In August 1985, a Mizzou grad with a history degree and a teaching license returned to his high school on a one-year contract, filling in for a teacher on sabbatical. It was a different world, for sure. Ronald Reagan was president. The world was finally realizing the horror of AIDS. “Back to the Future” was No. 1 at the box office.
And just like that, one “temporary” contract turned into an illustrious career teaching history and coaching soccer and track at St. Louis University High. I’m writing a lot of retirement stories lately because everywhere, it seems, an era is ending, including this one closest to home: Tom McCarthy, retiring this month after 38 years teaching generations of students, thousands of young men — brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews, fathers and sons, including two of his own.
Teaching history, and teaching through history. For just about every significant event of the past four decades, Mr. McCarthy was in a classroom, most likely wearing a tie. He was there on Jan. 26, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded; and on Nov. 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall came down. He was there on April 19, 1995, when the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed; and on Jan. 20, 2009, the day a Black man was sworn in as U.S. president.
Only on two of them did I wish he were home instead of at school, in need of both his perspective and his strength: On Sept. 11, 2001, trying to explain to two boys under 7 what had just happened; and on Jan. 6, 2021, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible through frantic text messaging when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol.
But he was exactly where he needed to be: In front of a chalkboard, putting events into context for so many more. He lived and breathed the Jesuit ideal of educating “Men For Others.” He’d start every class with: “It’s a Good Day to be at SLUH.”
He could be demanding, or so I’ve heard. He put a premium on historical research by having students study documents in addition to textbooks — especially those of his hero, Abraham Lincoln. He was constantly challenging his students to go beyond the dates, to learn the why as well as the who, what and when.
“The best teachers,” the saying goes, “are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”
Nothing lasts forever — not even history teachers. If you’ve ever sat in Mr. McCarthy’s classroom, written one of his research papers or pored over a “Lincoln Document,” he would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at email@example.com. In the meantime, he’ll spend the summer packing 38 years of lesson plans and unpacking a lifetime of memories. But he’s not done yet.
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be,” Abraham Lincoln wrote.
I have a feeling he’ll be happy in writing his next chapter, too.