Commemorating Zwemer: Hearts are filled with cherished memories of history teacher


Kendall Dees

Brilliant, passionate, talented and witty. During his 29 years of teaching at Harvard-Westlake, Eric Zwemer impacted the lives of students and teachers alike. From his engaging lectures to his legendary sense of humor, he stood out in the community as a man who had earned respect and admiration from everyone who knew him.

Zwemer died peacefully Sept. 13, surrounded by friends and family. The following morning, the school community gathered in the Taper Gym to share memories of Zwemer.

President Rick Commons, Visual Arts, Interdisciplinary Studies and Independent Research and Performing Arts teacher Ted Walch, Head of Upper School Laura Ross and Father James Young, who returned to campus for the assembly, all spoke to the impact that he had on the school.

Walch, who taught Zwemer as an eighth-grader at St. Albans School in Washington D.C., shared stories about Zwemer from his perspective as a longtime friend and colleague.

“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 at the assembly. “I want to be in a place that has students like [Zwemer] was when I taught him at St. Albans School. I also want to be in a place where my colleagues are like [Zwemer]. So, I got two-in-one. Well, actually I got three-in-one. I got a great friend.”

At the assembly, Commons read an excerpt from an email sent by Chronicle Digital Managing Editor Lucas Gelfond ’19 to Zwemer eight days before he died.

“You are easily one of the best teachers I have had,” Gelfond wrote. “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.”

Since receiving news of his passing, students and faculty have continued to reflect on Zwemer’s life and legacy at the school. Chloe Donovan ’19, who was enrolled in his classes for two years in a row, remembered covering her dean’s desk with post-it notes to try and request Zwemer for her junior year. Determined to experience his theatrical and dynamic lectures for another year, Donovan wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I went into his class in tenth grade not loving history as a subject,” Donovan said. “It was probably one of my least favorite because I was never really interested that much in what they were saying, but he honestly made me look at history in a completely different way, like instead of just looking at a bunch of dates and sequences and events, like he completely transformed it for me.”
Commons said he remembered being a young teacher, watching Zwemer stride to and from classes in his blazer and tie. Although Zwemer always seemed to be taking the job of teaching seriously, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t incredibly funny and fun to be around, Commons said.

“The most important thing, clearly, to him was the teaching life that he chose and being ready to do everything he could in every class and be inspiring and instructive as one could possibly be,” Commons said. “For me, that was inspiring to watch. He was a role model.”

For close to 30 years, history teacher Katherine Holmes-Chuba worked with Zwemer to teach art history.

“Our art history team meetings were a joy, and we had so much fun expanding our lectures and fine-tuning assignments that we came up with,” Holmes-Chuba said. “I will miss those exchanges dearly. We carpooled for many years and became close friends. He was a wonderful friend and truly one of the funniest people of all time. He would have the department in stitches with his so-called ‘funny voices.’ My personal favorite was Marvin the Martian.”

Within the history department, Zwemer helped those around him become better teachers, Holmes-Chuba said.
“The breadth of his knowledge was truly astounding,” Holmes-Chuba said. “His love of history, his students and teaching inspired us each and every day. No one worked harder and no one could get to the heart of the matter faster than [Zwemer]. His intellect was fierce.”

Those who learned under Zwemer’s instruction recall the vivacity that he brought to every lecture, whether he was performing William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech or bringing history alive through accents and languages.

“He is lecture-based, particularly in his art history class,” Walch said. “They are performances. They speak well for that kind of teaching. He and I are very different teachers, but my respect for him and admiration for him is boundless.”

Walch attributed Zwemer’s talent as an engaging lecturer to his background in acting and performance. At St. Albans School, Walch directed Zwemer in a production of the British comedy “Beyond the Fringe.” He recalls the production as one of his fondest memories at his time at St. Albans with Zwemer. Walch remembers Zwemer being so talented and perfectly matched with the three other boys starring in the production that he barely needed to give them much direction at all.

“I think they all agreed without ever saying it that [Zwemer] was the smartest of the bunch, [Zwemer] was the most prepared of the bunch and [Zwemer] was outrageously the funniest of the bunch,” Walch said. “He’s screamingly funny. I mean to this day when I think of one of the sketches he did in the Fringe, I can just laugh.”

After receiving news of his death, alumni who had taken Zwemer’s classes shared their memories of him on Facebook (included on A1). Posts include art history graduate students crediting him for helping them find their life passion, students remembering him as the “most engaging lecturer [they’ve] ever encountered” and alumni reflecting on how lucky they were to have had the opportunity be in his class.

There will be a memorial service held Friday, Oct. 5 in St. Saviour’s Chapel that will be open for students and alumni to attend. Following the service, people will have the opportunity to share memories of Zwemer in an open mic session.

“I think [Zwemer’s] words to you would be two-fold,” Walch told students and faculty present at the assembly Sept. 14. “The first is always bring your A-game; he always did. And, the second is, never ever forget to laugh.”