Retiring history teacher

Chronicle Staff

With his full white beard and animated gesticulations, history teacher of 40 years David Coombs recounted “wholly serendipitous” major personal experiences at the Jan. 16 Parents’ Association meeting.

Coombs walked to and from the podium reenacting scenes from his life. Coombs related a happenstance aquantaince with two American nurses when he was a child in England.

“They told me about wonderful America, incredible America, and I declared, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to the United States,’” Coombs said. “I was a determined little fellow.”
When he did come to New England, Coombs said “happenstance played its part.”  One of the nurses invited him out to California, where he met former Westlake headmaster Nat Reynolds.  Content at a Connecticut boarding school, Coombs was not interested in another teaching job. But after a three-hour conversation with Reynolds, Coombs decided to consider the job offer.

He decided to leave for Westlake but fate intervened again, Coombs said, and he contracted hepatitis. Coombs described the loneliness and isolation he felt in the hospital, where nurses, completely covered in white gloves and masks, would destroy and sterilize everything he touched in front of him.

“It was a time of introspection and a lot of faith,” Coombs said.
Meeting his wife of 33 years was also a matter of serendipity. After seeing former Westlake teacher Gail Merki speak at a literature seminar, Coombs was determined to get to know this “beautiful, bright and funny” woman.

“But neither of us should have been there,” Coombs said.

After many long phone calls and letters, Merki reunited with Coombs after she accepted a job in the Westlake English Department.

Coombs said his marriage announcement to all the Westlake girls was an unforgettable, joyous and tear filled occasion.

“They were wonderful tears, and the wedding was packed with weeping Westlake girls. It was wonderful,” Coombs said.
Coombs was thankful that this Westlake campus was “not an enclave of quiet privilege” but a caring and thoughtful campus.

At the meeting, he also recounted his family’s experience on Sept. 11, 2001. His daughter, who normally rode the subway under the Twin Towers, decided to go to work a little earlier that day. Other students in his classes shared similar stories in what was a “catharsis, a time to talk of fate, chance and happenstance,” Coombs said.

At the close of the speech, parents wiped tears from their eyes.
Coombs, who is retiring this year, will be inducted as a Westlake Great Teacher on Westlake Reunion Day, May 3.  This award is “a great honor, particularly as I know the high standards and outstanding accomplishments of the other Westlake teachers who have been inducted,” he said.