I invested in Liggett because it invested in me
By David Backhurst,
Over my 43 years teaching at University Liggett School, I have worked for 7 heads of school and for 12 division heads. It all started in 1972 when the head of school Ray Robbins took a chance on a rookie teacher fresh out of grad school, with no teaching experience, and gave me a job teaching 6th grade social studies and language arts in the Middle School. I especially enjoyed Proud Lake, the ski outings to Pine Knob and coaching the soccer and ice hockey teams.
It turned out to be a wonderful seven years working with people like Carol Johnson, Chris Reif, Jim Wright and Larry Griffin. In 1979 I moved to the upper school and became the history department chair for history (twice actually). There, the people I was closest to — Paul Butler, Mike Murphy, Chip MacKelcan, Fred Scott and Bob Wood — eventually would leave for other positions, leaving me as the Lone Ranger. But we’ve had a lot of excellent faculty at this school over the years; I’ve seen a lot of them come and go. Remarkably they were most often replaced with equally fine and talented people.
The school definitely molded and nurtured me. University Liggett School allowed me the opportunity to follow my own interests, my own passions, as a teacher. For example, in 1982 I was able to develop a senior elective on the Vietnam War, a subject I was very interested in and is still close to my heart. I taught the class to mostly highly receptive students for the next 25 years. In fact in 1993 one former student, Chris McCabe, sent me a postcard from Vietnam and encouraged me to visit. With summer grants and a Venture grant, I have now traveled there many times as well as other Southeast Asian countries to learn more about the different cultures and brought that knowledge back to the classroom. To this day, former students still remember vividly that class. I was also given the opportunity to develop my own classes such as the Presidency, Asian Studies, the Sixties and Urban Studies. The Urban Studies class included three field trips a semester around Detroit for the students to learn about the city’s past, its present and its future.
What I miss most are the students. Teaching the AP US History class around the Harkness table and having discussions with a class of whip-smart students kept me on top of my game and was a joy every year. I don’t think they have changed much over the years. We have had a lot of really good kids, highly motivated kids and there has been so much talent walking the halls. I believe they are better behaved now, with fewer significant disciplinary cases. What have changed significantly are the curriculum and the technology. In the 1970s and 1980s there was great school spirit. I remember huge crowds of students and parents and faculty cheering on the players at football games, at hockey games in McCann Rink and packing what’s now middle school gym for basketball games.
What I also enjoyed was seeing the kids apply their energies to their extracurricular activities, their games, their plays and their concerts and getting to know them beyond the classroom and watching them grow up over their four high school years.
Coaching soccer was certainly a big part of my University Liggett School experience. Amongst the 162 girls and 246 boys I have coached in the upper school, I was fortunate enough to have had a lot of talented, dedicated and motivated players. Certainly the state championships were highlights. Every so often my mind flashes back to those teams and how much fun that experience was. Whenever I hear Freddy Mercury and Queen belting out “We are the champions” or Whitney Houston singing “One moment in time” I think of those times. I also fondly remember the four trips with the boys’ teams to Europe in the 80s and 90s; the overnight trips with the boys and girls teams around Michigan, to play schools in places like Frankenmuth, Fenton, Saginaw, Cadillac, Petosky, Elk Rapids, Harbor Beach, and taking the girls’ team to Florida to train over spring break of 1995.
Very gratifying was watching my players, who as freshmen or sophomores with little playing time, grow and develop their skills, to become starters and make significant contributions to the team in their junior and senior years.
My students and players always kept me feeling young. Every day for 43 years I had a buzz in my stomach. I miss that feeling now. Of course I enjoy meeting up with old students at Alumni Weekend, and coaching the alumni soccer team in its annual game against the boys varsity soccer team. Also, I recently gave in and signed up for Facebook. I’ve been resisting it for years, but interestingly enough, in just the last few days I’ve connected with Jonah Smith, John Lesesne, Anthony Ayuyu, Matt Carstens, Bill Tettelbach, Jerry Steketee, Eva Dodds and Paula- Rose Stark. It’s kind of cool that way.
Since retiring I have stayed connected with the school, by coaching MS boys’ soccer and JV boys’ soccer and by being a bus driver for the school’s field trips and athletic events. For the past four years I have also led a tour of Detroit for alumni in May. I also have a weekly Meals on Wheels route operating out of the Helm.
In addition to reading a ton of books, mostly nonfiction, I have continued to travel annually to Southeast Asia, visiting in addition to Vietnam the countries of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and the island of Bali.
I’ll be honest, during my teaching years, we thought about leaving a few times, just for a change of scenery or a different part of the country. While on vacations, we’d stop and look at the local independent school or schools just to see what they were like. But we ultimately realized we were in a really good situation, so why take a chance on anything else? My two boys received a fantastic education, my wife held various jobs at Liggett through the years. We were part of the community. After retirement, I thought about looking for a place where I could teach AP history, or subbing, but I always thought I’d never be able to recreate the environment I had at Liggett. Anything else would pale. I had a big room overlooking graduation grove, with really sharp kids sitting around the table having great discussion. I could never recreate that.