No substitute for teacher’s warmth
Generations of students mourn death of man who built reputation filling in for District 51
If you never met John Wayne “Jack” Schlatter, you missed out.
He was one of those people who made you feel good for the rest of the day after you ran into him. He radiated joy, drawing people of all ages to him like moths to a back-porch light. He was an author, a public speaker and a legend.
Even though he interacted with students for mere hours or days as a substitute teacher, he was famous in middle and high schools and remembered fondly by former students, dating back to the 1960s when he first started teaching. He didn’t follow the lesson plans, but he definitely taught life lessons.
When he died Friday in Grand Junction at the age of 79 following a series of strokes, teenagers across the valley posted tributes to him on their Facebook pages, taking a break from selfies and Candy Crush. They remembered a man whom they interacted with oh-so briefly in their school careers, someone whose influence burned so bright that it branded a permanent impression on their lives.
Everyone who met Schlatter has a story about him. Maybe he gave them “cards of encouragement,” little business cards with inspirational sayings printed on them. Maybe he made them bust up laughing with his impression of a lizard. Maybe he took the time to compliment them on a smile. But whether students interacted with him for an hour or a day, they loved him. Some of them even called him “Uncle Jack.”
Having Mr. Schlatter for a substitute meant you were going to learn some life lessons that day. It didn’t matter if this was calculus or art, it was time to visit with a guru in the school of life.
Fruita Monument High School junior Ashley Howell met Schlatter years ago, when he substituted for her class in middle school. She credits him for giving her direction, for encouraging her to lead her life with purpose and good intentions. It started when he asked her to come see him after class.
“He tells me to come close and tells me, ‘Sweetheart, you’re going places. Don’t ever doubt yourself,’” she said. “This was in seventh grade when I was bullied every day for my weight and my appearance. That promise Mr. Schlatter made began a pivotal turn in my life. I’m not exaggerating.”
A few weeks ago, Howell saw him for the last time. Schlatter stopped her in the hallway to compliment her, with big eyes and a smile. “Sweetheart, you dress sharp,” he said.
Teenagers considered interactions with him a bright spot in their days. He took an interest in their lives and hobbies and genuinely listened to them. His advice helped many adolescents navigate through awkward and tough times, and they looked to him for words of wisdom.
One day when he was subbing, Schlatter helped Central High School graduate Brittni Nack decide on her major. She was agonizing over the decision — torn between physics or music — and Schlatter took the time to visit with her after school. Almost two hours after the bell rang, they ended their conversation. Nack just finished her first semester majoring in music and she is grateful for his advice.
“I was meant for music, and I’m so glad Mr. Schlatter helped me to see that,” she said.
Students particularly enjoyed Schlatter’s outlook on life, peppered with lots of carpe diem and motivation. He would say, “Stop mid-page of a book or eat half a Twinkie and save the rest for tomorrow, just give yourself a reason to wake up happy and alive tomorrow.”
“He also claimed that he never worked a day in his life because substituting and leaving smiles on people’s faces wasn’t a job,” Howell said.
Reannon Baskin, a freshman at Palisade High School, met Schlatter three years ago when he substituted in her orchestra class at Bookcliff Middle School. Like all the other students, she loved his stories, especially the one about his brother, George, receiving the grim prognosis that he wouldn’t walk again after contracting polio. In the story, George tells the doctor to “go to hell” and walks three months later. It’s a tale Schlatter included in his book, “Gifts by the Side of the Road.” George went on to become a famous Hollywood producer, creating shows including “Laugh-In” and earning a star on the Walk of Fame.
George said he attended a couple of his younger brother’s lectures and was “blown away. It was intellectual, it was spiritual and it was funny.”
“Everybody that met Jack remembers him. He was a unique individual and he will be missed.”
Baskin’s other favorite story, one Schlatter penned for “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul,” was the one cautioning against fear of rejection — the tale of himself as an awkward teen who never asks out a beautiful girl. Years later he discovered this beautiful girl was waiting for him to ask her out, and he missed the chance of a lifetime. Incidentally, Schlatter was a bachelor for life.
Baskin still has the card Schlatter gave her in middle school.
“It says, ‘Your presence is just a present someone needs,’” she said. “I kept it because I was really proud — he was really inspiring.”
One of the things everyone noticed about Schlatter was his enthusiasm for the here and now.
“He was always excited to be there, no matter where he was,” Baskin said.
When news of Schlatter’s strokes made it through the hallways, Palisade High senior Kris Urbin and his friends decided to organize an all high schools dance to raise funds for his hospital expenses. The event has evolved into a tribute for the man who brought them all so much joy and wisdom in small doses of time.
“This sounds kind of bad, but you don’t really hear of kids caring this much about a substitute teacher,” Urbin said. “But it was different with him.”