St. Peter mourns death of ear-tugging, poetry loving, respect-commanding English teacher

William D. Harvey, or, as his students called him, "Mr. Harvey" was a revered English teacher and poet at St. Peter High School for decades. He was also a World War II vet who thousands of students remembered fondly for his enthusiasm for teaching literature.

MANKATO — In St. Peter — and in all the far-flung places where former St. Peter High School students now reside — the news that spread this week wasn't about the passing of "Bill Harvey" or "William D. Harvey."

The news that spread was "Mr. Harvey," age 90, had died. It didn't matter how many decades had passed since students passed through his English class, the former teacher always received the title before his name.

"To this day, he was 'Mr. Harvey'," Doug Wolfe said. "And it wasn't out of fear. It was respect — out of and due to respect."

The respect was returned, with Mr. Harvey putting "Mister" or "Miss" in front of the first name of each student. Marlene Lind — who was "Miss Marlene" to her teacher during her school days and "Mrs. Marlene" when she'd run into him after she married — said he'd also remember her class when she'd greet him at the grocery store.

"He'd say, 'Class of '63,'" Lind said. "I'd say, 'Mr. Harvey. You shouldn't say that, people will know how old I am!'"  

Wolfe and Lind were both part of the class of 1963, the group of freshmen who were the first to experience Mr. Harvey. The English teacher — who would share his love of literature and, especially, poetry to another 33 classes of students at St. Peter High School — wasn't the typical first-time teacher.

He had graduated from Augustana College earlier in 1959, so he was a rookie teacher. But he was also 35 years old and a veteran of World War II, serving first with the Merchant Marines and then the U.S. Army, and was later recalled to the Army for the Korean War.

A late start in teaching, however, didn't mean an abbreviated opportunity to educate. His obituary said Mr. Harvey, an Iowa farm boy who never married, "is survived by the 5,000 students he taught."

Lads and lasses, lend me your ears

"He was absolutely revered by the entire community," said Peter Rheaume, a former St. Peter mayor and 1976 graduate of St. Peter High School.

Last summer's St. Peter Fourth of July Parade, where he was the grand marshal, and the 2014 All School Reunion both paid special tribute to Mr. Harvey.

Addressed as a group, Mr. Harvey's students were "lads" and "lasses," a habit that continued even when he was talking to a class of '63 reunion after his retirement.

"He said, 'My lads and lasses, I want to digress ...," Wolfe remembered.

Mr. Harvey announced that, one last time, he wanted to take attendance, and asked each student to answer "present" when he called their name. He went from table to table, remembering every name, hesitating only once when one 53-year-old former student called out "here" instead of "present."

"I'll deal with you later," he told the man before continuing his flawless attendance check.

Wolfe, who not coincidentally became an English teacher and taught for 23 years in Windom, said Mr. Harvey could be tough and pushed his students to work hard. But he led by example, treating students respectfully while demonstrating his love for language by reading great works aloud.

"He just made literature come alive and wanted us to love literature, too," Wolfe said, recalling Mr. Harvey's readings of Moby Dick. "We kind of felt like we were on the whale ship with Ahab when he would read in class. When he would read in class, you could hear a pin drop."

Wolfe doesn't want to leave the impression that there weren't other great teachers at St. Peter High School who were beloved and who had a lasting impact on students.

"All of our teachers were special," he said. "Mr. Harvey was ... specialer."

Wolfe laughed again, knowing that sentence would have gotten a prominent red mark on any theme paper graded by Mr. Harvey.

The papers, when they were handed back, often had plenty of red marks, said Lind, who became an elementary school teacher with a concentration in English. The graded assignments also invariably included compliments and underlined sections he particularly liked.

Something he didn't tolerate was incomplete assignments, Rheaume said. "Poet's Corner" was a section of the classroom where students who hadn't memorized one of the required poems were sent to learn them to the last word. And if a theme was incomplete, a student might be required to add some final sentences while standing and using a rough, textured-plaster wall as a writing surface.

"Those were the punishments for coming to class without your work done," Rheaume said. "And further, when he pinched the fat on the back of your arm or encouraged you to stand by gently tugging on your ear, no one ran home and told mom and dad about it. If you ever got that from Mr. Harvey, suffice it to say, you had earned it."

Lind never suffered those fates, and neither (as far as she knows) did her children, who were also taught by Mr. Harvey. She remembers classmates getting an ear-pull "here and there" to get their attention, and she mentioned to him years after he retired that the technique had fallen out of favor.

"I said, 'Mr. Harvey, you wouldn't be able to do that anymore.' He said, 'I know. Isn't it a pity?'"

His devotion to his students was beyond question, however, and not just during academic periods. Mr. Harvey showed up at all of the sports events, the school plays, the musical performances ... . He'd even be there when a rural kid was showing a pig at the county fair, Wolfe said.

Lasting lessons in literature

His dedication and his techniques were demonstrably effective. Multiple times at reunions, when alums start reminiscing about English class, poetry memorized 40 years prior will stream from their mouths, Lind said.

"They'll recite these poems when they hear Mr. Harvey's name. 'I will go down to the sea again ... ' I can't believe they remember," she said. "... Unless they were in Poet's Corner so long they learned them, never to be forgotten."

Even when he retired in 1993, the teaching continued.

Attendees at the Class of '63's 50th reunion last year heard Mr. Harvey reciting poems.

"He always did at our reunions," Wolfe said. "And he'd pass them all out, like school papers."

When the reunion organizing committee from that class wanted to celebrate Mr. Harvey's 90th birthday on Sept. 11, they told him they'd treat him to dinner at any restaurant he chose. They were a bit surprised he didn't pick a Twin Cities venue, but they weren't even mildly shocked when he stood up after dinner at Charley's Restaurant and Lounge in Mankato and said he was going to recite a poem.

In this case, the poet was Paul Anka and the poem was the lyrics to "My Way." Written for Frank Sinatra, Anka's lyrics tell of a man reflecting on the way he lived as he neared the end of his life.

Mr. Harvey, seven weeks before suffering heart-related health problems that led to his death, started out reciting the words:

"And now, the end is here

And so I face the final curtain

My friend, I'll say it clear

I'll state my case, of which I'm certain ... "

By then, the melody was sneaking into the recitation by the 90-year-old man, a life-long bachelor, celebrating his final birthday surrounded by former students.

"And then he began to sing," Wolfe said.

By the time he reached the defiant ending of the lyrics, Mr. Harvey had tears in his eyes, Wolfe said: "And tears came to all of our eyes. Because he was our Mr. Chips."

Mr. Harvey's funeral is Tuesday in Spencer, Iowa, but there will be a visitation from 2-6 p.m. Sunday in St. Peter at the Church of St. Peter.

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