Remembering Ted Walch

Performing+Arts+and+Interdisciplinary+Studies+Teacher+Ted+Walch+taught%2C+mentored+and+impacted+thousands+of+students+over+his+30+year+tenure+at+the+school.+

Fallon Dern/Chronicle

Performing Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies Teacher Ted Walch taught, mentored and impacted thousands of students over his 30 year tenure at the school.

Davis Marks and Fallon Dern

In a crowded St. Saviour’s Chapel, President Rick Commons rings a church bell 30 times in succession. It’s lunch time, and pews full of students, faculty and staff listen to the chimes, one for each year Performing Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies Teacher Ted Walch taught at the school.

Walch passed Sept. 8 after a two-month battle with terminal brain cancer. Following the news of Walch’s death, members of the community gathered in the church to honor his life and legacy. When reflecting upon the memorial service held on Sept. 9, Commons said he feels it was something Walch would have wanted.

“I think Mr. Walch decided that he wanted the school to actually benefit from the experience of his public passing,” Commons said. “From the moment he called me in July to say that he had this terminal diagnosis, till the moment he died on September 8, he [wanted] to make it possible for the school to celebrate relationships between students and teachers that transform the way students think and live. He [wanted] this very sad event to be a celebration of what’s best about Harvard Westlake and it’s been very difficult to miss his intentions about how he wants us to mourn his passing.”

Commons said Walch had a uniquely meaningful impact in his teaching, and that the wisdom and kindness he demonstrated over three decades shaped the school community for the better.

“There are people who have had longer tenures, but there isn’t anybody I can think of who’s had a more impactful tenure than Ted Walch,” Commons said. “It’s often the case that the older teachers get, the harder it is for them to connect with people of a high school age. That was not true for Mr. Walch, and if anything, he got better at it. What Ted Walch did for students and colleagues at Harvard-Westlake in each of those 30 years is something to remember and be inspired by.”

Walch was born in Sedalia, Missouri (Missoura, as he called it), the youngest of four brothers. From an early age, he was engrossed in movies, idolizing James Dean and dreaming of being a Hollywood or Broadway actor. Eventually, Walch attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and quickly immersed himself in the drama program.

After his final performance as Treplev in Kenyon’s production of Chekov’s “The Seagull,” director and drama professor Jim Michael told Walch he was unimpressed with his acting, but knew that he had the potential to pursue other elements of theater. Michael took Walch under his wing for a four-year-long intensive exploration of set design, prop creation, stage management and costume artistry.

After graduating from Kenyon in 1963, Walch taught at St. Albans School in Washington D.C. and The Branson School in Northern California until 1991, when he was hired by former Harvard-Westlake President Tom Hudnut to build a theater department for the newly merged Harvard-Westlake school.

Walch led the school’s theater program while serving as the Performing Arts Department Chair and Cinema Studies teacher. In his time at the school, Walch directed Our Town four times, with his final production held Feb. 1-3, 2018.

History and Independent Research Department Head Larry Klein said he remembers both Our Town and Walch fondly. Klein said his son, Jacob Klein ’18, joined the theatre department his junior year per Walch’s invitation, giving Klein a new perspective of his coworker and friend.

“I only know this through my son, [but] when each show closed, he would write a personalized note to each of the actors,” Klein said. “[Upon reading it, I understood] just how meaningful and moving it was to get that note from Mr. Walch. That very personalized and direct connection with basically everyone that he encountered is truly noteworthy.”

Klein said that in their personal friendship, Walch’s authenticity and curiosity about others made him uniquely easy to talk to.

“I think you feel like you knew him because he made such an effort, but was so at ease in knowing you,” Klein said. “The thing about him is he genuinely cared about knowing the people he interacted with and he took the time and effort where others wouldn’t. One of the biggest things about Ted was that sense of necessity to reach out and get to know others.”

Walch’s wide variety of involvement with the school afforded many the opportunity to develop close friendships with him. In 2004, Walch, former Visual Arts Department Chair Cheri Gaulke and Elizabeth Yale ’04 founded WestFlix, a California student film festival Walch continued to advise until the most recent festival in 2022. In his honor, WestFlix has announced an inaugural Ted Walch Award. CurrentWestFlix Director of Design Adison Gamradt ’23 said Walch’s mentorship deserves to be memorialized and paid forward to the award’s recipients.

“The Ted Walch Award will be given to a deserving film teacher of a selected filmmaker, donating funds to their school’s film program,” Gamradt said. “Mr. Walch exemplified what it means to be a true educator, and we are looking forward to honoring his legacy with this award.”

Former WestFlix Leader, Cinema Studies student, Digital Managing Editor and Cinema Sundays regular Kyle Reims ’21 said that, since Walch’s passing, he’s missed the opportunity to share things with him.

“There are going to be moments when one of my initial reactions will be, and has been, ‘I want to tell Walch about this,’” Reims said. “I think that’s going to be the weirdest transition. [My college] screened a movie that we watched in Cinema Studies and I went and saw it. The entire time, I was thinking, ‘Oh, I remember watching this with Walch’ and I remember everything he said about it. And I just really wished I could tell him.”

Reims said he felt an immense amount of pride as Walch’s student, and hoped that he could repay Walch’s mentorship with work Walch would be proud of.

“There was nobody I wanted, other than my parents, to succeed more for,” Reims said. “There’s nobody I wanted to see me be successful more than him. Whether that was success through making movies or success through living my life and doing what I want, I wanted [Walch] to know that I made it.”

Reims said that his friendship with Walch strengthened after his graduation, and that as both a student and former-student, he is in awe of the personalized attention Walch provided to each person he met.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met someone more genuinely caring than him,” Reims said. “Every single person that he had, whether it was as an actual student, someone just in the periphery or even a friend of a friend, he cared about and wanted the best for them. When given the chance, he would go out of his way for people, and especially with his students, he really tried to do all he could for them.”

After graduating, Reims emailed Walch regularly, reunited during 2022 WestFlix and visited Walch’s apartment for lunch on multiple occasions. After receiving news of his diagnosis, Reims visited his apartment one last time, and said he noticed the contrast between Walch’s visibly weakened, wheelchair-bound state and his ever-present tenacity and energetic approach to life.

“[Walch] told me, ‘I’ve talked a big game for many years now, I’ve claimed to not be afraid of dying for a while, and it’s time to put my money where my mouth is,’” Reims said. “He was so content, and I know that being able to talk to all his students made everything so much easier. Seeing that made it so much easier, because if he’s at peace with it, I can be, too.”

Head of Upper School Beth Slattery said she shared a similar sentiment: knowing Walch died the way he wanted to has given her peace.

“Everybody’s asking me how I’m doing, and it’s weird because I’m actually doing really okay,” Slattery said. “It was really hard, but perfect at the same time, because it was exactly how he wanted to go. He was surrounded by people that loved him and he had an opportunity to say goodbye to everybody, not afraid. Up until the last moment, he was teaching us all and it was literally a map on how to die with dignity, grace and without regret.”

Slattery, Walch and Upper School Dean Sharon Cuseo would meet for breakfast every morning in Walch’s office, nicknamed the “Vault of Dreams.” Head of External Relations Ed Hu said he would drop in on Thursdays, consistently impressed with how effectively Walch converted an office into a makeshift dining room.

“He had this breakfast table and a drawer with plates, utensils and everyone had a personalized napkin, and he had this whole setup for us,” Hu said. “Ted was so genuine; what you see is what you get. He immediately brought [people] into his circle and was just someone you immediately talk to. He made people feel good and he made people feel seen.”

Like Hu, Performing Arts Teacher Mark Hilt said that he will miss being able to check in with Walch every morning. After being hired in August 1997, he and Walch became fast friends at the opening faculty picnic.

“I’m going to miss being able to go see him every morning at 6:30 or 6:45 to just check in and chat,” Hilt said. “He was the kind of friend that I could tell anything [to], and those kinds of friends only come along two or three times in your life. [When I met him], I didn’t know then what kind of friendship we were going to have, but instantaneously, despite being total strangers, we shared a little bit of ourselves and we had so much in common that it was like we were brothers.”

Hilt said their bond was made particularly meaningful by Walch’s consistent support of him.

“He believed in me from the moment he met me,” Hilt said. “I always think of myself as kind of floundering and trying to make things happen, and not really knowing what I’m doing, [so] it was such a bright moment in my life.”

After Walch’s passing, Hilt said he wants to honor his friend through his teaching.

“My motto is ‘What Would Ted Do,’ because I think especially now, as I’m writing stuff about him just to keep memories of him fresh, we’re starting this year without Ted, so I imagine, ‘What would Ted do?’ I know he would listen to every student and he would see them for who they are. [Being a] teenager is hard, but Ted could see that.”

Former Walch Student and current Cinema Studies teacher Max Baril ’06 said that while he has big shoes to fill, he plans on utilizing what he has learned from Walch to enrich students’ lives the way Walch enriched his.

“As lucky as I was to have Mr. Walch as a teacher, I consider myself even luckier to have had him as a friend after I graduated,” Baril said. “He was the kind of teacher you were eager to keep in touch with, and before you knew it, you were friends with him. It wasn’t until college and graduate school that I gained a fuller appreciation of Mr. Walch’s teaching style. So many film professors take the subject so seriously that they lose sight of the joy that movies can bring people. Mr. Walch never lost sight of that. Mr. Walch was deeply insightful and contagiously passionate, but he was always able to ground his teaching in the fun and joy of movies. I’ll always strive to do the same.”