Crazy Mr. Russ: The Gym Teacher Who Changed My Life
It’s “Teacher Appreciation Week” – an annual observance designed to acknowledge the more than four million instructors who shape and nurture the next generation.
We all have our favorite teachers, I’m sure. Maybe it was what they said to us or how they said it. Or it could have been the season of our life – i.e., “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
I’ve been blessed with many great instructors, but none who have had a longer-lasting and more profound impact on me than Russ Josephs – a.k.a. “Mr. Russ.”
Mr. Russ was my elementary and middle school gym teacher. He left for one year in the middle of that timespan to work on a master’s degree at the University of South Carolina, but came back for grades 6, 7 and 8.
The return from that hiatus will give you a flavor of his eccentric spirit.
Our school was on Long Island in the town of Baldwin, so lots of thick New York accents were all around me. Of course, we didn’t realize it at the time. That’s just how people talked. But Mr. Russ returned with an intensely thick drawl, almost as if he were straight out of a Civil War saga.
We were shocked, mesmerized, and amused. He carried on the charade for months before finally admitting it was a joke.
Mr. Russ was different than all the other teachers in our Catholic parochial school of St. Christopher’s. Some of the years he was the only male teacher, but he stood out for other reasons. He drove a Ford Pinto with a sign in the back window that read, “Warning! Exploding Gas Tank!” – a reference to a design flaw of the vehicle. There was a hobby horse bolted to the roof and the floorboards were rotted out. At red lights you could see him tapping his foot on the road to the beat of the music.
He was a happy man. You could hear him whistling outside the school windows. As he got to know where children in the school lived in town, he would often honk his horn in a distinctive pattern when he passed your house. There were plenty of nights we were eating dinner when the sound of his horn filled the air. “There goes Mr. Russ!” we would say in unison.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but that simple gesture communicated to us that he cared about his students. He would take groups of us to Mets and Yankee games. We paid our own way, but he would downplay the gesture telling our parents, “The back seat goes along with the front.” In other words, he said he was going to the game anyway and was happy to take kids along.
Gym class is often considered an ancillary elective, but Mr. Russ taught us more than basketball, floor hockey or how to climb the ropes and navigate an obstacle course. He taught us about lifelong fitness and the importance of taking good care of our health.
But it wasn’t just our physical health – he also contributed to my spiritual health in a profound way.
As part of an elective, Mr. Russ took us on runs. He was a marathoner, who began running before it was in style. He said friends of his parents would wave him down and offer him a ride home. They couldn’t fathom why anyone would run just for the sake of running. He seemed to run everywhere and in all kinds of weather. Long before climate-controlled gear, come winter, he ran in long underwear.
Mr. Russ used many of those runs to talk about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He wasn’t preachy, sanctimonious, or self-righteous. But he shared with us how the Lord changed his life. We wanted the peace and security he possessed and enjoyed.
Running became my hobby in high school, college and beyond. Russ and I also became good friends. He attended my baptism. We ran marathons together. He and his family have stayed with us in Colorado, and a few summers ago, he took our boys tubing on the lake at their summer cottage in Maine. They adore “Uncle Russ” as much as I did when I was their age.
If you have an opportunity, you might want to consider reaching out to some of the teachers who have meant the most to you.
It’s been 45 years since I first sat in my “squad” in Mr. Russ’ gym class. I never could have known then the impact he would have on my life, but that is the power and pull of a teacher. This school year is winding down, but the influence of teachers lasts a lifetime.
May 9, 2023