History teacher to retire after 40 Holmby Hills years

When middle school history teacher David Coombs first met Westlake Headmaster Nat Reynolds, it was all out of context. Coombs chatted with Reynolds at a California Christmas party held by family friends. After he went back to the Connecticut boarding school where he taught, he did not remember Reynolds. When Reynolds later contacted Coombs and offered him a job, Coombs considered and then accepted, thinking it would last three years.

In a way, what led to Coombs’ appointment as a Westlake English teacher, a 40-year career at the Holmby Hills campus, and his 33-year marriage to former Westlake teacher Gail Merki was a forgotten conversation at a cocktail party. Now he hopes that conversation will lead him to a summer in Scandinavia and more time for reading and theater, as the Shakespeare lover who hasn’t had much free time in 25 years plans to retire in June.

“What I thought would be three years turned into 40, and it’s been a wonderful ride,” he said. “Whilst I look forward to retirement, it’s going to be with such regret that I leave Harvard-Westlake.”
It was fate that brought him to Westlake, Coombs said.

“I tell my students that sometimes something happens in your life that you think is passing, and you look back, and it’s changed your life forever,” Coombs said.

Originally hired as an English teacher, Coombs became the head of the English department and then moved to head the history department.

Coombs was educated in history at Oxford and got his master’s degree there. Ironically, he was transferred to the history department shortly after earning a master’s degree in English from Loyola University.

Coombs also teaches Persuasion and Argument at the Middle School.

The history teacher was head of summer programs for 25 years and integrated the Harvard and Westlake summer programs after the merger. He began the proccess of passing the summer programs torch to upper school dean Jim Patterson last year, glad of the chance to take the summer off.

“The time is right,” Coombs said of his retirement. “All the zeroes come together.”

Come June, Coombs will be a 70-year-old man who has taught at the Middle School for 40 years.
“I will never, ever regret going into teaching,” Coombs said. “It’s been a good life.”

That life also brought him his wife and two children, Sarah ’96 and Stephen ’98.

Coombs said that his Westlake students watched him and Gail Merki, now Gail Coombs, “like hawks.” When Coombs and Gail taught classes back-to-back in the same classroom, Gail’s students would delay her to see how she and Coombs would interact. After his wedding, students told Coombs that one day he and his wife had been cool with one another, apparently after a fight.

“The kids were just devastated,” Coombs said.

For several days, their students kept trying to cheer them up. Coombs said that the students knew he and his future wife were “meant for each other.”

Coombs has known many students in his 40 years.

“I’m hoping that the world I have touched is a little better place for me being in it,” Coombs said.
Coombs said he hopes to travel to Scandinavia and Lithuania.

However, before he does anything else, Coombs will have to fulfill the promise he has been making to his wife for the past 25 years.

“I have got to clean out the garage,” he said.

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