he is, it made him quite uncomfortable, but truer words had never been spoken, and I’m so glad I said them.
For all the great religious and lay men and women who have served the SMCC community over its one hundred year plus history, Mr. Kohler has earned a vaunted spot in its pantheon among such legends as Rev. Joseph Widman, Lee Zierolf, Chuck Lococo, Eloise Renwand, and Gary Kelley. For over thirty-eight years, Steve has served the SMCC and Sandusky community with rarely-matched displays of virtue, dedication, service, and excellence. I’m confident that should you ask any SMCC graduate from those past thirty-eight years who was their favorite and most influential teacher, the vast majority would, without hesitation, answer Mr. Kohler.
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