Sporting yellow suspenders and a bright plaid tie, longtime Webster Groves High School physics teacher Philip J. Wojak passes out final exams on electricity and magnetism on the last official day of his full-time teaching career.
After 44 years of being a fixture at Webster Groves High School, the legendary Mr. Wojak is retiring - sort of.
Although Wojak, 74, is stepping down from teaching full time, he'll continue to teach part time next year.
The thought of not being able to teach physics at all was too much to bear for the over-the-top enthusiastic Wojak who comes to school every week saying: "Thank God it's Monday!"
Friday is the only day he doesn't like. Why? Because he'll have to go two days without teaching physics.
Wojak's passion for the subject, sense of humor and love of the students make him one of the Webster favorites. Ask students who had him as a teacher in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s or 2000s and many of them will say "Mr. Wojak" - and then come the stories.
While several students have touching, personal anecdotes about the impact he had on their lives, the funny stories always come first.
"He had an arsenal of seemingly off-the-cuff jokes that he threw into his lectures, which seemed random at the time but I'm sure were honed over years in the classroom," said Craig Goodloe, a class of 2000 graduate who took Wojak's advanced physics course.
For example: Students often recall his use of cats in physics problems.
"No matter what problem we're working on there's always a cat flying out of the window or being run over if a car is accelerating at a certain speed," said WGHS student Megan O'Brien, who was in Wojak's class this year. "He loves making jokes."
But it's not all play and no work - it's just that he has a gift for making learning fun.
"He made class fun, but in an interesting way," said Beth (Wehling) Slaboda of Colorado, who graduated from WGHS in 2000. "You didn't think of going to class as 'going to class' so much, but you would find yourself doing homework and realizing that yes, you did learn a thing or two in class that day."
Class of 2000 graduate Beth (Kopetti) Dalal of Raleigh, North Carolina, echoed that sentiment.
"He not only made physics interesting, he was able to show the connections between what we were studying and everyday life," she said. "I still remember him talking about everything, from the impact of jumping in an elevator, to why you should clear the snow off the top of your car, to why you see a shadow image when you close your eyes -- and all of this after being out of school for 11 years."
Slaboda recalls the first time she walked into Wojak's physics class decades after her dad had him as a math teacher.
"He shook my hand and called me 'Ms. Wehling,' then did a double take and shook his head saying, 'Oh boy, another Wehling," she said, noting she was stunned he remembered her dad.
Wojak has taught generations of students during his WGHS career.
"Wojak was a family institution, just like Mr. Horak," said class of 2000 graduate Anne Dean, whose three older siblings also had Wojak for physics.
What's amazing is how little Wojak - or his classroom - has changed over the years. Not only does he tell many of the same jokes, but everything from his mannerisms to the Einstein pictures and the old black chair he sits in are the same.
"He's used the same desk and chair for the past 45 years, and it was probably about 20 years old when he got it," WGHS Principal John Clark said.
Wojak has weathered the years valiantly with that desk and chair, but it's rare to see him in it. He's usually at the blackboard vigorously scrawling equations, shouting with enthusiasm as he works a problem. At the end, he victoriously throws one arm, or both, in the air, grinning widely.
"He still has that spark," his wife, Theresa, said.
Wojak revels in sharing the world of physics with his students.
"I like getting up in front of the kids and teaching this stuff," he said. "I get up every morning and want to come to school."
Goodloe, who is now an engineer at Airbus Americas Engineering in Wichita, Kan., loved Wojak's attitude.
"His enthusiasm was contagious," he said, adding that all the strange equipment in Wojak's classroom gave him sort of "mad scientist" vibe that students enjoyed.
Although Goodloe said he wanted to become an engineer long before he took Wojak's class, he certainly was a positive influence. For others, the connection was more direct.
"He was one of my favorite teachers for sure, and I consider his excellent teaching to be one of the reasons I considered becoming a science teacher myself," said Slaboda, who taught sixth-grade math for four years and currently works at Simply Mathematics in Aurora, Colo.
No matter when they graduated, students remember Wojak.
"When I arrived at Webster in 1975, Mr. Wojak was one of the hip, younger teachers with a whimsical sense of humor," said Robbi Courtaway, a Webster Groves resident who graduated from WGHS in 1977. "We knew we could count on him to make math class fun and interesting, and not quite so grueling as it normally was for number-challenged types like me. That I made it through math at all is testament to the dedication and kindness of Mr. Wojak."
He's not just admired by students, but by fellow staff and administrators as well.
"He's the most positive person I've ever been around," Clark said. "He's an inspiration to me and to all of us for his overall devotion to teaching."
Longtime friend, colleague and golf buddy Joe Hepfinger, who is a counselor at WGHS, said Wojak will be missed beyond measure.
"He will not be able to be replaced," Hepfinger said.
Wojak's teaching career began before he came to Webster. After graduating from college in Minnesota, Wojak taught high school math and science there for seven years.
"This is his 51st year in education, which is pretty amazing," Clark said.
When he came to WGHS in 1967, he taught math and science. For the past 30-some years, it's just been physics.
Wojak, who has master's degrees in secondary education and chemistry, has also taught courses at various area colleges for more than two decades.
But he's more than just a great physics teacher. In 2005, he was named "Citizen of the Year," by the Webster Groves Chamber of Commerce.
Believe it or not, there are two things Wojak loves more than teaching physics - the first is his wife and the second is golf.
Although there's no doubt he's completely devoted to his wife, the girls in his class will never forget how he made them feel.
"Whenever I would talk to him he would stop me mid-sentence and tell me that he thought it was a choir of angels singing when he heard my voice," said Dean, who lives in New York. "And he always addressed me as Miss Dean. I love that man!"
Despite all the fun, it was really all about physics.
"Teaching-wise, he actually did make me understand physics even though I'm not a science person," said Sarah Teczar of Boston who was a 2003 WGHS graduate.
Wojak constantly tries to sway even the non-science types to develop a passion for physics. In the middle of giving finals earlier this week, Wojak asked his students, "What is your favorite class?" To which they simultaneously responded: "Physics."
"And who is your favorite teacher?"
A big smile breaks across his face.
"I love the students, faculty and administrators," Wojak said. "I like being associated with this faculty. This whole school is terrific. I love being on this team - it's like being on the Cardinals or the Yankees."
The End Of An Era
Wojak is adamant about the fact that he's not really retiring. But it's still the end of an era.
Personal friend and former WGHS teacher, coach and athletic director Jack Jones thinks it's appropriate that the third-floor classroom Wojak has spent the past two decades teaching in won't be there next year when the high school gets a new science wing.
"It's kind of fitting that as he leaves, that classroom will never be a physics lab again," Jones said.
There's no doubt that Wojak has touched thousands of students who sat in his classroom over the years.
"Given Mr. Wojak's very effective style and his long career, I wouldn't be surprised if he's reached more students than any other teacher at Webster High," said Goodloe.
Jones summed it up best when he said: "There will be no other Philip Wojak."