Robert Summer had a particular gruff facade and dry sense of humor that for decades made him a hit with hundreds of students who passed through his eighth grade history class at Kenai Middle School. He backed that up with a biting intellect and a genuine passion for teaching that also made him an inspiration to his colleagues.
He died earlier this month, at the age of 64, and after 33 years spent at Kenai Middle teaching history and outdoor education.
“He had very high standards that every teacher in our school tried to imitate,” Kenai Middle Vice Principal Ken Felchle said Monday. “Even me. I don’t know if I ever got there, but I tried and it was because of him.”
When Felchle got his start teaching seventh grade history at Kenai Middle, he was paired with Summer as a mentor — in the 25 years that followed, the two worked closely as Kenai Middle’s history department. Felchle said Summer was his “big brother.”
Summer’s success, influence and popularity with his students, Felchle said, came from his true interest and investment in both the subject matter and the students at their desks.
“He wanted students to become productive citizens in our society,” he said. “That comes with being informed.”
Former students, some decades removed from Summer’s classroom, still point to him as a direct influence on their lives.
Meg Hamilton was a student of Summer’s around 2014. She just finished her second year teaching in the Chicago Public Schools District. It was a job shadow she did with Summer in 2017, she said, that gave her the confidence to pursue teaching as she sought education as a historian.
Part of the respect he earned from his young audiences came from the level of respect he offered them. That meant both engaging with them intellectually on a higher level, but also holding them to a greater standard, as mentioned by Felchle.
Part of that, for Robert Carson, a high school senior who took Summer’s class around 2020, was Summer’s honest demeanor. Carson said he wasn’t the usual upbeat teacher — he was gruff, “almost grumpy” but “endearingly so.” He was honestly himself, honestly unique. He made an effort to personally connect with each student.
“He wanted respect, but he also wanted to show his students that same respect,” said Vail Coots, who had Summer’s class around 2022. “Called them out where they needed to be called out, but he would applaud them and show them love and support when they needed it.”
Coots said Summer knew that each of his students was capable of remarkable things, and that was why he had the standards he did.
Carson said Summer was also the first teacher who ever taught him how to properly take notes. Summer, in one of the first classes each year, would instruct on his own brand of outline-style note taking.
“It’s a manner in which I still take notes to this day,” Carson said.
Kyra Bodnar-McBride still remembers the elaborate doodles he instructed her — and all of his students — to make in the margins of her notes page.
For Bodnar-McBride, who was in Summer’s class around 2009, Summer’s classroom was a safe space for learning in which the students were valued. She described Summer as an educator capable of understanding and engaging with his young students in a way that few others could.
“What most students took away from his class wasn’t just textbook material,” she said. “His inspirational stories and hilarious conversations impacted the rest of our lives.”
For many students, Summer was more than a favorite teacher — for some he was a hero.
April Orth described a Kenai Central High School spirit day, Superhero Day, where her son Keenan Orth, who was in Summer’s class around 2012, arrived at school dressed in flip flops, Carhartt pants, a button-up shirt and a mustache.
“All of the students knew who he was,” she said. She said he told her then, “Mr. Summer was the one who inspired me in my life.”
Others similarly pointed to Summer as impactful.
“Mr. Summer was the first teacher I had that made me want to be in school,” said Emma DiCarlo, who had his class around 1997. “He helped me to realize I was more than what I thought I was.”
Kaitlyn Morse, who was in Summer’s class around 2009, said the memory of Summer that came immediately to mind was far more recent — a garage sale only a few years ago.
Summer showed up, spent an hour chatting, then bought a pair of “real leather, authentic German lederhosen pants.” He said he “could definitely use these” in his life. He was “very” excited about them.
Morse said that Summer was always a warm conversationalist with the memory of an elephant — she said he stood out when she was at Kenai Middle for always being respectful of her relationship with her now-husband, Collin, in a way most adults weren’t toward teenage romance.
Beyond the strong personal connections he cultivated, Summer was also credited by his students for convincing them to engage more deeply with the content. DiCarlo said that it was his teaching that drove her to want to learn more — to put in more effort and produce better work.
“I don’t really think you’d be able to find an experience like Mr. Summer’s class anywhere else,” Carson said. He described classmates at Kenai Central who had gone to another school in the eighth grade, telling them, “Oh, you never had Mr. Summer? … You missed out on so much.”
Felchle said that, when he was still teaching seventh grade history, every year, without fail, the new eighth graders would come down to his room.
“They were scared to death of him,” he said. “And by the end of the year he was their farewell speaker.”
To lose that man, who inspired, challenged and benefited decades worth of students and colleagues, is to leave a hole in Kenai Middle and in the wider community, Felchle said.
But Summer always lived his life to make the most of each single day, knowing that they were numbered.
Summer bested cancer twice, climbed Denali for a fundraiser that sent 300 children with cancer to specialized outdoor camps, and probably hiked the Skyline Trail more than anyone else. In 2016 he hiked France’s Robert Louis Stevenson Trail — around 160 miles — solo. In 2021, he spent nine days in the ICU at Central Peninsula Hospital battling COVID-19 and again prevailed.
In 2004, the day he returned to Kenai Middle after his second bout of cancer, he told then-Clarion reporter Jenny Neyman that his “complicated” medical history only filled him with greater love for the world, for each day.
“Borrowed time, who the hell from?” Summer said. “This is bonus time.”
Even then, his “well-worn Subaru” was said to have “long been a fixture” in the Kenai Middle parking lot.
“I will never ask anyone, whoever that person is, to replace him or fill his shoes,” Felchle said of whoever will become the next eighth grade history teacher at Kenai Middle. “People are gonna tell whoever steps in that classroom about Mr. Summer. … The legend of Mr. Summer is going to grow.”
A memorial service will be held at Kenai Central High School on Saturday, June 17, at 10 a.m. His family has directed memorial donations to cancer camps for children like My Camp Sunshine or Camp Little Red Door, or to Kenai Middle School. Immediately following the memorial, a public group will hike Skyline in his honor — rain or shine.