CIS Memorial Service

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.

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— 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.

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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,

Bheka Pierce

P.S. And those horses were, just in case they have slipped your memory: Copenhagen and Bucephalus.