CHS teacher, coach Jack Harper to retire

Jack Harper’s endless summer is about to begin. The beloved Claremont High School biology teacher, football coach and ASB director is retiring June 14 after 39 years at the school, leaving a void that won’t be filled anytime soon, if ever.

“You don’t replace a Jack Harper,” CHS Principal Brett O’Connor said. “You hire somebody and hope they grow into a Jack Harper.”

Talking to Mr. Harper’s friends, colleagues and students revealed a common thread: everyone loves the 61-year-old Claremont native, 1974 CHS grad and steadfast supporter of all things Wolfpack. But getting him to talk about himself was another story.

“I talked to Kathryn [Dunn] a couple of weeks ago and said, ‘Can’t you just let me slide out the back door?’ and she goes, ‘No chance.’”

Tireless is a word that comes up a lot when you ask folks about Mr. Harper.

“There’s a lot of extra time he puts in that people don’t see,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Dances, homecoming, with the parade, all that, it’s just a tremendous amount to organize.”

He’s been there for everyone, every day, every year, not just showing up, but changing things for sometimes vulnerable, unsure teenagers at a pivotal time in their lives.

“He’s always treated us as though we were mature, and our opinions were truly valued in comparison with other adults,” said senior Juliana Quick, 18, a four-year ASB student of Mr. Harper’s. “The trust he puts in us, his undying support, his love for teaching and our lives is what has really helped me mature, personally, and to feel that I’m valued. He’s become a father figure for me. I know when I go off to college [to the University of San Francisco for a teaching program] he’s going to be someone I stay in contact with. He definitely inspired me to become a teacher.”

Senior Kyra Tisopulos, 18, is an ASB student who is off to the University of Washington in the fall.

“He’s just there for so many students and he’s impacted so many lives,” Kyra  said. “His lectures have really stuck with me, and I know these are life lessons I’ll carry with me the rest of my life. He’s like a second dad to me, really. I know he’s always there for me and he’s been so important in my life.”

Senior Isabel Barbee, 17, has been in Mr. Harper’s ASB class for three years.

“He taught me how to speak my mind and be comfortable with it,” she said. “He jokes around with me now about how quiet and serious I was my sophomore year. He taught me how to lighten up and enjoy something, even if it’s hard work, and to see the good in people, because that’s how he views the world, and it’s kind of great.”

Isabel is headed off to Mr. Harper’s alma mater, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she’ll study history, political science and pre-law.

Mr. Harper graduated from Cal Poly SLO in 1979 and was immediately hired by CHS as an assistant football coach, a job he held until last season. He earned his master’s and teaching credential from Claremont Graduate University in 1983 and began teaching biology at CHS in 1984.

The 1998 Claremont Unified School District Teacher of the Year has been CHS’s ASB director for 18 years, was head baseball coach from 1985 to 1987, has guided JV tennis and girls’ basketball and even spent a year as a baseball coach at Claremont McKenna College. All of this while seemingly being everywhere, all the time.

“I’m going to miss him being at everything,” said Lynn Forester, 62, ASB office manager, a 23-year CHS employee and Mr. Harper’s neighbor. “He goes to everything. To put it short, he just loves it, he loves being there and he loves the kids.”

Ask any parent: connecting with teenagers isn’t easy. To hear his colleagues tell it, Mr. Harper could write the book. He allows students to make decisions, formulate plans and execute them. It’s a hallmark of his teaching style in which successes—and failures—are teachable moments.

“Our goal in ASB is to develop leadership and planning skills,” Mr. O’Connor said. “You can’t do that if the ASB director has to control everything and be in charge of everything. And that’s the message Jack gets. Students in his ASB classes learn so much about leadership, and what it takes to be an ethical leader. He not only talks about it, he walks it every day.”

Mr. Harper’s teaching skills have also been put to use on the gridiron.

“Jack Harper is one of the best football coaches I’ve ever met,” said Mike Collins, CHS head football coach from 1994 to 2015. “His incredible enthusiasm for the game, his fierce determination to be successful, and his love for our players was greater than all others. He coached with class and passion, a rare combination.”

When he started teaching there were no cell phones, and affordable personal computers were still years away. A lot has changed over the years, but for Mr. Harper, some things in Claremont have held strong.

“The value of education in this community has not changed, and I think that’s what makes Claremont schools the best,” he said. “That value for education is driven from the community aspect all the way to the individual schools. I think that lures really strong teachers to this district.”

Is there a commonality with respect to his students over the past four decades?

“Simply, they’re still kids,” he said. “And they’re inquisitive. I think what has changed, obviously, is technology.”

Another change he’s seen is the intense pressure for kids to succeed.

“That’s driven from our colleges and college applications. When thousands of students are applying for a particular college, and they might take two or three percent of that number, that pressure is real.”

In retirement Mr. Harper plans to continue to educate through volunteering, workshops and camps.

“Working with kids is what I know, and it’s what I feel I’m good at,” he said. “I don’t think it ends on June 14. I believe that passionate teachers really never retire. There’s just too much work to be done.”

His wife Joan Harper, 62, who has worked as a physical therapist at Pomona Valley Hospital for 36 years, is also retiring this June. They have two children, a daughter, Jaime, 33, who is a speech pathologist in San Diego, and a son, Ryan, 31, who is a physical therapist in Norco.

The Harpers plan to spend more time at their second home in Morro Bay.

“But Claremont’s our home,” Mr. Harper said. “Our family’s here, and our friends here. It’s where we’re grounded.”

In a storybook ending to the couple’s working careers, they will be first-time grandparents in September, when Ryan’s wife Abigail is scheduled to give birth to a girl. “Which makes this pretty good timing,” he said.

Asked if it felt good to leave a legacy, Mr. Harper characteristically chose to deflect the praise.

“First of all, the students are my inspiration,” he said. “One of the things I tell them constantly is to always leave it better than it was when you arrived, no matter what it is.

“Whether it’s cleaning up your room, a relationship, or a class, it doesn’t matter. Leave it better than it was when you came in. I really believe that’s going to help them become better versions of themselves. That’s what inspires me. They inspire me. I’m a lifelong learner, and my students are exemplary teachers for me.”

—Mick Rhodes


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