David E. Steiner

Retired USAF, Teacher, Dad, Grandfather, Curmudgeon

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Further Tales of Educational Adventures

My grandfather, Edward Alfred Steiner was a professor for 38 years at one school, Grinnell College. My father was a Unitarian minister in Portland, Oregon and he had been a college instructor for a few years and sermons probably qualify as teaching, particularly since he often connected his sermons to social involvement, politics. He gave a wonderful Christmas sermon about a partridge in a pear tree before the song became overplayed: what use is a partridge in a pear tree? What use is a baby in a barn?


My only brother has taught at three colleges. He’s been at the third one for more than 50 years.


I used to hold little classes during recess at my elementary school. They weren’t very popular. I was directing plays in college and when I went into the Air Force when my training was done I stayed as an instructor and I acted and directed plays with the Harlingen community theatre group. When we decided to leave the Air Force and go to graduate school at the University of Michigan I was not teaching for a year, but I was directing as part of the Masters program. The head of the department was William Halstead.


When we moved to Eugene, Oregon, the University of Oregon Communications department hosted theatre, public speaking, speech pathology and radio and television. The radio part actually had some courses and we were custodians of the campus radio station. The Theatre area was headed by Horace Robinson, well known for expertise in theater architecture. Theatre doctoral candidates taught public speaking with lectures by a full professor. The speeches were heard by candidates, all of whom had Masters degrees, but most, like me, had never taught public speaking.


When we got through with the course work, writing a play, designing a set and lights, acting in a play, directing a play, and passing the comprehensives, Mary and I talked about our future. Teaching jobs were available. All of our candidates found jobs quickly. But I was not so sure. Mary had little patience with the academic bureaucracy which she found worse than the military, and she felt that the professors we had met seemed so insulated and citizens of their campus but not of the world. I looked down the road to 25 or 30 years of getting on a tenure track, having to spend much of my life in libraries, committees, meetings and all the other administrivia I loathed. We wanted to travel, not be stuck in one place. We had a five year-old son and we wanted to have another child and we were approaching 30 years old. Mary was a labor and delivery nurse and wanted to waste no time with her eggs.


When I left the Air Force for graduate school, the general I worked for said that if I wanted to return I should write to him.  I had completed All But the Dissertation. I did have a subject, later dropped, but a third of Ph. D. candidates have an A.b.D. degree, or not even that far. The Comprehensive exams are daunting and take a year or two to prepare for. I had passed my comprehensives and the dissertation was all that was missing. My plan was to go back into the Air Force and get the Air Force to pay for the dissertation. The program in place, Operation Bootstrap was simple. Anyone seeking a terminal degree would be given a year off to complete it, with pay. We didn’t know about no-brainers in those days, but it didn’t seem to have a downside. I wrote the general and I got a letter saying he couldn’t do anything for me and we were crushed, but less than 30 days later I had orders to got to McChord AFB in Tacoma. We knew it well. It was where I spent two weeks every summer dropping Army troops from Ft. Lewis out of C-119s with my Reserve squadron in Portland. I reported as a Captain and a new phase of our lives began in 1967. Vietnam was heating up and I spent the next year and a half just “flying the line,” just a necessary crew member in the days before GPS glass cockpits and women in flight crews. My squadron was unable to block my year for the dissertation and they did try; navigators were in short supply. But in the fall of 1968 I told my boss that I would be back in six months. It was very hard work but it was fast. I was able catch USAF rides to the east coast because I needed the library at Lincoln Center for its archives of theatre reviews. Mary went back to work at her old job in labor and delivery, we had a cheap apartment in the new married student housing and I had nothing to do but research and write: The American Military, theme and figure in New York stage plays, 1918-1941. Not all that inspiring, but it got the job done. When I was done I wrote an essay about the process and it’s available here.  I got the degree on March 21st 1969.


We then went to Guam, where I taught public speaking for the University of Guam and I made 99 penetrations of Typhoons in WC-130s. When I had to do my tour in Southeast Asia I taught Public Speaking for enlisted people for the University of Maryland when I wasn’t flying in EC-47s finding targets for B-52s. We were assigned next to San Jose State’s ROTC unit, just officers who taught and one full colonel who enjoyed playing a lot of golf and when he retired he became the women’s golf coach. I did some radio plays with the theatre department and taught theatre history. When we moved to Travis AFB in 1976 I taught public speaking for Solano Community College and for Sacramento State at the state prison in Vacaville, where I often saw Charlie Manson, always with a guard on the Main Line. I had to go through a sally port and two more doors to get to my classroom. I was given a repurposed garage door remote to signal the guards if I was attacked. I never needed it. I had murderers and sex offenders, burglars and dealers, but they were highly motivated because I assured them that what they would learn would help them when they met the parole board.


When I retired in 1983 I decided that I might like getting a type D certificate to be a public school principal. I’m a little sorry I didn’t do that. I could have continued to teach, at least a little, but the School of Education was about to create a course in Communications for Teachers and they asked if I would like to create it. I found it interesting that public school teachers have experience in speaking in front of a class in Education departments. There is no such requirement for college teachers. Now you know why some of your teachers in college, especially young ones, seem to know so little about rhetoric.


I taught the course for the next five years and continued to teach theatre history and public speaking for Continuing Education for another 18 years. Also one year filling in for someone in Public Speaking in the Communications Department who was sick on sabbatical or unwell, I can’t remember which.


I still teach 4th graders math and English in the classroom of one of my Education School students. She’s been teaching for 25 years. I’m not just over the hill, I’m in unexplored territory. The students call me Dr. Frankensteiner and it’s a compliment.


I haven’t done the math, but it’s been more than 50 years and around 6000 students. An elementary teacher has fewer than a thousand students in a 30-year career. But it isn’t about numbers. The ability to teach, to communicate verbally, has put us, at least temporarily, at the top of the food chain. Teaching is truly the immortal profession: its effect never ends as knowledge increases in our species. It’s a privilege and an honor to be able to teach. I have enjoyed every minute of it.



"Teaching is truly the immortal profession: its effect never ends as knowledge increases in our species. It’s a privilege and an honor to be able to teach. I have enjoyed every minute of it."



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