Anthony Vadala (1940-2000), known commonly as “Mr. V.”, was the best teacher I have ever had.
Anthony Vadala taught History and Social Studies (Politics, Social Anthropology, Western Civilization) at the Copenhagen International School in Denmark.
Although I was probably pretty far from his idea of an ideal student, he taught me a ton about integrity, about the (sometimes nasty) power of words, about the striving for knowledge and, most importantly, about what being a good teacher means and entails.
He was a special person in every sense of the word (I remember him opening the door to his apartment one day, brandishing a battle axe and revealing a large room lined with neatly stacked old newspapers and large ashtrays), he had a decidedly weird sense of humor and he smoked (unfiltered) Pall Malls like there was no tomorrow, but most of all he was also a fiercely dedicated teacher with an extremely firm sense of work ethics and an amazingly broad knowledge base. He also always tried to make even the most tiresome or difficult student, the disinterested or just lazy feel equally welcome and valuable. He invested a lot of his lifeblood into his students and it usually paid off.
His “100 Specifics” tests were simply legendary, and so was his small smoke-filled cubicle up on the second floor which often became a crowded meeting point for all.
Playing board games (“Diplomacy“) with students in front of his small cubicle or convincing the headmaster that playing a good game of poker might help those of us yet unfamiliar with the English language adapt to the (often new) environment much quicker, add to the fond memories as did his willingness to participate in the odd beer guzzling tournament (to keep an eye on the assembled misfits) when appropriate or, sometimes a bit reluctantly, to participate in private festivities. Mr. Vadala was a guest at my 18th birthday formal dinner arrangement and he told me that he didn’t warm to those kinds of events easily. Then he gave a wonderful speech.
He knew I was going to be a teacher when the fact was still the furthest from my young developing mind and after I had left school, he helped me brainstorm my studies whenever I was back in Copenhagen for a visit.
I have the fondest of memories of a man who always had time for his students, was often the last person to disappear from campus, who went out of his way to aid and especially encourage each and every one of us that needed a helping hand or a quick boost, and a person whose booming voice was often heard admonishing noisy students anywhere in the school building. I can still hear his “CHILDREN!” bouncing freely off the hallway windows of his cubicle, blasting across the locker area.
For three years he tried to get me to join the Model United Nations group, a group he invested a lot of preparatory time and energy into to allow his students to get a whiff of what politics out in the wild were like, and when I continued to refuse, he resorted to adding his plea to my report cards. He was stubborn that way, he didn’t give up easily and he was the better for it.
Mr. Vadala did not get mad, he got slightly annoyed, but I do remember one single lesson in which we had apparently overstepped some invisible line. He got up and quietly left the room. The classroom fell completely silent within a second as this had been unheard of and we listened to his steps descending down to the floor below. We had no idea what to do and after two minutes of debating who should go downstairs to apologize, Mr. V. reappeared and with a very somber voice apologized to the class for not having reacted appropriately. I can’t remember what the other students in the class thought that day, but I felt totally embarrassed.
Mr. Vadala taught me one of the most important lessons that day and knowing Mr. V., he knew that.
The last time I met Mr. V. was at the premiere of Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”. Angus McFadyen, a CIS alumni, appeared in a leading role and his parents had invited a few friends of his and Mr. V. to the premiere in Copenhagen. It was a blisteringly hot day and as we stepped outside to have a cigarette during intermission, he ordered us two beers each (“Too many people at the bar. I thought I’d get two each right away.”) and we got into a giggling match while trying to balance two plastic beer cups and a cigarette each. After about 15 minutes of small talk he suddenly said: “Volkher, I’m so glad that you managed to find your place in the world. I knew you would.” When I replied that he had been the single most important reason for me to become a teacher, he smiled warmly and just before we re-entered the movie theater, he gave me a quick hug – something completely unheard of – and silently disappeared into the crowd. You know, cheap Hollywood films and tear-jerking novels aside, today I am glad that I was able to tell him how important he had been in my small world.
Mr. Vadala was a great man without whom I would definitely not be where I am today. He was someone who left his mark on countless generations and, to me, he was the epitome of a role model.
He was – and still is today – someone to aspire to. At the school I work at, most students know who Mr. V. was, simply because I always manage to mention him and what a great man he was.
His legacy lives on.
(Volkher Hofmann, January 2012)
This is one of my favorite photos, taken at the Mexican ambassador’s residence. On the right, Beatriz del Villar.
Note: On the 13th of November 2000, a Monday evening, fellow teacher Mr. Bheka Pierce sent the following mail to all CIS alumni. I have kept it around all these years. I’m grateful to Mr. Pierce for allowing me to publish it here in its entirety.
— wet leaves falling onto wet ground
Hello All You Antiquated Alumni and Alumnae,
I only wish I were writing under happier circumstances. Given the incredibly intricate grapevine of the CIS vineyard, you may already know that Mr. V. stepped into the history he loved last Wednesday, 9 November, suffering a heart attack on the sidewalk near the front of his apartment. His neighbors of many years phoned the U.S. Embassy, who phoned the school on Thursday.
His sister Julia Vadala Taft and her husband flew in from Washington, and we held an informal memorial service for Mr. V. at the school today.
His sister, who is very much like him, very gentle-hearted and student-oriented, told us about growing up with him, saying that he was born in Panama in 1940, but that their military family had moved around a lot, giving him early on an appreciation for what being an international-nomad kid was all about. She joked with us that as his kid sister, she was his first student. In Germany as kids, she said, he’d see a car license plate, read the numbers 1-4-9-3, and say, “Now, Julia, what happened in 1493?” (Somehow I hear him saying that already in his basso voice at age seven or so.) She talked of his dedication to students and how often he spoke with her about the pleasures of teaching his history, especially at CIS. She spoke bravely and well, but it was difficult for her, of course, particularly while reading an old letter from a former student, Mike Rhodes, who’d written to thank Mr. V. for helping him select his life profession–to be a teacher of history.
Christopher Pedersen and Neel Kaul, two present day students, spoke, recalling Mr. V.’s dedication as a teacher (his last IB results were a phenomenal array of 7’s and 6’s way, way above the world average), and his help and guidance with THIMUN.
I said a few words about, among other things, Mr. V. back in 1980, when he and my son Josh, then four, began their friendship while having a serious discussion about the flags that lived on the table outside Mr. V.’s Gammelkongevej office; about Mr. V.’s infamous “100 Specifics” quizzes, and about that truly magical voice of his, which–when he was on a roll–seemed to let history flow easily into student heads not only on the sheer musicality of his voice, but also because of that way he had of making students feel he was letting them in on secrets far too good to miss.
My wife Britta, our school’s IB coordinator and earth-mother, spoke warmly of her ten-year shared experience of THIMUN with Mr. V., explaining how he had helped her get used to everything that goes on at The Hague, showing her the ropes, so that now she felt well tutored for taking over this year. She didn’t make it too far before she was hauling out the tissues, but we were all with her, and judging from the hug Mr. V.’s sister gave her afterwards her words and tears were warmly received.
Mr. Keson, our long-time headmaster and senior math teacher, with thirty years at CIS, the only one predating Mr. V., also spoke, going way back into the ’70s, telling how Mr. V. had come to him one day, saying, “You know, Jim, some of these kids don’t have much English, so I’m going to teach them how to play poker. Give them a chance to be together, try a little English, where not much English is required.” For me, that was Mr. V. to a tee. A little off the beaten track, for sure, but as always with the kids in mind.
It was a warm service, more than a few light moments recalled, Napolean’s horse getting a mention, recollections of the V. booming “Children!”, a photograph of Mr. V. doing his Buddha impersonation while reading on his front table, and much affection for the man- -as Mr. Keson pointed out–whose gentle personality, unshakable human regard for students, and commitment to the values of education did so much to help form and establish the early personality of our old school.
Chris Bowman, the present director, explained that the school’s official website has set up a place for anyone to include a reflection or remembrance of Mr. V. Anything that comes to mind, long or short, would be appreciated, not least because Mr. V.’s sister will be checking in on that website to hear from anyone about her brother. Also, if possible, could you let other people in your former history classes know about Mr. V. and the website?
In the meantime and in the name of Alexander’s horse, I hope you are all doing well out there wherever you are on the globe,
P.S. And those horses were, just in case they have slipped your memory: Copenhagen and Bucephalus.
Mr. Vadala, top center and second from left in the photo. Sketches by Weily Ran.
Anthony Vadala’s legacy lives on at the Copenhagen International School where you can find his extensive book collection, integrated into the school library as the “Vadala Collection”.
Many of us knew that Mr. Vadala had a sister, but I never had the chance to meet Mrs. Julia Vadala Taft, who was married to the great-grandson of U.S. President William Howard Taft, William Howard Taft IV. When I published an earlier version of my “Mr. V.” article on another website, I sent her the link to it and a brief flurry of e-mail activity followed. I had the feeling that she was as special a person as her brother had been, so I thought it is only appropriate to include her here.
Mrs. Julia Vadala Taft, born two years after her brother, in 1942, passed away in 2008. You can find lots of information online about her, especially in a Wikipedia entry, “Julia V. Taft“, and the New York Times obituary, “Julia Vadala Taft, Official Who Led Relief Efforts, Is Dead at 65“.
She lived what her brother taught at school.
Early on she became aide to United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, Elliot Richardson. In 1975, President Ford appointed her as Director of the Interagency Task Force on Indochina Refugees and she oversaw the resettlement of more than 130,000 evacuees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. For nearly three decades, she designed and developed refugee programs for the US Department of State, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the US Agency for International Development, and the United Nations. From 1986 to 1989, she was the Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID). She coordinated the efforts of the State Department, the Pentagon, other government agencies, and non-governmental agencies like CARE and Save the Children in responding to requests for disaster aide from foreign governments. From 1994 to 1997, Mrs. Taft was head of InterAction, a coalition of non-governmental organizations dedicated to international aide and in 1997, President Clinton nominated her to be Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, and she subsequently held this office from November 10, 1997 to January 19, 2001. From 2001 to 2004, she was director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery and she oversaw the United Nations response to displaced persons related to the War in Afghanistan.
[photos: source] The book, “Off to Save the World. How Julia Taft Made A Difference” has its own website.
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.