“Remember, friends: if you color in your map neatly, you get a bonus-baby point!”
Pretty much every high-school student and alumnus has heard teacher Daniel Neukom boom this phrase during Ancient/Medieval History.
But this year’s freshmen will be the last to experience the history class taught by Neukom (affectionately known as “Uncle Dan”).
Neukom—the school’s long-time beloved health nut, car snob, Formula One-crazed, Anglo- (and Franco-) phile, chocolate-aficionado history teacher—will begin the process of retiring in June. He calls this his “white flag year,” the signal for the final lap in auto racing.
Neukom started teaching at Country Day at the age of 24 in 1973 after receiving a second master’s degree in social science from the University of Chicago (He graduated from Stanford University in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in history and received a master’s degree in education the following year).
In 1981, Neukom married fellow teacher Patricia Fels. Their twin daughters, Francie and Kelly Neukom, graduated in 2004.
Over the years he has taught classes ranging from P.E. to auto mechanics to African civilization and had students ranging from seventh graders to seniors.
“I’ll be 65 a few days before (this year’s) graduation,” Neukom said. “I will have taught for 42 years—41 of them at the same school—and I believe it’s time the younger generation has the opportunity that I had.”
Sue Nellis, head of high school, says he’ll be missed.
“He’s been teaching here such a long time, and I think he’s put in a yeoman’s effort to stay vital,” she said.
Neukom plans on teaching only AP European History next year, although this is not yet certain. He’d like to teach the class for one to three more years before he stops completely.
“I know he’s not leaving yet,” senior Cissy Shi said, “but in a way he is because the freshmen will no longer have him. And that means that he will not teach every student like he used to.”
Neukom regards his slow move towards retirement as “experimental.” He said he wants to leave the school slowly because he doesn’t believe there is any right way to leave.
“I’ve taught almost 30,000 classes in my career,” he said. “That makes me feel good—I really like that statistic. Wow! I deserve a Ferrari, don’t you think? Or at least a covered reserved parking spot!”
And over those 30,000 classes, Neukom has developed what could be described as a cult following.
Students from decades ago remember his passionate teaching and influence on the school.
“Dan is a knowledgeable and gifted teacher,” said Donald James, ‘75. “It was from Dan that I (understood) that learning was a lifelong endeavour. He taught by example way before that was fashionable.”
Jessica Vando, ‘92, agreed.
“Mr. Neukom very much is Country Day,” Vando said. “In that sense it’s very hard for me to think of Country Day without him. I think it’s his passion for life that he imparts into his students.”
Many students, such as Shi, attribute this passion to Neukom’s theatrical teaching style.
“He spoke so loudly and clearly, which really helped me (in freshman year) when my English wasn’t very good,” Shi said. “He spoke with emotion, which made class much more interesting.”
Neukom agrees that his teaching style is theatrical. “I still leave the classroom with an actor’s high after most classes,” he said.
Often included in the theatrics is what Neukom describes as “fun teasing” for which he is sometimes infamous.
For example, Neukom will typically say this to a student late to his class: “Hurry up, child; you’re slow!”
“Fun, gentle teasing has always been a part of Country Day,” Neukom said.
Vando remembers a instance when Neukom discovered she’d snuck out of her house after returning from Winter Ball.
He came into Vando’s English class and pretended to be a paperboy calling Vando’s parents.
The “paperboy” asked if all was okay at the Vandos’ because he had seen Jessica sneaking into the house in the early morning.
But after roasting Vando, Neukom talked to her one-on-one in a “conversation geared towards moral development.”
“It was done in a very unheavy-handed way,” she said. “He is both a friend and an authority figure, which I think is perfect when you’re 14 or 15 and you’re going through that developmental period. And I think (that conversation) was what really started our friendship.”
And Neukom is equally famous for his quirks, such as being extremely health conscious.
Every freshman experiences Mr. Neukom’s lecture on healthy breakfasts.
The first day of school, Neukom goes around the room asking each student what he or she ate for breakfast that morning and gives each a “grade” based on the healthiness of the breakfast.
And not only students get chided. “Hands down, my favorite memory (of Mr. Neukom) was when (Nick Dent, a teacher in 2001-04) was eating Pop-Tarts and Mr. Neukom took them out of his hands and threw them away,” said Yuko Takegoshi, ‘04.
Takegoshi also remembers when Neukom let her leave detention early because she’d brought a healthy lunch.
And Takegoshi added that she, like every other former-Neukom student, always staples her papers at a 45-degree angle due to Neukom’s incessant and explicit instructions.
Senior Patrick Talamantes thinks Neukom’s biggest quirk is how he creates his own quotes, called “Daniel Ingraham Neukom (DIN) Quotes,” and has his class memorize them for tests, just as he does for quotes of famous Greeks, Egyptians and historians.
For example, freshmen memorize this DIN original: “Other ancient cultures viewed things and wrote about them; the ancient Greeks viewed things and speculated about them.”
And, of course, he is always liable to start speaking in broken French during his lecture or throw in some of his favorite words and phrases, like “Zoser!” (the family cat, named after the pharaoh who built the step pyramid).
But junior Emma Williams thinks that these quirks add to the curriculum.
“In (his) class,” she said, “you didn’t just learn about Thucydides and the fall of the Roman Empire. You learned about everything that Mr. Neukom thought was important or interesting.”
“Whether it was the tidbits of French that he put into his lectures or the tutorials on filling out tax forms, it was always worthwhile.”
“Education is supposed to be when you make yourself smarter so that you are better equipped for the world around you,” said Neukom. “And I have tried to base my classes around that—understanding the human condition and taking responsibility for your part and the world around you.”
Neukom reflects fondly on his 42 years, although he jokes that sometimes he fantasized about quitting during lengthy faculty meetings.
“People lead lives either wide or deep,” he said. “I’ve ended up leading a very deep life. I like that; it feels correct to me. And I like to feel that I’ve made a difference.”
“I think that’s teaching in general. (Before I became a teacher), I asked myself how I could give back to the world without ripping it off. The experience is more important than the money.