Throughout its history of nearly a century, the Bexley community has celebrated and been celebrated for – its outstanding public schools. Many are the citizens who have contributed to the vaunted stature of the Bexley schools, but none is more deserving of remembrance by a grateful community than Howard Claude Dieterich.
He was born in 1877 at Piketon, Ohio, a hamlet on the bank of the Scioto River some sixty miles due south of Columbus. An impetus to public service would seem to have been inborn. Of three brothers, one was a lifelong educator in Piqua; one became superintendent of the Canton District of the Methodist Church, and one served as superintendent of Ohio public schools.
H.C. Dieterich earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The Ohio State University, then pursued further study at Teachers’ College of Columbia University in New York. After serving 16 years in school administration at Ashtabula, Ohio, he was appointed superintendent of schools in Bexley. Retired in 1942, he died two years later at his home on Plymouth Avenue in Bexley. His tenure is recalled with respect and appreciation by more than a generation of Bexley students.
A hands-on administrator, his custom was to make a regular circuit of all the classrooms in his charge at least once each semester. My childhood recollection is that his visit would be announced by our teachers several days in advance, usually in sepulchral tones as would befit the heralding of a Supreme Court justice or an Episcopal bishop. “Mr. Dieterich will pay us a visit!” This was our cue to show up on the appointed day with smiling faces, hair neatly combed, and shoes shined.
Mr. Dieterich appeared to us children as an elderly man of medium height and build. He had a full head of iron-gray hair, short cut and parted in the middle, a tonsorial style favored by men of the day. His eyebrows were bushy and gray; his eyes were gray, too. His facial features were craggy, more those of a farmer than a schoolmaster. He smiled a good deal, with both mouth and eyes; I do not recall he audibly laughed. Invariably, he was attired in a gray suit of tweedy texture, his jacket double-breasted and always buttoned. (Likely he had more than one suit of clothes; if so, they were all cut from the same cloth and tailored from the same pattern.)
His appearance in the classroom was greeted with obeisance by pupils and teachers alike. His demeanor was that of a dignified, somewhat remote grandfather. A somewhat disturbing feature, when first one listened, was his voice. It rasped. He spoke in what sounded like a hoarse whisper.
The purpose of his visits, often lasting only a few minutes, was to inspect each classroom, its contents and its occupants, but then his invariable custom, before he withdrew, was to impart a few words of wisdom and share a bon mot, perhaps even a mild jest.
Two examples are etched in my memory. Once he asked, “Can you think of a word in which all the vowels occur in their usual sequence?” Of course, no one knew the answer; likely not even the teacher. Then he slowly wrote on the blackboard “facetious” – neither I nor my classmates had ever heard or seen the word, which he then defined with a satisfied smile. He had added a new word to our vocabulary.
On another occasion he said he wished to share with us what, to him, was a sublimely beautiful line of poetry: “Night’s candles are put out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain top.” He informed us the author was William Shakespeare, and the line limned the dawn of a new day. I remember thinking at the time, as Mr. Dieterich evidently did, that was a memorable word-picture.
My classmate, Fred Bernlohr offers another recollection: “In our junior year of high school, I attended a bingo party, an event sponsored by the PTA – despite Mr. Dieterich’s stern disapproval. I purchased a couple of cards for 50 cents and managed to complete a column under “N” before anyone else. I won five dollars, my only gain in a short-lived gambling career. My elation could have led to an addiction. But the next day, Mr. Dieterich called me into his office and lectured me for ten minutes on the evils of gambling, pointing out that such an affair would never be tolerated in the Bexley schools as long as he was superintendent. Luckily, he did not ask me to forfeit the prize or exact any further punishment for participating in the unsanctioned event.”
Junius Hoffman, another classmate, tells of a chance encounter with Mr. Dieterich in a corridor of the high school. The superintendent inquired of his plans for college. Junius allowed he was in a quandary. Being late in the year, he feared he might be left stranded. Mr. Dieterich suggested, “How about Dartmouth?” That said, the superintendent ushered Junius into his office, picked up the telephone, and put in a long-distance call to Hanover, New Hampshire. After a brief conversation with the director of admissions, Mr. Dieterich turned to Junius and announced, “You’re in.” An amazed Junius went off to Dartmouth.
I’d like to think that Mr. Dieterich, were he to somehow know of this memoir, might be pleased I would not expect an effusive reaction – just a quiet smile.
by William S. Haubrich, MD
Bexley High School, Class of 1940
Originally published in Historical Herald, November 2001
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Author’s Note: Acknowledgement is due my classmate Donald Yackle who contributed to this piece by ferreting out obituaries of H.C. Dieterich from Columbus newspapers of 8 July, 1944.