The Class of '63 Polishes One More Apple for the Beloved Fifth-Grade Teacher Who Touched All Their Lives

updated 09/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As teacher William Koutrelakos rang a hand-held bell and cried, "Good morning, everybody!" 32 adults squeezed into the kid-size plastic-and-metal chairs of Room 207 at Baltimore's Cross Country Elementary School. After leading the group through the Pledge of Allegiance and one chorus of a favorite class song, "White Coral Bells," Koutrelakos, 59, got down to business. "Okay," he announced, "let's see if you can go back 27 years." With that, he began setting out a series of cards bearing poetry terms like "ode," "elegy" and "heroic verse." Seeing one of the cards dated incorrectly, Larry Kessler offered his help. "I can fix that," he yelled. Springing from his seat, the cancer researcher from Bethesda, Md., bounded to the blackboard across the tops of the desks.

For the students of Koutrelakos's fifth-grade class of 1962-63, the raucous scene was a flashback to childhood. But for Koutrelakos, it was a heartwarming confirmation of his craft. Almost three decades after passing through the classroom of the teacher they still call Mr. K, his former students, most of them now 38 years old, had returned from as far away as Florida and California to pay homage to a man they revere. Many had run a gauntlet of college and postgraduate courses on their way to careers as doctors, lawyers, writers, executives and scientists. But they credit their year with Mr. K as one of the most influential in their lives. They remember him as a caring man who attended their Little League games, helped retrieve lost braces from the cafeteria garbage can and led them in Greek dances during lulls in the classroom. But most of all, he was a teacher who inspired self-confidence, tenacity and love of learning. "At the time we didn't realize how special he was," says Debbie Snyder Weiner, a Baltimore-based importer. "It took years for us to look back and see how magical it was."

For Steve Kluger, those years were marked by a nagging feeling of unpaid debt. During his fifth-grade year, his parents were going through a divorce and left him on his own much of the time. " 'I was 10 years old and hurting bad," recalls Kluger. "I would walk into school and find Mr. Koutrelakos. He completely took the sting away. He never referred directly to the divorce; he was just there." Although Kluger, now a writer living in Los Angeles, had frequently corresponded with his former teacher, he never felt he had adequately said thanks.

After a Christmas visit to Mr. K, Kluger finally hit on a way to express his gratitude. He contacted former classmate Andrea Fox Krupp, a political fund-raiser living in the Baltimore area, and solicited her skills in tracking down the rest of the class for a reunion. "I got half of a sentence out of my mouth, and she said, 'All right, let's start planning,' " says Kluger. Mr. K, however, was skeptical. Recalls Kluger: "I said, 'How about it?' and he said, 'You're crazy! Who'd remember me?' "

The answer, it turned out, was everyone. Though a friend of Kluger's who does actuarial calculations figured there was only one chance in three that all 36 members of the class would still be alive, Kluger and Krupp found them all, and every last one promised to attend—though in the end, four could not.

When the students gathered this summer in Room 207—its cinder-block walls still resplendently green—memories of Mr. K's special gifts as a teacher began flooding back. Gail Davis Silberman of Jericho, N.Y., a talent manager for A & M Records, remembered how Koutrelakos gave her confidence during her climb through the ranks of the industry. "Whenever I would get scared, I could hear him saying, 'You can do it! You can do it!' " she recalls. "We were like the little train that could, and he was always telling us to get up that hill." Betsy Hecht Cramb, who runs her own market-research firm in Miami, agrees: "He made us write until we couldn't write anymore. After a while you started to like what you wrote. He taught us that you could achieve your goals. He taught us guts." Barry Hoffman, a house painter who calls himself "the Bart Simpson of the class—an underachiever," says, "Mr. K was simply the nicest teacher I ever had—a fun, caring, decent guy."

Ironically, Koutrelakos's early days as a teacher were marked by uncertainty about his profession. The Dover, N.H., native earned a B.A. in zoology from the University of New Hampshire in 1953, then served two years in the Navy before getting a master's degree in elementary education at Baltimore's Loyola College. But after teaching for two years in Baltimore, he gave up education to study dentistry, which had long fascinated him. But dental school gave him ulcers, he says, so he dropped out and returned to the classroom. His first students then were the fifth graders of 1962.

Mr. K taught fifth and sixth grades for the next seven years, until he became a school administrator. He and Mary, his wife of 34 years, reared two children, Nicholas—now 33 and an oncologist—and Adrienne—now 27 and a financial planner. Mr. K has been the principal of Brehms Lane Elementary School in East Baltimore for the past eight years. But he has never forgotten that first year at Cross Country. "This was a class a teacher never dreamed of," he says. "You gave 'em an assignment, and they went overboard. You gave 'em an idea, and they did it to perfection." So when his old students came flocking back, he returned the compliment by hosting a backyard picnic with spinach pie and baklava. There, the reunion class presented him with a Steuben cut-glass apple, a brass plaque imprinted with 36 signatures in gold and a framed citation from Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer. For the erstwhile fifth graders, the reunion was a return to innocence. "It was phenomenal," says Kluger. "The chemistry was exactly the same as when we were 10 years old." For Mr. K, it was that and something more. "I'm a crybaby at heart." he told his onetime students, fighting back tears. "My gift, really, is seeing you here once more."

—Charles E. Cohen, Tom Nugent in Baltimore

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