Keith Olbermann '75's tribute to Randy McNaughton

Former faculty member Randy McNaughton's memorial service was held in King Chapel on a beautiful sunny day on June 24th, 2017. Stories, laughter, and tears were shared as family, friends, and alumni honored one of Hackley's greatest legends. One of these stories shared was that of Keith Olbermann '75, whose eulogy was read by Haleh Tavakol '84 on his behalf.

See the speech in its entirety:


I would like you to picture the old Symmes Hall Middle School building – the ground-floor, please – all the way in the back, furthest from where we are at this moment.
On the left of the ground floor, there is a science laboratory.
Now, please go, in your mind, to the autumn of the year 1970, and into that science classroom. And go all the way to the back row, and take careful note of the two 8th Grade lab partners standing there, wearing very official looking white lab coats and working over a Bunsen Burner.
One is a goofy looking 11-year old.
But the other one, would have grabbed your attention anyway.
We will call him Bob – just Bob – and as it proved, he would graduate from a DIFFERENT school, possibly because of what I am about to tell to you next.
He is taller and brighter-eyed and much more filled with promise than is his junior lab partner.
But more to the point, Bob…is on fire.
In fact, Bob has LIT HIMSELF on fire, and what we have mistaken for a hopeful, promising gleam in his eye, is actually some reflection of pyromania.
This has INDUCED him to light his own lab coat on fire while he IS WEARING IT.
The flames are still relatively small and controllable.
But Bob is really enjoying where this is going.
Next to him, the kid with the coal-black eyebrows and the expression of shall we say CONCERN, the NEW Hackley kid, is not really certain what to do next. So he raises his hand.
“Excuse me?” he says, then repeats it a little louder.
“Excuse me. SIR?”
The teacher at the head of the class, who has clearly done something to annoy his employers and has thus been saddled with this group of miscreants listed as Class 8-dash-24, interrupts the conversation he is having with another student and looks up from under his glasses and says “What is it NOW, Keith?”
“Uh, SIR?” I say, stealing another look at Bob, who is still on fire. “Bob has lit himself on fire, Sir.”
The teacher squints. As he moves purposefully – not with evident panic but with more a sense of weary chagrin – he says, “Yeah, I can see that now, Keith.”
The teacher sighs. He grabs the fire extinguisher from its rack by the classroom door, he strides evenly but quickly to the back, he shakes the extinguisher briefly, then with one well-aimed squirt, he puts…Bob…out.
He backs up now a little, to make sure Bob hasn’t got more flames hidden on him somewhere, then speaks to Bob, who is just coming out of a trance.
“Bob. Again?”
Bob, crestfallen – but on the other hand no longer ablaze and thus no longer about to level Symmes Hall two decades earlier than necessary – nods.
“Go to Mr. Buessow’s office. Go and tell him.”
As Bob slinks out, the teacher now looks at me. “I don’t know WHY I let him sit in the back row. Are you ok? You kept a level head. Good job. You just go over there and watch Joe and Rick do the experiment.” As I move, Randy McNaughton says “Wait. In case it’s catching…” He hands me the fire extinguisher. “Take this with you.”
That, to me, is where we should start in trying to appreciate the man we remember today.
What do you do when one of your students has intentionally lit himself on fire?
What do you do with the student’s shaken lab partner?
You give him the fire extinguisher.
I had the honor of seeing Mr. McNaughton on a daily basis for only five years – four-and-a-half really – the famous Alaska sabbatical took place not long after the case of Bob, The Human Torch and I’ve never been convinced the two events were un-related. And I only knew him, in total, for about 46 years, but I think that story is fairly representative of the gifted, dedicated, but perhaps above all else – and IMPORTANT BEYOND all else in a world so very lacking in this ONE attribute – that story is fairly representative of the gifted, dedicated, and PRACTICAL teacher and friend whom we have lost.
We new students were assigned faculty advisors when we got here, and I think I was assigned to Randy and then I switched to somebody else or maybe he began to wonder if Bob had CHOSEN to light himself on fire BECAUSE he was my lab partner and Randy dropped me – I can’t remember the specifics.
But I do remember that my second advisor here left the school and when I had to select ANOTHER new one I asked him if I could re-join him because of that eminent practicality and he gave me that “sure” and the shrug that came with it. And I could never tell if he was more fond of me than he was of his average student, but I didn’t really worry about it, because his advice was as practical as the day he put out Bob.
As a senior I was briefly removed as Editor-in-Chief of The Dial. Two new teachers right out of college had taken over as its advisors and they had a problem with me. I know! Right? Me and management at odds? Hard to believe. Anyway, the complaint was: I had been doing too much of the work of the paper myself and not letting anybody else do things.
And so they demoted me and put, in charge as Co-Editors-In-Chief, two of my friends who I had recruited to help me on the paper and basically the newspaper then crashed. Missed a few deadlines. Finally it came out with a couple of the articles printed upside down. It was a problem.
And I of course WANTED my job back and I turned for help to everybody, and of course after a month the guy with the solution turned out to be…Randy. He sat me down and said, and I think this is pretty close to an exact quote, “If you haven’t figured this out yet about life, the only way anything like this ever gets fixed is if everybody gets to save face.

The deal is, each of them stays on as Co-Editor-in-Chief. You apologize to Mr. Carroll and Mr. Davidson. And they’ll apologize to you. Then you will ALSO become Co-Editor-in-Chief again. Deal?”
I pointed out that this meant we would have three editors-in-chief on a newspaper that only had one OTHER editor, the photo editor.
“I thought of that,” he said. “You guys will need new editors in the spring when you graduate, so appoint a bunch of Deputy Editors now.”
I said that was a good idea, but still that the three editors-in-chief seemed like way too many.
“I thought of THAT, too,” he said. “YOU will actually be in charge. YOUR title will be SENIOR Editor-in-Chief. You run it. Just like before. Just – don’t make a big deal about it, OK?”
I had four or five courses with Randy in my five years here. Nobody made science more accessible than Randy. Except the half-year he left us on sabbatical I did not have another science teacher here – and both before and after him, I was a disaster in science class, in Middle School and in College. A washout.
WHILE he was my science teacher? I can recall getting here before dawn for field work with a telescope, and road trips to the Jones Road Overpass in Jersey for what he quickly explained to us was one of the finest above-ground displays of the various kinds of rock on the East Coast, and another trip to the Delaware Water Gap where I swear we spent like a month picking up samples and even fossils.
Ten years after Geology class I moved to Los Angeles to work, and I was able to explain earthquakes to native Angelenos – once or twice ON THE AIR RIGHT AFTER EARTHQUAKES – and that was all Randy’s doing.
19 years after I graduated I came back to give the Commencement address and I wanted to emphasize to the seniors the true value of this place, which is, as you know, to be found in the quality and dedication of the teachers. I pointed out that it would only be clear to them later – as it was only clear to ME later – just how great these teachers were. I pointed out that there were 18 of them looking up at me during that speech who had been SITTING in front of me the day I graduated nearly two decades earlier. I said then, and more than two decades later it’s doubly true, that knowing these great men and women and being the beneficiaries of their teaching, was like being certain that you’d always find an extra twenty-dollar bill in your wallet.
I was blessed to be here during a golden age of teaching – Arthur Naething, Walter Schneller, the Szabos, the Mittons, the Gibbons  – and Randy McNaughton. And after the speech nearly all of them came up to me to say something nice. But I’ll never forget this: only one of them came up to me and was emotional about it to the point that I thought something BAD had happened.
It was Randy and he had tears in his eyes and he simply kept repeating “thank you” as if he didn’t KNOW we all felt that way about him and all the others.
And here I want to mention context.
Giants did indeed walk the earth here in those days – and, in others. And if you could button-hole everybody who was a student in that stretch of 50 or so years and say “Quick. Name me the ONE person who WAS Hackley to you,” I think you’d get 20 different, great, answers.
But there is one group I know from which I would NOT get twenty different answers.
A lot of people bring up Hackley to me. Many tell of a relative who went here, or a neighbor, and they’ll often mention a teacher or two – but the largest group of people who introduce themselves to me by invoking the school, to this day, comes from a group you and I may or may not have any connection to.
They are the ones to whom Hackley means…the Hackley Summer Camp.
And we students who saw the seasons tell their story might also invoke Schneller or a Szabo or a Mitton or a Buessow or Frederick Nelson or Mr. King or Mr. Dexter, the campers – all of them – ALL of them, mention Randy McNaughton.
As we remember him we should remember that to THEM, Randy McNaughton WAS Hackley School. To be fair, to some it was equal parts Randy…and that BUS he drove. But he WAS this place to him and all of us could not have had a better representative.
Which brings me to my final point.
There is something about Randy McNaughton that was unique to my experience as a student, and something that to this day I have never heard of, having happened anywhere else.
Geology is not a common subject in high schools and frankly unless you have a model earthquake machine in your classroom, it is about as enticing to a student as a class I almost took at Cornell which was called “Turf Management” which did, in fact, consist of watching the grass grow.
But in a firmament of immortal teachers here, Randy McNaughton was the only one of all of them who could make you believe the Jones Road Overpass in Englewood New Jersey was as magnificent as the Grand Canyon, or who could convince you to get excited about tectonic plates and fault lines in a community that hasn’t had a real earthquake in 50-thousand years.
And just how true that is, was underscored for me, in 1974.
I think there were 40 of us in two sections of the Geology course Randy taught. And I think that towards the end of the year a couple of us were talking in MY class and it turned out at least a dozen of us had been stunned to find ourselves enjoying studying rocks that had not really changed in a million years.
We went to Randy and said “We don’t think we’ve learned enough about this. Is there a chance they would let you have a Geology TWO class next year? Because we’d all like to be in it.”
I’ve heard of parents of first graders asking if their kids’ teacher could keep the same class the next year.
But these were high school JUNIORS!
Not only were students – high school students, none of whom to my knowledge were to become scientists let alone geologists – asking for another year’s worth of the topic – but when the school listened and we were told we could HAVE Geology Two if 20 of the 40 students were willing to commit to it…THIRTY of us signed up.
The next year, Randy had to have TWO SECTIONS of Geology-2, because he so quietly and practically inspired us that what interested HIM, had begun to interest US.
And of course there was the second part of that. We were, probably without realizing it, saying to him, in 1974, what we would all say to him, right now: Gee, Mr. McNaughton, we would give anything…for another year…with you.