William Poole is here

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William Poole

The beloved, recently retired Malibu High woodshop instructor reflects on what he did.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

Last Sunday was just another day in Malibu. As Tori Spelling and Dick Van Dyke were seen shopping (separately) at Ralphs on Pacific Coast Highway, yards away on the patio of the local Starbucks sat a man who is himself something of a local celebrity to the thousands of students whose lives he’s impacted over the years: Malibu High’s woodshop instructor William Poole, who recently wrapped up a longtime teaching career.

“I’ve been in the [Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School] district teaching for 55 years and, two years prior to that, I worked as a custodian and, prior to that, as a lifeguard at Santa Monica College,” Poole said.

In fact, he was SMC’s first lifeguard. Ditto, first beach lifeguard in Goleta, where he majored in Industrial Arts at UC Santa Barbara.

After a stint at Lincoln Middle School, Poole taught for four decades at Malibu, nearly retiring 10 years ago. That lasted two months. He was called back to teach woodshop and driver’s education part-time.

Poole is not a coffee drinker. Still recovering from open-heart surgery, he sat on the Starbucks patio in a red USC cap, reading a Louis L’Amour novel.

Poole unfurled a letter given to him by a Navy Seal with whom he taught school. In that letter is the story of a man who challenged a teacher during dinner.

After taunting her with the infamous maxim, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” the insolent man asks the teacher, “What do you do?” The teacher fires back, “What do I do? I make a difference in people’s lives,” illustrating how her students have contributed to society. Then she turns the question back on her adversary: “What have you done?”

That letter sums it all up for the local instructor, who came to California as a child from Texas. Poole’s father ran a small newspaper there after writing for the Dallas Morning News. In Los Angeles, his father became a field representative for Biola University. They bounced around from Pasadena to South Bay before settling in Santa Monica, where Poole attended SAMOHI.

Poole and his first wife, Bea, had a daughter, Bonnie, who works with books, and two sons, William, a contractor, and Bryn, in electronics. Bea passed away from cancer in 2002. In 2006, Poole remarried. He now lives with wife Cheryl.

At his Zuma Beach home, which he built in the 1950s on a property he bought for $8,000 (“I couldn’t even buy a permit with that today!”), Poole is easing into so-called retirement, keeping busy with home renovation projects. He now contends with cougars trespassing his property and the odd raccoon that he feeds (even though he shouldn’t). He recently killed a 52-inch rattlesnake slithering around his garage.

From his teaching experience, 6th and 7th grade students are the most malleable. He’d tease them, “I’ve got to learn to say things in reverse so you could get things backwards and get it right.”

He’s had many memorable pupils along the way. “Chad McQueen was a fine kid to work with,” Poole said. “He was always very courteous, polite.”

The teacher once met Chad’s father, Steve. Poole also taught John Lear, son of Lear jet inventor Bill Lear. Some teens coming through Poole’s shop became major celebrities.

“Charlie Sheen, poor guy,” Poole said. “The Penn brothers,” as in Sean Penn, who would always make something in woodshop for a movie they were shooting.

One youth topped Poole’s list of exemplary students. “David Follet told me in the 9th grade, ‘I will fix and repair hearts!’” Poole said.

Years later, “he operated on my son’s aorta [after he was in a traffic accident on PCH near Duke’s].”

Another student, Pat O’Brien, was determined to become a fighter pilot. “If you read the Time-Life book ‘Electronic Warfare,’ he was first over Baghdad [in 1990],” Poole said.

One student parlayed her lathe training into creating urn-like sculptures now on display at the White House.

Sometimes, recognition from a person Poole has impacted comes out of nowhere. Poole remembers visiting a remote part of California with college-administrator friends when three helmeted guys on motorcycles pulled up.

One yelled out, “Mr. Poole! I recognize that big, fat belly anywhere!”

“To this day, I don’t know who they were,” Poole said, laughing.

When asked if he ever got injured on the job, Poole holds up a magenta finger. “That’s my purple heart,” he said. “It missed the tendon by a sixteenth of an inch and required 10 stitches.”

After a spotless decades-long record, Poole received this one injury only two days before the end of last semester when he was laid-off.

As for his students, he has a perfect safety record other than “an A-plus student who ran a splinter on the little finger past the cuticle and all the way to the knuckle.”

Teaching energetic classrooms, Poole received support and empathy from his first wife, a fellow educator who had graduated from USC and taught at Webster Elementary School. Bea was very get up and go, Poole said. If they were studying state government, she’d fly her students to Sacramento.

He demurely downplays his breadth compared to that of his late wife: “I couldn’t be an elementary teacher. You have to have expertise in everything from A to Z.”

That said, Poole knows he has put his passion into his work, which he truly loved. Over the years, he has turned down job offers from schools in Dallas, Beverly Hills, Santa Barbara and Hawaii to stay in Malibu. “I’m very fortunate I’ve had a job in this school district,” he said.

“These students have done well in spite of me,” he continued with a wink.

As if on cue, a youngish-looking man with long, blondish hair enthusiastically shouted, “Mr. Poole!” as he ducked into a neighboring surf shop.

So what did Mr. Poole do? Evidently, he made a difference.