On the Passing of a Teacher and Exemplar

By Bill Coan

Considering a man who knew what life was for.

by Bill Coan

Among the 440 students in the 10th grade class at Neenah High School in the fall of 1967, there were two types: those lucky enough to be enrolled in a course taught by Warren Neal “Shooty” Schuknecht and those not. I was one of the lucky ones, and more than 40 years later I continue to savor my good fortune, the more so upon learning of Shooty’s recent death at age 81. coan_passing

At a time when most high school courses in Western Civilization were taught (if at all) in cramped classrooms, Shooty every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning gathered 150 students into the comparative comfort of the school auditorium. There, he lectured us on the development of civilizations in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece and Rome, and subsequently on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, illustrating many of his points with photographs taken during his personal travels. To maintain order, he relied on a risky but successful expedient: He accorded the students as a group the respect that young adults crave, and he extended to them individually his personal trust.

The rest of Shooty’s teaching schedule was devoted to small-group discussions in which he challenged each of his students to engage with the ideas of the course. To accomplish this, Shooty relied on two additional expedients: He paid attention to what each student said, and he showed that one student’s question or comment could contribute to better understanding on the part of other students.

To encourage his students to pay attention to world affairs outside the classroom, he awarded extra points to those who successfully predicted the subject of the cover photo on each new issue of a prominent weekly newsmagazine. On one wall of his classroom, above the chalkboard, he displayed a simple statement without attribution: “Not even God would approach a hungry man in any other form but food.”

Students often sought Shooty’s counsel. On one occasion after I overheard him offering advice to a troubled student, I asked him, “How can you dare to offer advice, when you can’t be certain that your advice will help?” He replied patiently: “Refusing advice to someone who has requested it involves as great a responsibility as offering advice. I can’t escape responsibility for my actions in either case. All I can do is the best that I know how.”

Shooty was well known and respected on campus even among students not lucky enough to have him as a teacher. One reason for this is that every student in all three grades at the high school couldn’t help but observe Shooty during lunch hours endlessly walking the school grounds, cheerfully picking up litter and placing it into the nearest trash receptacle. His actions made most students think twice before dropping a piece of paper or a food wrapper to the ground and influenced many students later in life to take simple, direct actions for the betterment of the world.

After visiting Africa and encountering entire villages suffering from loss of eyesight due to parasitic disease, for many years Shooty helped his students conduct an annual fundraiser called “Pennies to See.” Buckets placed throughout the school quickly overflowed, yielding hundreds of dollars for provision of medical services to Bantu tribes.

While other teachers coached sports teams, Shooty acted as faculty advisor to a student service organization of his own design. Called simply “Varsity Service,” the organization provided opportunities for service and recognition (including school letters and letter jackets similar to those awarded to varsity athletes) as well as a sense of belonging to students willing to place themselves in service.

When I and my fellow 10th graders met Shooty, he was entering his 14th year of teaching and had already been recognized as Wiscon­sin Teacher of the Year. We graduated from high school a few years later. He continued teaching for another 18 years. I last saw him shortly after his retirement, and when I introduced my adult self to him, he recalled me or pretended to; but it was clear he had no idea that, to me, he represented something important about life: that the opportunity to be alert, attentive, caring, and of service renews itself with each breath we take. Shooty didn’t say so, but the way he lived his life indicated as much.

Bill Coan is a software developer living in Hortonville, Wisconsin, and a high school friend of this magazine’s editor.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2009.