‘Uncle Dan’ says goodbye after 44 years

(Photo used by permission of Taber)
History teacher Daniel Neukom, Kelley Taber, ‘84, and senior Zane Jakobs pose before the AP European History exam on May 12. The whole class joined Neukom in dressing up for the day and, per tradition, participated in their class cheer, which began in 2000, prior to the exam.

After 44 years teaching history, 31 years teaching AP European History, 24 years as dean of students, a year teaching abroad in England and one  year as the AP coordinator, Daniel Neukom will retire this year.

Neukom said he has been planning his retirement for a few years.

“Too many people I know went from full time to being fully retired, and they found it very difficult,” Neukom said. “You’re working very hard, you’re very busy, and suddenly you have a lot of free time and not much meaning in life.”

That is why Neukom chose to teach exclusively AP European History for the last three years. That meant that Neukom had to be on campus for only about two hours every day. One hour was spent teaching, and the other was spent planning classes or grading papers.

“This has been great; it (has) properly prepared me for retirement,” Neukom said. “It’s much more relaxed.”

Although AP European History has been Neukom’s only class for the past three years, he hasn’t always taught it. When he first started teaching 44 years ago, SCDS had no AP classes. Before teaching AP Euro at SCDS, Neukom taught seventh-grade world history, high-school U.S. history and Western civilizations.

But he said his favorite class was freshman Ancient/Medieval History.

“(Ancient/Medieval History) was the course closest to my heart because I think the ancients have a lot to teach us,” Neukom said. “Humanity has not changed that much over the centuries, over the millennia.”

Yet Neukom was not only a teacher during his time at Country Day. He was one of three (and later two) “deans” who headed the high school for nine years. In fact, Neukom was the dean of students for 24 years.

“It was really great to be teaching all the freshmen (while being dean) because I got to know all of them,” Neukom said. “To know them in the classroom but also as people allowed me to do my job much better.”

It wasn’t until 13 years after he started teaching that Neukom taught one of the first AP classes at Country Day in 1983-84.

Among the students in that very first AP Euro class was current president of the Board of Trustees, Kelley Taber, ‘84.

And 33 years later, Taber still remembers the class well.

“When I look back on the classes that had the biggest impact on me, (AP Euro) would be one of my top-three classes of my high-school and college career,” Taber said. “(Neukom’s) freshman history class would probably be on that list, too.”

Taber said she enjoyed AP European History because of Neukom’s ability to make history come alive.

“He was so enthusiastic about the history, people and significance that historic events had on people who experienced them as they unfolded,” Taber said.

And he also captivated his students with reading from outside the textbook, she said, allowing them to connect with key figures in history.

One of these was “1066: The Year of the Conquest,” a book about the Norman conquest of England.

Taber said that reading about all these colorful characters brought them and the events alive.

In Taber’s class Neukom also required students to attend cultural activities, such as a play or a classical concert for “culture points.”

Taber remembers one student, Craig LaBare, ‘84, complaining to Neukom about heavy-metal concerts not counting for these points.

“(LaBare) said that if I could go to plays and classical music performances, which I would go to anyway, and get points, then he should get points for heavy metal concerts,” Taber said. “In the end, Mr. Neukom decided that if (LaBare) could get me to go to a concert, then we could both write about it for points.”

Taber said she did attend The Scorpions’ concert with LaBare. And Neukom gave them both the points.

Neukom also encouraged his students to experience new cultures through restaurants.

“One time he took our class to the DeYoung museum in San Francisco, and he brought all of us to an Indonesian restaurant to try ‘rijsttafel’ (a meal comprised of many rice-based side dishes),” Taber said. “The dish was a product of the Dutch influence in Indonesia. We could relate our study of Dutch colonialism and the influence of the Dutch East India Company with the food.”

Taber said she was thrilled to hear that her oldest son, senior Zane Jakobs, could take both of Neukom’s classes, including AP Euro.

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed so much is being able to relive the contents of the class,” Taber said. “(As it did for) me, the class has made a huge impact on Zane – not just the facts and names of European history but also the significance of the events and the choices these people made thousands of years ago.”

Even though culture points are no longer part of the class, the style of  AP Euro is still largely the same, according to senior Quin LaComb.

“He teaches (history) kind of like he’s telling a story, which I suppose it is to some extent,” LaComb said. “He makes you imagine how it feels to go through that event, and I think that’s because through his teaching, he brings information from people of the time and tries to tell it through their eyes.”

Even in retirement, Neukom won’t stop teaching. Through the Sacramento Public Library, Neukom plans to volunteer to tutor illiterate people.

“They may not know how to keep a checkbook, understand a credit card bill or register a car,” Neukom said. “Because they can’t read or write and have no experience with these things, (I’ll) work with them individually on their specific needs.”

The program will require Neukom to come in a few hours a week.

However, Neukom said he doesn’t really know what he will do beyond that.

“That’s a good question,” Neukom said. “People always talk about traveling, but that will be hard to do with my wife (English teacher Patricia Fels) working.”

Although Neukom is choosing to end his career at Country Day, he said he loved what he did.

“Being in the classroom has always been a great joy,” Neukom said. “That’s the best part of education: being with the students.”

By Mehdi Lacombe

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