Community mourns loss of history teacher at assembly


Eric Zwemer speaks about honor at an assembly in 2013. Credit: Chronicle Archives

Sophie Haber

In honor of history teacher Eric Zwemer, who died yesterday, faculty shared memories of him as well as words from students at an all-school assembly before classes this morning.

President Rick Commons began the assembly by reading an excerpt of Zwemer’s writings from years ago about the students at Harvard-Westlake. The excerpt reflected Zwemer’s dry wit and appreciation for his students that he is known for in the community, Commons said.

“I am trying to remember more often these days that five minutes after my history students are done with me, they’re delving into areas of mathematics or science light years beyond my comprehension, ” Commons said Zwemer wrote. “Or, they’re pondering the choice of words of a literary masterpiece I might never have read. Or, they’re carrying on a conversation in a language I might never have spoken a word of myself. Or, they’re creating artworks in media I’d be afraid to try. It’s amazing when you think about it. It requires sheer flexibility of intellect that leaves me fiercely shaking my own terribly ossified head in admiration.”

Visual Arts, Interdisciplinary Studies and Independent Research and Performing Arts teacher Ted Walch, who said he taught Zwemer in eighth grade and has remained close friends with him since, spoke to his experiences with Zwemer as his teacher, colleague and friend.

“When I got a call to come here two years [after Zwemer], two things crossed my mind, and I mean this in my heart of hearts.” Walch said. “I want to be in a place that has students like Eric Zwemer was when I taught him at St. Albans School. I also want to be in a place where my colleagues are like Eric Zwemer. So I got two in one. Well, actually I got three in one. I got a great friend.”

Walch remembered his times spent with Zwemer, from directing him in an eighth grade play to joking and discussing politics every morning in front of Seaver before work.

Father James Young returned to campus for the assembly and read reflections from students, sharing how Zwemer impacted their lives.

“You are easily one of the best teachers I have had,” one senior wrote in an email to Zwemer after learning he was ill last week. “Your passion, knowledge, engagement and effort are so clear in each 45-minute period. I tell nearly everyone around me that you are one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. The best history teacher and most engaging lecturer I’ve ever had. I mean that.”

Zwemer was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, Commons said.

Head of Upper School Laura Ross closed the assembly by encouraging students to lean on one another as well as the counseling team and faculty.

“I think [Zwemer’s] words to you would be two-fold.” Walch said. “The first is always bring your A-game; he always did. And, the second is, never ever forget to laugh.”