Robert Summer sits at Kaladi Brothers in Soldotna, Alaska, in November 2004. (M. Scott Moon/Peninsula Clarion file)

Robert Summer sits at Kaladi Brothers in Soldotna, Alaska, in November 2004. (M. Scott Moon/Peninsula Clarion file)

Voices of the Peninsula: Remembering Mr. Summer

We’ve lost one of the great ones

We’ve lost one of the great ones, a noteworthy teacher — Mr. Robert Summer.

Recalling my first encounter with Mr. Summer: I was dropping our oldest off at Kenai Middle School for his first day of public school after we home-schooled him for the past five years. I was already a nervous wreck, praying public school was the right choice, waiting in the drop-off line on the car ahead of us to move. Suddenly, a Subaru wagon with a large carrier on the top, covered in stickers from everywhere in the world, careened into the parking lot with the same amount of speed needed to enter the on-ramp on the freeway. I thought it was going to t-bone me while I sat wide-eyed holding my breath. But the wagon stopped short of causing damage and out came a gnarled man with a determined stride despite a slight limp. I was a whisper away from withdrawing our son before he stepped foot in the school, and I’m so glad I did not.

Over the next two years while visiting KMS, I watched this man talk to students in the hallway. He would stop mid-stride to address a student, looking them directly in the eye with his head tilted down toward their height, but standing tall beside them as if setting an example of how to carry yourself with confidence to these awkward preteens.

Finally, our oldest entered eighth grade and was assigned history with Mr. Summer. I got my first chance to chat one-on-one during an arena-style parent teacher conference. Tables were set up around the perimeter of the gym, each teacher faced the center of the gym with parents lining up before each table to speak to their child’s teacher before moving to the next table. However, there was one table in the corner set up differently. The teacher sat with his back to the line forcing parents to face the line of other parents waiting. I sat down expecting to hear the good and “needs work” part of our son’s education. What I got instead was the kind eyes of this gnarled teacher locked on mine asking me, “Tell me about yourself.”

After learning that I was from the coal mines of Appalachia in West Virginia, he went on to ask questions of the history of the area. He knew the area and its history, but he wanted a first-hand account to add to his already vast knowledge of history. Summer was the first person I have ever met who knew the history of my home without actually being from the area. He was genuinely excited to see a war ration book, coal scrip and other items we had inherited from our ancestors.

Later that year our son came home to tell us that Mr. Summer shot a musket at school, (which was approved ahead of time and a yearly occurrence). I thought out loud, “Where in the world did he get a musket”! When my son calmly answered, “I think it was issued to him when he fought in the Revolution.” Mr. Summer’s exact age ranged was never really known, but somehow was between George Washington and Keith Richards.

All three of our children were extremely lucky to experience Mr. Summer. He had this ability to engage, enlighten and encourage students and reach them through whatever shell and insecurities they had built around themselves. Our youngest built a rapport with him from daily lighthearted bantering in class; unlike her two older brothers she wasn’t quiet. I would hear of the zingers exchanged and fully expected her to be suspended, but quite the opposite — he encouraged her to run for class president. Which, she did and won. She has been class president for two years running.

The last visit I had with Mr. Summer, a mutual friend took our middle son and myself to visit him in the hospital. Our son had just returned from climbing Mount Rainier with a fellow student of Mr. Summer. Mr. Summer wanted to hear the details of their climb, offer suggestions and encouragement to continue climbing. It made our son’s day to have Mr. Summer’s nod of approval and encouragement to continue adventuring.

I’m certain volumes of stories can be written on the life of Mr. Summer. The person I will remember fondly is a man with a tough exterior and kind eyes whose quick wit and sincere curiosity will leave you feeling like you’ve reconnected with a long lost friend. My most cherished memory is when he gave me likely the best compliment of my life, “You raise good kids.” It takes a village to raise good kids.

Thank you Mr. Summer, I might have given birth to them, but you gave a spark of inspiration to pursue the impossible, the courage to fail and the fear of not trying. We were blessed to know you, God Bless your kind soul.

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