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Bill Vaskis: Inspiring teacher, tenor singer, scholar

Waldemar “Bill” Vaskis, a longtime Claremont High School history teacher who influenced generations of students, died by suicide on December 21, 2016 at Mt. San Antonio Gardens. He was 78.

He came into the world in Philadelphia on April 16, 1938, the second of three children born to Latvian immigrants Zelma and William Vaskis. The elder Mr. Vaskis was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1934 and over the years served as pastor at churches in Pennsylvania and Baltimore. He was also in the Army Chaplains Corps during World War II and the Korean War, seeing conflict overseas while stationed in Germany and Korea.

William brought his family, including Bill and his older sister Inesa Nord-Leth, then in sixth and seventh grade, to live with him in Germany for a year. Bill picked up some German from playing with the local kids, and he and Inesa enjoyed ice skating together at Linderhof, King Ludwig II’s summer palace in Bavaria.

Education was enormously important in the Vaskis family. After securing a promise that his sweetheart Zelma would marry him, William left Latvia first, attending West Hill College in Birmingham, England before landing in Chicago. It was the height of the Depression but he managed, through a series of jobs and scholarships, to earn a bachelor’s degree in theology at the Northern Baptist Seminary. Later, he received a master’s degree in theology from Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia. Upon his return to Latvia, William served briefly as pastor of a Latvian Baptist Church. He also married Zelma who, despite proposals from other suitors, had waited seven years for his return.

In August of 1937, the Vaskises debarked at Ellis Island in New York after a voyage on the S.S. Europa. Zelma was pregnant with Bill and had nine-month-old Inesa in tow. They left just in time. With the onset of World War II, Latvia was seized by the Soviet Union in 1940, occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941 and reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944. The family settled in Philadelphia and welcomed a third child, a son named Andris, a few years later.

Mr. Vaskis inherited his father’s reverence for learning. After graduating from an all-boys high school in Maryland, he enrolled in Baltimore City College. He next attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied classical history and earned teaching credentials in history, English and music. He later studied philosophy and theology at Claremont Graduate University.

Mr. Vaskis’ interest in music, particularly classical, never waned. In fact, he was a longtime member of the choir at La Verne Church of the Brethren, where he sang tenor.

“Bill had an endless subscription to the Philharmonic in LA—he knew most of the musicians,” Inesa said. “That was his passion, really. That, and his Claremont kids.”

In 1967, he landed a gig as a sub at Claremont High School and then as a full-time history teacher. He quickly threw himself into the school community, serving as assistant soccer coach in the early ‘70s and taking over as head coach in 1977.

He considered travel to be an essential part of learning and more than once took delegations of students on a tour of Europe. Photos of a 1986 sojourn posted online by CHS alums include a picture of Mr. Vaskis and 10 students posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. He also took the kids to landmarks like the Trevi Fountain in Rome and on a boat ride through the Blue Grotto, a famous sea cave on the Island of Capri. Never one to let too many rules stand in his way, Mr. Vaskis slipped the gondola driver a few thousand lira to let the students go swimming.

The indefatigable Mr. Vaskis was a skilled pilot and sailor, who participated in CHS’ sailing and flying clubs. He was also adviser to the CHS Ski Club, driving students to Mammoth twice a month during the ski season, and lead camping trips for the Mountaineering Club at sites like Mount San Gorgonio.

Such enrichment activities have waned within the Claremont Unified School District in recent years amid financial and legal concerns. “All the things we used to do, we can’t do anymore,” he said in a 2013 COURIER interview.

Mr. Vaskis was also a proponent of adventures of the mind. His favorite class he taught was one he initiated in the 1970s called Directed Reading and continued through the duration of his career.

A group of accelerated juniors and seniors would read a book a week, meeting every Tuesday night at Mr. Vaskis’ house for a potluck dinner to discuss the book and plan what to read next. Books explored over the years ranged from Dante’s Inferno to The Princess Bride. It was a labor of love, with Mr. Vaskis getting paid for the class only one semester over the years.

“Teaching should be about getting kids to think,” he said. “That’s why I couldn’t teach today: It’s not about thinking, it’s about teaching to the test.”

Hundreds of students, living across the globe, kept in contact with Mr. Vaskis over the years. CHS alums have responded to news of Mr. Vaskis’ death with an outpouring of online tributes, sharing that his teaching and his friendship changed their lives. 

Lee Rawles, who took Mr. Vaskis’ Directed Reading course, posted a heartfelt tribute to his old teacher on Facebook, excerpted below.

“He was a complicated man, full of love for this world and for the people who inhabit it. The fact that I had exactly one class with him should indicate that he played only a small part of my high school career. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote. “[He] was a constant presence on campus, at CHS soccer games and within the larger Claremont community. The summer after my graduation, Bill accompanied a group of us on a sailing trip among the San Juan Islands. It was a great trip, creating numerous memories that keep me smiling today as I reminisce about Bill—more than 25 years later. I wish you fair winds and flowing seas, my friend.”

In the end, Mr. Vaskis’ eagerness to connect with students got him in trouble with school administrators. His methods didn’t jibe with emerging standards from No Child Left Behind and he was coerced into an early retirement at the end of 1999. While he received a pension, he remained hurt by the damage to his reputation and to his career.

Mr. Vaskis was not ready to go quietly into that good night. He kept a dizzying schedule, taking aquafit classes, volunteering three days a week with the Prison Library Project, enjoying star-watching parties hosted by Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, attending AA meetings and auditing classes at the Claremont Colleges. He also visited with former students when he was on the road or when they came to town, and was always open to new acquaintanceships. He met Vince Turner and his bunch at Some Crust Bakery and soon had become a founding member of the Claremont Community College, which is not a real college but instead an organization devoted to the cultivation of knowledge, art and culture in the City of Trees. They are notably responsible for creating Claremont’s 5 Second Film Festival. He loved the group’s monthly meetings at Maniac Mike’s at Cable Airport and was always ready to pitch in to help with any of the CCC’s endeavors. 

“He was the glue,” Mr. Turner said. “It wasn’t just students—he helped tie the community together.”

Another friend he met around that time is Dave Thoits, whose soccer fanaticism rivaled that of Mr. Vaskis. Bill’s favorite football club was Barcelona, but he also rooted enthusiastically for England’s FC Arsenal. They would often meet up at one of their homes or at the Pasadena British pub Lucky Baldwin’s to watch the lively contests.

Even after Mr. Vaskis’ recent move to Mt. San Antonio Gardens, he remained a “soccer hooligan” at heart, organizing parties for the senior residents to watch World Cup games.

Mr. Vaskis was estranged from his brother because the two seemed constitutionally unable to speak without arguing about something, usually religion. While he spoke to Ms. Nord-Leth on the phone and they exchanged visits, she said he tended to keep his family at arm’s length. Once, when she mused aloud about whether or not she should move to Claremont, he was adamantly against it.

“Bill didn’t want any family living in Claremont,” she said. “This was his town, his family and his kids. He just loved Claremont and he was loved here.”

Still, she loved her energetic, occasionally irascible little brother. “I admired how educated and talented he was,” Ms. Nord-Leth said. “He could fly, he could ski, he could coach soccer.”

Mr. Vaskis had been grounded by health issues lately, including undergoing a quadruple bypass a few years ago. A dyed-in-the-wood liberal Democrat, he was also deeply unsettled by the current state of political affairs.

Friends throughout the community, however, say that he didn’t seem depressed in his final days. He continued his usual activities, volunteering and mingling with friends.

On the last day of his life, Mr. Vaskis got riled up about politics, which is nothing unusual for someone with an occasional firebrand streak. However, in this case, his heart rate rose precipitously during the debate. Mr. Vaskis spent the day in the hospital undergoing tests and was later picked up by Mr. Thoits, who took him home. As he said good night, he asked Bill to join his family’s Christmas celebration. He seemed disposed to accept his offer, so Mr. Thoits was as shocked as any of Mr. Vaskis’ friends to hear of his death later that night.

Ms. Nord-Leth said police sent her a picture of her brother’s computer screen. Shortly before taking his life, he had written a Facebook message directed at his many friends in and from Claremont. The note never posted, but she asked that his final message be included in his obituary, so people will know he wanted to say goodbye and hoped his friends wouldn’t grieve too much. He wrote, “The ticker has ceased to work. It has been a great run. You have been a great bunch. It is time to say adieu. Bill Vaskis.”

A community memorial for Mr. Vaskis is planned for 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 29 at the Garner House in Memorial Park, 840 N. Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont. In lieu of flowers, please send donations in his memory to the La Verne Church of the Brethren Choir, 2425 “E” St, La Verne, CA 91750 or the Prison Library Project, c/o The Claremont Forum, 586 W. First St., Claremont, CA 91711 or by visiting claremontforum.org.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com