The revered former BHS civics teacher now faces decline with
Lou Gehrig’s disease.
For 30 years at Bainbridge High School, the sight of seniors pouring over Time and Newsweek magazines meant one thing: it was Friday morning, and Bill Winsor was giving a news quiz.
“He was known as the tough teacher,â€ said Donna Harui, who graduated from BHS in 1978. “He set the mark to be able to graduate from BHS.
“(The quizzes) made us really aware of the global view outside of Bainbridge Island,â€ she said. “For a lot of 17- or 18-year-olds, (the world) doesn’t exist much beyond Bainbridge Island, Washington or the United States. I think he opened our eyes.â€
Loved, feared and, above all, respected, Winsor was a teaching legend for three decades. He taught civics and “Contemporary World Problems,â€ which every student had to pass to graduate. And, he read their names off at commencement, because he knew how to pronounce every one.
Last December, Winsor was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his condition is steadily declining. A group of his former colleagues are urging students who were touched by Winsor’s teaching to write to him (see box).
For Winsor – who taught entire families of kids from 1959 until he retired in 1991, broken up only by a stint teaching for the Air Force in Europe, from 1962-63 – the memories are fond.
“I enjoyed kids and the subject matter,â€ said Winsor, now 72 and a resident of Spokane. “I didn’t enjoy prep or correction, but it was the interaction with kids more than anything else. Give them as much advice as you can give them…assist them to get to that potential any way they possibly can. Find the resources and work toward those goals.â€
Winsor’s former colleagues recall his dedication, work ethic and energy.
He rose at 4:30 a.m. and walked up Madison Avenue to arrive at the school by 6 a.m. every day with his briefcase full of student papers. He’d put on the coffee and then do his grading.
“You could always count on him,â€ said George Bussell, BHS principal from 1969-80. “He didn’t always agree with you, but you could count on him to state his opinions, do his job well and volunteer to do things.
“Students always said, ‘I appreciated having Mr. Winsor my senior year because it prepared me for college.’â€
Also remembered is the story of how Winsor suffered a heart attack on the way to school.
The morning of Jan. 2, 1980, as he reached High School Road and Madison Avenue, he had “a gigantic pain on the back of the neckâ€ that, with his two satchels of papers brought him to his knees in front of the church.
He got back up, went to school and put on the coffee. It wasn’t until 11 days later, when he had the pain again, that he finally saw a doctor and found out he’d had a heart attack, which led to bypass surgery that ended his school year.
As to why he didn’t see a doctor sooner, Winsor said, “It’s terrible getting a lesson plan made up for a substitute.â€
Retired BHS history teacher Roger Miller remembers Winsor’s spirit.
“The amazing thing about Bill is he did everything for the senior class: trip, graduation, ordering cap and gowns,â€ he said.
Winsor was faculty advisor to the National Honor Society and when he retired it took three or four people to fill his shoes, Miller said.
BHS chemistry teacher Stephen Hohl recalls Winsor going home at lunch to care for his mother and then again after work, or taking a taxi to shop and cook for an invalid uncle.
Harui said the notorious news quizzes – which required each student to read Time or Newsweek magazine cover to cover – were very challenging.
Not only did students have to know the names of leaders of countries, where they stood on issues and the way the government systems were set up, all those names had to be spelled correctly. And, he had a quiz for both Time and Newsweek.
“My daughter got a B and thought she’d died and gone to heaven,â€ said Hohl, who counted Winsor as his mentor.
At the same time, Winsor was fair.
“He was consistent (in grading),â€ Miller said. “It didn’t matter if you were a cheerleader or the slowest kid, he had expectations for kids to do well. If anyone was fair to his students, it was Bill.â€
Andy Grimm, BHS ’85 and now the school’s football coach, recalls hearing from his older sister and brother about how tough Winsor was.
“Academically, it was the toughest high school class I had. His expectations were really high. He put a college-level stamp on his class,â€ Grimm said. “Yeah, he made you work hard, but really cared that you’d graduate and get out there and be successful in whatever you do.
“If he saw the look in your eye that you wanted to do well, and you initiated it, he was there.â€
After college, Harui went on to write the 11 o’clock news for Seattle-area television stations.
“I think so highly of him,â€ she said. “When I was writing the news for 10 years, he’d often come to mind…To think that he’d laugh at me doing what he tried so hard to teach.â€
Winsor’s Civics class also required each student to attend a city council meeting, school board meeting or traffic court to see how government worked, and then report back to the class.
The assignment was to teach students “that they have a role to play in society,â€ Winsor said. “I wanted to activate that role in society and make them understand every vote is important.â€
In election years, he made getting out the vote a class project, especially when a school levy was up. While Winsor was there, the school levy failed only once.
“I had the flu, and they blamed me,â€ he said, “so they had to run it again.â€
Solonsky remembers Winsor giving a voter registration card to each student on his or her 18th birthday and saying, “You need to do this for you, for me, for the country.â€
He also made his students take the test that immigrants take to become a U.S. citizen.
“He wanted to make kids realize what being an American meant and how fortunate (they were),â€ Solonsky said.
Winsor learned high standards from his Catholic education, from primary school through college. He had wanted to become a priest or a teacher, but family circumstances meant he had to work. He was at Boeing for five years and served in the Army Service Corps during the Korean War from 1952-53. After that, he took night classes to become a teacher.
After retiring to Spokane, he spent two months every winter following his great passion, opera, in productions all over Europe, but he was also a frequent island visitor.
“I always enjoy meeting with kids and finding out how things are going with them,â€ said Winsor, who had attended every class reunion he was invited to until his health prevented him this year.
Because of Lou Gehrig’s disease – an incurable degenerative illness that weakens and eventually destroys components of the nervous system, but leaves the mind intact – Winsor has lost 40 pounds and has virtually no muscle function left.
Winsor is not in pain, but the fatigue “is getting to me every day,â€ he said.
With mechanical aids, he still dresses and readies himself to “get things done for the day.â€ Most difficult is not being able to do the two things he enjoys most: walking and reading for any length of time.
Winsor used to walk everywhere and never drove. And contrary to a myth passed on by students that he had a wife and child who died in a car accident, causing him to give up the car, Winsor never married.
“I did not like driving,â€ he said. “I started learning in high school and no one did what they were supposed to.
“I thought I would be the first road rage (incident).â€
Now his former students are asked to reach out to Bill Winsor as he reached out to them.
“He had a great influence on their lives,â€ former colleague Ann Johansson said. “When kids returned, they’d always mention his name because he taught them how life should be and the responsibility of whatever you undertake.
“The proverb ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well’? He personified that. He touched the hearts of many, many people.â€
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Drop a line
Friends, former students and colleagues of Bill Winsor can write to him c/o Melanie Solonsky, Bainbridge High School, 9330 NE High School Road, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.