Frank Van Schaick, aka Ol’ Van 1911-2006

by Bruce Brownell

schaik_use_this.jpgIt’s an impossible task to capture the
essence of Frank Van Schaick on a few sheets of paper; he was too
many things and so influential to countless people, especially the
generations of children he taught.

Room 10 at Wilson School was no ordinary place; it was Van’s
Room. We had our regular studies, of course, but they occurred in a
room full of wildlife captured on many trips, a room adorned with
Greek statues and horse pistols. Navajo sand paintings and prints
of the great masters hung beside our own works. Across the hall was
a large closet allegedly for coats and lunches, but it contained
tools and workbenches on which we manufactured all manner of
projects. Everyone had to make an ash baton and “conduct” the class
music lessons. Best of all, we made bows and arrows from scratch
and took them on our camping trips. Room 10 had no regular pencil
sharpener; we used our knives, just as Van did. Van had us in noon
league sports and after school we practiced for the Saturday games
against other schools, where winning was good, but sportsmanship
was paramount. We agonized over a class Constitution, then we lived
by it. Van was a great one for democracy; he taught it and lived

Van had a calm forcefulness and a strong will never imposed; he
simply set clear examples easily followed. Even today, 50 years
later, former Room 10 students will ask themselves what Van would
have thought before settling on their own course of action. His
keen intellect was obvious, and as we grew older we appreciated his
abiding wisdom. Van’s character and personality were perfect for
the classroom, but more so for the wilderness, which, I think, Van
assumed was another classroom more suited to higher learning. Love
for his family was intense, but I doubt he was ever more content
than deep in the woods or high in the Sierra, especially with a
group of kids “doing all that neat stuff,” as he would put it,
“learning to take care of themselves.”

I recall once, years after Room 10, stopping by his place for a
visit. Van had yet another group of children down in his woods —
cooking, camping, tying knots, and studying wildlife — and I asked
his wife Lois how he could put up with all of us over so many
years. She replied, “He never met a kid he wouldn’t bring

He was the recipient of countless accolades and awards, all
graciously accepted, then never mentioned again. Humble
legitimately describes Van, as does Man of the People, but he was
by no means common. I once chanced upon a retired Stanford
professor and mentioned that my sixth-grade teacher was a graduate
of her institution. On hearing his name, she became excited and
said, “Frank Van Schaick! He was the most gifted student I ever

Van was ever a man of words and good literature, surrounded to
his last days by stacks of books, especially of the West, Native
Americans, natural history, and biographies. He wrote the “Nature
Walks” column for the News-Press for many years, and co-authored
two volumes with his good friend Dick Smith. After retiring, he
wrote a memoir of sorts, Home of the Wilson Wildcats: Life and
Death of an American Elementary School. He showed me a card he
received from education guru Mem Fox; its essence was simple: “Mr.
Van Schaick, this is the best book on education I’ve ever read.”
Van said teachers were buying it, then laughed, and said, “But not
administrators, damned fools,” an epithet seldom heard by him and
usually reserved for Congress.

Van topped off his literary excursions on our backpack trips.
The last night out we’d build a fire along some quiet stretch of
river and Van would tell us a story, usually something obscure from
the fringes of Western literature. We’d lie there beneath the
stars, mesmerized, wrapped in a special magic until the tale ended
and the fire died.

The last pack trip of the summer was special because he’d bring
his wife Lois and his daughters Susan and Mimi. Lois was every bit
his equal and toted around more personality than 10 normal folks
could handle. When Lois showed up as a young teacher at Wilson
School, Van was knocked off his feet. They both loved jazz and
danced to favorite records before school in Room 10, a magical
place in every sense. They lost Susan far too young and raised her
children John, Vicki, and Jamal. And Mimi, that cute little imp and
tease of so long ago — now a grandmother herself and mother of
Jessica — sat beside her father the night of June 20; Van spent 94
years on this Earth and is gone too soon.

The author, Bruce BrownellFrank Van Schaick, taught
fourth-graders at Vista del Mar Elementary School for many years.
After decades of teaching fourth- and fifth-graders at Wilson
Elementary School, retired as
principal in 1970. The school was closed in 1979 due to declining
enrollments, an extreme budget crunch, and a location too close to
the freeway; the site is now the home of the Westside Community
Center. A public memorial service will be held on Sunday, July 9,
2-5 p.m., at the Museum of Natural History.


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