65. Remembering Mr. Birkmeyer

Published on 13 April 2024 at 08:26

© 2024 Robert Sickles

Note: Some readers, my friends from high school, have already seen this in an earlier edition. I've revised it slightly for this posting.

Memorable teachers, whether they were inspiring, horrible, hilarious, or dull, I hope you are all fortunate enough to have had one or more. Think of those who stand out as having impacted your school days or actually shifted your course in life. 

I was trying to remember all I could about my high school Latin teacher, Frank Birkmeyer. He taught Latin and German at Morris Knolls High School in New Jersey and managed his classes in the most extraordinary way. I wish I could take you back to see him in action, my words hardly convey what it was like in his class. I thought that a few of my fellow Latin students would help me remember things about him, and I was delighted with the responses from Ed, Rick, Jack, and Lynn. They confirmed as well as clarified my recollections.

And as if I felt a call to write about him after all these years, Ed also found an obituary notice for 90-year-old Francis Birkmeyer, dated so recently, February of this year. More on that below.

Mr. Birkmeyer’s approach to teaching was otherworldly to some people, but effective for those of us who saw the benefit of preparing for college and life by exercising the mind and submitting to highly structured discipline. I’ve heard of Latin teachers who dress in togas or put on gladiator helmets to entertain the students. They aim to resuscitate a dead language by staging ancient plays, or recreating a Roman feast for an immersion experience.  All very fun. But the military-like training camp experience of the Birkmeyer technique worked well for many of us. And we did well, at least at the basic level of the language. (As Ed told me, further study of Latin at university was a rude awakening.) But never mind Latin, that’s not all Mr. B. was teaching.

We may not have realized it at the time while we were busy trying to keep up with Latin, but Mr. Birkmeyer was giving us some very important tools for life. If you went in there without diligence, integrity and humility, you had to learn it fast. If your experience so far with school had been enjoying your funny math teacher or coasting through English class, Birkmeyer was like the sobering reality check you didn’t know you needed. He never said it, but we often felt it, “You’re in the Army now!” I'm only surprised he didn't include rigorous calesthenic exercises to the daily regimen.

For better or worse, we could all say that the experience had a lasting influence in our lives. Mr. Birkmeyer didn’t hand us an easy A. He made it clear that we weren’t kids any more, it was time to take responsibility for our studies. That was news to me, having had it pretty easy in school so far. One other valuable lesson I learned… I knew that I would never join the Army!

Mr. Birkmeyer’s style is difficult to describe, a blend of many strong and strange personalities. He had an emotional range that included spitting out loud like an old-time preacher, with reddened face and temple veins bulging. Or calmly regimented like an Army officer in the trench with his troops. He might seem oratorical like a Roman Senator, inscrutable like the Sphinx, or coolly tough-love like a demanding coach.  Unpredictable from minute to minute, he would switch from fury to serenity with corresponding extremes of decibel range. No one ever fell asleep in that room! 

Every class began and ended with a precise aligning of our desks in perfect rows as we patrolled the floor for litter. Like an officer inspecting the barracks, and dressed always in his dark purple checked sport coat, he would strut the room with his arms folded behind his back, occasionally stopping to point at any tiny scrap a student had missed. What to do with that little hole-punch? Put in in my pocket? Eat it? Just get rid of it quick!  Next was a rapid Latin drill which followed the exact format each day, “Take out a sheet of paper, hurriedly number it 1 to 5 left, 6 to 10 right, give the English meaning to the following Latin words…”

Anyone walking the halls in that wing of the building could hear his big voice calling out to a student, identified only as row and seat number, to list the several cases of nouns or tenses of verbs.  Then hear him holler “Again! Louder!” 

He might pause at his desk or lurk at the back, scanning intently around the room. Is he hunting for prey? The hairs on my neck are raised, I might be in his scope to call on. Then he’d spring into action like a tiger. “Second man in row 5, stand at your desk and conjugate the verb bibere, to drink, imbibe... bibo, New Year’s Eve.”  No simple task. He often repeated little mnemonic word associations like “bibo, New Year’s Eve” to help cement it in our minds.

Standing tall, shoulders back, he read aloud from classic literature, thundering the quote from Julius Caesar, “Alea jacta est... The die is cast,” Caesar had led his army north across the Rubicon River, defying the Roman Senate. “Crossing the Rubicon” and “the die is cast” still signify a decisive or risky move, a point of no return. Mr. Birkmeyer would read out these lines in his resonant baritone, making the windows and our teeth rattle. He strongly reminded us that with the choices we make in our studies, there is no going back. 

You might be enamored with his unusual methods if you excelled in his class, or scared to death of him if you couldn’t keep up with his pace. If you failed to get what he was about, or dared to test his limits, he would let you know with an ominous grin that “We will bounce you out of here like a ping pong ball!”  Rick remembered some colorful words: “If you don’t prepare yourselves each day, you’re going to be sweating watermelons over final grades. But we can use the finest Turkish oil to slide you down the chute to the guidance office where you can choose another course of study.” I never actually saw anyone test his limits. Who’d be that foolish? No one I knew got the chute down to guidance either, although as Latin I students graduated to Latin II and III, we students thinned our own numbers!

As Lynn remarked, “He did serve in the military and I think he learned a lot from his drill sergeant. His class room was very militaristic. No one would dare question him, and there was no chit-chat before class, or any discussions of any kind that I recall.  We didn’t dare fail in any way. All of his students were very high achievers which made it rather easy for him. He knew our abilities and demanded the best from us.”

A few times a month, there’d be a palpable shift in the classroom. As we settled in on those occasions, Mr. Birkmeyer quietly looked around the room and seemed remote, ominous. Then he folded his hands and leaned forward to face the class, and spoke in a somber tone that reminded me of a doctor giving a dire prognosis, “You can open whatever texts or notes you wish, and maintain a silent studying atmosphere for the remainder of this period.”  I always assumed that to be his down time, a foul mood, or feeling under the weather. Rick saw it differently. “Further on in Latin, Birkmeyer gave us frequent days off for study hall and relaxation. He felt that we earned it. And, in turn, he had earned our respect. In Latin III this was more obviously his intention.”

Among his students, the questions often arose during lunch break and after school. What could Mr. Birkmeyer’s life be like after he drove home each day? Did he have a “normal” home or did he drive across a moat into an old military bunker? Family? Pets? He was impenetrable—there was never a single time when he let on anything personal or showed himself to be a "regular" guy. Rumors and theories were wild and ridiculous. But little pieces of the puzzle eventually came to light. A few of the guys found his address and drove out to see that he lived in a suburban split level in a nice neighborhood. Another person ran across him eating a hamburger in a fast-food restaurant. While these sorts of things shouldn’t be noteworthy, in the case of Birkmeyer they were simply astounding.

Which brings me to the remarkable account of his real life we found in his obituary, published only a couple of months ago. Just look at his big smile!  For his students, the mystery of Frank Birkmeyer has just gotten deeper! Who was this man? Here are excerpts from the full piece, and I can only say, “Wow.”

“Francis M. Birkmeyer, of Bennington, Vermont, passed away on February 20, 2024. Francis, was known as ‘Frank’ or ‘Grandpa Frankie.’

He started his teaching career in Englewood, New Jersey, where he met and fell in love with fellow teacher, Marilyn ‘Mimi’ Bryan. Frank served in the U.S. Army as a trainer for two years. He married his beloved Mimi in 1958.

At Morris Knolls High School, he taught Latin and German and then served as a guidance counselor for two decades. While working at Morris Knolls, Frank later earned a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Montclair State College.

Frank had a passion for the outdoors, and was a weather buff, accurately predicting weather by studying the clouds. He and Marilyn loved visiting Vermont for its beauty and they retired to Bennington in 1995. Up until his late eighties, he could be found in all sorts weather, walking his ten miles a day on the roads of Bennington. A generally shy man, he had a friendly wave for all passersby and would often be recognized in the grocery store or the post office by others as ‘The Walker.’  

Frank is survived by his wife, Marilyn and four daughters He delighted in his four grandchildren.”

A truly extraordinary man. Rest in Peace.

Vir Vere Singularis • Requiem in Pacem

Francis M. Birkmeyer

January 19, 1934 - February 20, 2024

Add comment


There are no comments yet.