RIP Robert E. Spaulding, Jr.

Mr Spaulding using his super-teacher power to Zot a querulous student. Note pocket protector, multiple calculators, box-like brief-case, and Dr. Pepper can
Photo by Steve Rainwater, ca 1979, Canon A1 w/Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Robert E. Spaulding, Jr. or “Mr. Spaulding”, as I knew him when he was my high school math teacher, died on July 16 at the age of 82. I’ve been out of touch with him since my high school days, which is sad because I never got the chance to tell him what an impact he had on my life. Every student has that one teacher who made a difference and for me that was Mr. Spaulding. I tried to locate him a few times over the years but in pre-Internet days it was a bit harder to track someone down.

I heard about his passing from another high school friend. There’s not much online in the way of an obituary and I’m not sure if he has any surviving relatives or descendants. As interesting, eccentric, and meaningful to my own life as he was, I’d hate for him to be forgotten, so here are a few memories of him.

I came from a very religious family and, after attending a public elementary school, ended up at a private religious school. That school was First Baptist Academy, operated by the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas. It was a conservative, evangelical church back then under W. A Criswell. In retrospect, he seems mild compared to the modern head of the church – the notorious Robert Jeffress, who is more of a right-wing political operative, Fox news personality, and wack-a-doodle Trump apologist than any sort of real religious figure. So I suspect I really didn’t have it too bad compared to current students.

There were good teachers and bad teachers in high school. Most that I remember were above average. One stood out immediately as unique: Mr Spaulding, a math teacher. He looked different with his pocket protector filled with more pens and pencils that he could possibly need. He always had several calculators on his person including in belt holsters. He carried a strange, boxy brief case with giant metal hinges that looked like it came from another century. He frequently had a can of Dr. Pepper nearby. Unlike the other teachers who used white chalk, he had boxes of colored chalk and used every color they contained.

And Mr. Spaulding didn’t just look different. He had all sorts of fascinatingly eccentric habits. For example, his multi-colored chalk board work, in addition to equations and graphs, frequently included doodles of a math teacher in a cape he referred to as “super teacher”.

Mr Spaulding doing his thing on multiple chalk boards
Photo by Steve Rainwater, ca 1979, Canon A1 w/Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

He sometimes complained about the temperature in his classroom and the official rules for the building’s thermostat. Air vents in that old, downtown Dallas building could not be throttled or closed. But he invented his own solution. When too much cold air was blowing in, he would begin inflating balloons one-by-one and stuffing them up into the large circular vent above his desk until the duct work was so full of balloons that no air came out.

When a student misbehaved, he didn’t yell, he would simple “Zot” the offending student. A zot consisted of a hand movement reminiscent of a Greek God preparing to emit a lightning bolt combined with him speaking the word “zot”. I think first-time students may have shut up and behaved simply because they were so confused by what had just happened. (side note: some quick googling suggests zot may have originated with the 1958 newspaper comic strip, B.C., in which it was the printed sound-effect accompanying a lighting bolt strike on one of the characters.)

When a student said “When will we ever use this in real life?”, he was good at finding examples that appealed to the student who asked. In answer to one student who asked the question, he used the student’s interest in all things military to propose a scenario in which said student is piloting a futuristic aircraft, carrying a nuclear bomb with which he has to destroy an enemy stronghold. If he fails, a counter-attack will destroy the western world. His plane has taken some hits, and he’s flying with no computers, just instruments. To get out alive he has to achieve a minimum safe distance from the nuke after dropping it. He needs to fly in low under the radar, pull up at the last minute, drop the bomb while accelerating straight up, and reach a safe altitude before the bomb arcs back towards the ground and detonates. With the computer down he has to do the math in his head.

Turns out saving the world depends on whether he paid attention in Mr. Spaulding’s class that day because the seemingly useless math he was teaching was exactly the math needed to solve the problem. I recall him spending almost the entire class setting up the example with his usual multi-colored diagrams. A lot of students were bored out of their minds that day but to the one who asked the question, it was the coolest thing ever and probably the first time he’d actually enjoyed a math class. As I watched the whole thing unfold, it was the first time I’d seen a teacher put that much into getting through to one student before.

On another occasion, when several jocks were not understanding the math, he re-oriented the curriculum on the spot, basing it around a new problem that involved the body weight and running speed of football players. There was a football game coming up that evening and he got them involved by asking them to give numbers for players on our school’s team and compared them to numbers they estimated for players on the opposing team. I doubt any of them became math majors but it was the only time I recall seeing them participate in a math class with any interest.

In my own case, I had developed a bad habit of doodling little space ships in the margins of test papers. A lot my teachers just ignored it but Mr. Spaulding alternated between one of two responses. I occasionally got my test back to find “-3 for space doodles” but more often, I’d get my test back to find little biplanes, drawn with a red grading pen, shooting at my space ships.

I was an avid reader of science fiction and almost always had a paperback book by Asimov or Bradbury with me in those years. Mr. Spaulding was a fan himself. I would occasionally sneak out of the sportsball pep rallies that students were supposed to attend, and sometimes ended up in Spaulding’s classroom talking about science fiction ideas or just sitting and reading.

Photographer unknown, ca 1978, from my FBA Student Yearbook

Then there were days when you’d come to Mr Spaulding’s class and find out he was not in the mood to teach any math that day. He was going to teach something but it wasn’t math. He had ideas on subjects ranging from politics to theology. He often illustrated a point by way of telling one of many stories about his days stationed on a top secret US nuclear missile launch site in South Korea. At the time, there was debate among the students as to whether those stories were real or completely made up. None of us had ever heard about nuclear missile launch sites in South Korea and it seemed far-fetched.

I only recall a couple of his Korean stories. One involved a big tough soldier who claimed the missile engineers were all wimps and spent most of his time lifting weights outside near the launch pads and talking about how he’d probably have to save them all if things got serious. One day they got a high level alert with launch codes and came with seconds of a launch. The engineers were all busy doing their thing while the tough guy sat by his weights crying for his mother because he thought they were all about to die.

Another story involved missile maintenance and I think may have been used to illustrate a math or physics point. He said they periodically had to pull the gyroscopes out of the missiles for testing and maintenance. The gyroscopes were able to briefly generate hundreds of pounds of force (from the description I’m guessing early CMG devices used for attitude control in the missles? Not sure what other gyroscopic component in an old missile could do something like this?). One of the missile engineers devised a portable power supply that would allow them to put the gyroscope assembly inside of a large suitcase. They added a hidden switch to handle. They then drove to a nearby hotel, got out of the car and carried the suitcase up to the bell boy at the door. As they set it down, they secretly activated the gyroscope, then asked the bell boy to carry it in for them. The suitcase now effectively weighed a couple of hundred pounds and the bewildered bell boy couldn’t lift it. They’d ask what was wrong, reaching down to pick it up themselves, turning off the switch, and lifting it easily.

Many years later I read there actually were secret US nuclear missile bases in South Korean during the cold war. So who knows?

Other times he talked about theology. He also taught one of the school’s Bible classes. The interesting thing about his theology is that he seemed to think you could read the bible and figure out what it meant on your own. And he wanted to apply reason and logic to it. If you asked him a religious question, he could tell you the doctrine of every denomination and sect on the subject and explain why he thought most of them were wrong. Unfortunately, this meant that the administration of the school, who seemed to prefer “official” First Baptist Church theology, frequently were at odds with Mr. Spaulding’s ideas. But to any rebellious high school kid, religious or not, that made hearing Mr. Spaulding way more interesting than the official answers the other teachers gave.

I was only just beginning to emerge from my shell of strictly controlled religious doctrines and was fascinated by the idea that you could figure this stuff out for yourself, and that you could apply logic and reason to religion just like you did everywhere else. If an idea didn’t stand up to reason, you didn’t abandon reason and “take it on faith”, you discarded the idea. I suspect I’ve discarded more of my religion than Mr. Spaulding anticipated but he was one of several crucial influences that set me on the path to thinking for myself.

Mr. Spaulding was a Ham radio operator, electronics hobbyist, and seemed to know a little about everything. I and some of my friends dabbled in electronics too and this gave us someone to go to for advice when we ran into problems with our projects. We also once solicited advice from him on a model rocketry problem. We were trying to determine what altitude our rockets were reaching. We thought we could solve this as a trigonometry problem because it seemed like the observer, the rocket at apogee, and the launch pad formed a triangle. We described the problem to Mr. Spaulding one day and ended up learning trigonometry a little ahead of schedule.

Mr. Spaulding’s hand-drawn Ham Radio call sign card (image courtesy of Debra Burns)

I visited Mr. Spaulding and his wife at their home a few times. (I have a photo of it because I had just gotten my first real camera and was taking photos of everything that year). He had an entire room devoted to all his hobbies and projects. Besides all the radio gear, there were scopes and other test equipment and a workbench full of electronic stuff. One of the few projects I remember is a pair of glasses he was developing for blind people that converted light into sound. You put on the glasses, inserted some earphones and as you “looked” around the room, you heard variable tones that formed a sort of sonic image of whatever was in front of you.

Mr. Spaulding’s house on Amherst Ave in Dallas
Photo by Steve Rainwater, ca 1978, Canon A1 w/Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Another project he worked on for years was an ion-propulsion space craft design. He had models of various sizes in his home and he occasionally drew diagrams for us on the board at school, talking about how it would work. On one visit to his home, he gave me one of the models that had been superceded by a newer design. Believe it or not, I still have that cardboard spaceship model in a closet and it’s still in remarkably good shape. The ship has two propulsion nacelles, each with a circular particle accelerator fore and aft (the bulges near the tips). The double aft accelerators would provide forward thrust and the single fore accelerator braking thrust to slow down without needing to turn the ship around.

One Mr. Spaulding’s models of his Ion Propulsion Spacecraft Design

All good things come to end though and Mr. Spaulding retired from teaching near the end of my high school days, I believe at the end of my junior year. We got the impression it wasn’t an entirely voluntary retirement. He liked teaching but his theological ideas and his use of a slightly different translation of the Bible from the one preferred by the administration were creating lots of conflict. Earlier that year he stopped teaching any Bible classes but continued teaching math and science. He seemed increasingly frustrated that last year and the last time we talked after class on the last day of the school year he drew a final piece of chalk board art. I had my camera with me and captured it. He said it represented First Baptist Church crushing super teacher under the boots of their orthodoxy. You can just make out the blue-caped, fictional educator beneath the boot.

Super teacher crushed under the authoritarian jackboots of First Baptist. Mr. Spaulding’s last chalk board drawing as a teacher at FBA.
Photo by Steve Rainwater, ca 1980, Canon A1 w/Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

I’m sure my memories barely scratch the surface. If you had Mr. Spaulding as a teacher and have any memories you’d like share, leave them in a comment below.

5 thoughts on “RIP Robert E. Spaulding, Jr.

  1. Sorry to hear of the passing of Mr. Spaulding. He was certainly a most unique teacher. I remember many things about his class as well, but not some of the things you told. We must have been in a different class with him.

    I did hear about his time in Korea. The story he told was when they would tear down and repair a missile so much that it became worn and loose. They would then shoot it over to the North side, on a low trajectory, and with so much play in the screws it would dramatically shift in position. He told us how his group would listen to the North Koreans trying to chase it down and shoot it but couldn’t. He thought that was so funny. It was just his type of humor.

    The apply math to real life was part of our instructions as well. One day he drew out a math equation of what to do when you are driving by a car that is on fire. He stated that when you are driving by slowly you increase your chance of getting caught in an explosion. And he put up the math equation for that. But if you increased your speed, the time you are in the blast zone is shorter and you are taking less of a chance being caught in a blast. And he wrote out the math equation for that as well. Sure enough, decades later, driving down a road, there was a car on this side of the road on fire. All the cars driving were, guess what, slowing down to look at it. I am thinking you fools, you are increasing your chance of being caught in the explosion. So as I drove by, I sped up.

    The one lesson I will never forget is his describing how the World Trade Centers were being built and just how amazing it was and what it meant. The twin towers were the first large skyscrapers built so that one day they could be imploded and replaced. The area below the ground was built in a huge tub shape. Many stories down nothing but open space between the shops. All of the elevators were built in the center and created a large open hole for every thing to fall into. And the walls and steel frame of the building were built in such a way that when they fell, cables were in place to pull the building down into the elevator shaft. And the tub was big enough to hold all of the building material. That way, it was safe to bring the building down and not damage any other buildings around it.

    When 9/11 happened and the twin towers fell. They fell exactly how Mr. Spaulding said they would. In upon itself and into the tub. As he was telling us this, he was drawing the diagrams of the building on the chalk board.

    The chalk boards were all around the room. When you walked into the room, you could put one hand on one side of the door and touch a chalk board and the other hand on the other side of the door and touch a chalkboard and the everything in between were chalkboards.

    As each year would wind down, Mr. Spaulding would start on one side of the chalkboard and do a year in review in cartoon fashion. And on the last day, he would fill in the last space and all four walls were just one long story line.

    Mr. Spaulding told us he could substitute for any class if they needed him to. He was most likely the only teacher that could do that.

    I did have the chance to talk briefly to him before we had our 25th class reunion. He was unable to attend because he was in such pain. I believe he had polio and was able to exercise so much he was in great shape and able to keep the muscle problems at bay. But as he grew older it caught up to him and he was limited in movement.

    He did tell my mom that he believed out of all the schools he taught, he had never taught such a group as he had the honor of teaching at FBA.

    On the personal note Mr. Spaulding was one of my two letters of recommendation in getting into SMU. He went to SMU and I think his family was involved some way as well. His letter seem to have helped. I got in.

    I believe we were very lucky in our time at FBA. We had a great group of teachers that we most certainly would not have gotten anywhere else or very few other places. Mr. Spaulding, Mr. Hanshaw, Mrs. Harbaugh, Mrs. Sibley, Mrs. Warren, the list goes on and on.

    What I remember was just how liberal many of the teachers were. One was a card carrying member of the communist party. Mr. Hanshaw could not go a day without bragging about how Jimmy Carter was the best thing in the world. What I got out of all of it was not being taught what to think but just being taught how to think. We could find our own way ourselves. So in that regard I went the different path and take my beliefs more seriously now. Which is a testament to the teachers. Agree or disagree, we all got to were we are because we took that path on our own. Not at the call of others. And that is how all the teachers taught us.

    Mr. Spaulding will be missed and his way of things will be missed. As will all the others that had such an influence in our lives, in so many ways we will never fully understand. But to take time and remember them is a great way to start.

  2. P.S. Mr. Spaulding was the only teacher that I knew that had his book completely memorized. When you asked him a question, he would close his eyes and say, that answer is on x page, in y position of that page.

    that was impressive on it’s own.

  3. Remarkable teacher and remarkable man. I had him for Bible class and Geometry. I failed Geometry but he gave me a B for my efforts. In Bible class we studied all of the major Protestant religions in the US, what they believe and why. I use that knowledge frequently, even today. I never knew he was at odds with the First Baptist leadership. I thought he was wonderful.

  4. I’m going to try and hope to write my own memories of my teacher, Mr. Spaulding, my friend, Ed, to add in these comments.

    Steve, I have read your piece several times. I am very grateful to you for memorializing, even if only in a small way, the unsung life of this remarkable human being. I think one of the most remarkable things about him is that he genuinely cared about the people that had been placed in his Path—and that he continued in his love for God in spite of many serious sorrows, suffering and disappointments in life. Now that I think of it, having just his birth and death date for his officiating obituary is probably just as Ed would have wanted it: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither…”

    To remember is to ‘re-member’, to put together, again, that which time and circumstance has torn apart. Thank you for re-membering a part of the life of Ed Spaulding and his impact on his fellow human beings in the world. May God make His memory to be eternal!

  5. Mr Spaulding was one of the best teachers I ever had. He taught me the importance of note taking in chemistry class. I always remember him as the smartest person in the school. I tell the students I have about him and many of them would liked to have him as their teacher.
    He is one of my role models so in some way he is still with us and still teaching.
    R.I.P. to a great man

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *