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How this Fort Worth educator kept teaching long after he retired in 1998

Teacher Tom Strother in his classroom at Western Hills High School in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early 1970s. Strother died May 28, 2019.
Teacher Tom Strother in his classroom at Western Hills High School in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early 1970s. Strother died May 28, 2019. Courtesy of Jane George

The best teachers never stop teaching.

Fort Worth lost just such an educator last week, a lifelong resident whose students continued to learn from him long after they left his classroom.

Tom Strother taught history, government and economics at Western Hills High School for its first 28 years. He died May 28 at age 75.

Last week, hundreds of his former students shared tributes and memories on Facebook. The social media service is the source of much rancor, but for those of us who knew Mr. Strother (how could I call him anything else?), he made it better. Deep into his retirement he used it to spread lessons on his passions, including history, government, books, rock music and baseball — and on life itself.

Students who might have had him as a teacher for just a semester or two “appreciated that he continued to teach them and they got those extra years with him,” his sister, Jane George, recalled last week.

Mr. Strother grew up in Fort Worth and Sherman, becoming part of the first graduating class at Eastern Hills High School. His sister, 17 years younger, said he would pay her a quarter — big money at the time — to do dangerous stunts on her bicycle.

“He had a lot of mischief in him, but he hid it pretty well,” George said.

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at what were then called Arlington State College and North Texas State University, Mr. Strother was drafted into the Army. He was out of the combat raging in Vietnam but still close to danger near the Korean demilitarized zone. His sister recalled that he and his fellows called their camp “the Velvet Foxhole.”

He was witty and fun-loving, as well as passionate about the subjects he taught. My senior year, he noticed my sudden fervent interest in politics and signed my yearbook with a line that’s been burned into my memory since: “I’m sorry you never got to vote for Reagan.”

Mr. Strother was devoted to Western Hills, staying there his entire career. It was where he met his wife, Betsy, in 1986. He loved to recall how a fellow faculty member had pushed him to ask her out. Long after both retired, they volunteered at the school.

He retired in 1998, four years after I graduated. At the request of my high school journalism teacher, I wrote a tribute for the student newspaper. I don’t recall much of what I said, except that he really seemed to understand what made teenagers tick.

In a beautiful thank-you letter that I’ve kept for more than 20 years, he wrote that he had always remained partly a teenager himself. And, naturally, he reached for a rock lyric — from Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” — saying he always tried to remember that his students were “working on mysteries without any clues.”

When I accepted this job, Mr. Strother’s reaction was one I eagerly anticipated. I knew he’d be glad I was in a post where I could serve Fort Worth and Texas, the city and state he so loved. And I expected he’d have some good advice — probably wrapped in a pithy comment about something that he wished the paper would do more of. But by then, he was very ill.

A friend, noting Mr. Strother’s varied interests and devotion to his wife, called his a life well lived. A good measure of that is the number of people you’ve touched along the way. And as so many fond tributes have made clear, Tom Strother taught us that final lesson pretty well.

Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.
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