Remembering George Oesterling

mr-oGeorge Oesterling, known as “Mr. O” to his students, taught me chemistry (and so much more) in the late ’90s at North Catholic high school. The following is text of a eulogy that I delivered at his memorial service on March 28, 2015.

I have no idea how I made it into honors chemistry. I was such a disaster at applied science.

I got a 20% on my nomenclature exam.

 

On lab days, I was as skittish and nervous as a white rat being weaned off some experimental drug.

I probably held the record at North Catholic for number of test tubes broken in a single class period.

Somehow, none of that mattered, because I passed Mr. O’s class. Though he couldn’t quite get chemistry to stick in my brain, Mr. O himself managed to stick there. I remember so many things he said so clearly.

He told us that chemistry is just applied biology, and physics is applied chemistry, so all science is really based in biology.

He told us that ordinary classroom chalk could be used to calm an upset stomach, but he warned us against using the yellow kind, as it would leave a ring in your beard.

He told us he’d instituted a reverse-alphabetical-order seating chart because he’d hated always being stuck toward the back of the room when he’d been in school. Though as an “L” myself, it didn’t really make much difference either way.

He told us about his wife and kids, especially Nathaniel, and it was obvious he was incredibly proud that his son shared his own passion for history.

He told us Jerry Garcia would have played him in the movie of his life, if he hadn’t died in 1995.

And he told us about Sam Sebastian.

Sam Sebastian wasn’t responsible for some important scientific discovery, but he was an influential person in Mr. O’s life. He was a Pict—a Celtic tribesman—who contacted Mr. O and a group of his friends through a Ouija board one spooky night at Thiel College.

Most of the details are lost to me now, but I do remember that he would tell the story every year as close to the same date as possible. And everyone at school knew exactly when that day came, because he’d wear the same funky psychedelic necktie. It happened to be the tie he was wearing the first time he ever told a class the story, and it became a tradition.

Countless upperclassmen would beg to be let out of other classes to come to Mr. O’s room to hear the story again. You could’ve heard a pin drop in the room, we were so engrossed in the tale he wove for us. To this day, the first person I think of when I hear any mention of a Ouija board is Mr. O.

Another of Mr. O’s proud traditions was his annual series of Civil War lectures for the AP US History class. He’d play a few scenes from the 1993 Gettysburg movie and then wistfully tell us that he could’ve been an extra in it. But Nathaniel and Natilee were very little at the time and it was at least a six-week shoot. Then he’d always be sure to tell us that the extras that had made it on-screen were all too fat and healthy-looking to have been realistic.

And that, I think, is what made Mr. O such an indelible personality to me. He wasn’t just a science person. He was a learning person. He loved knowledge and wanted to share it. He was passionate about so many topics, whether it was conspiracy theories about air travel terrorism, the infamous grassy knoll in Dallas, elaborate pop culture trivia questionnaires or his rock ‘n roll days playing with Kindred Spirit.

Though I’m sure much of his chemistry material was the same from year to year, Mr. O’s classes certainly weren’t.

He’d begin each class period by coming out from behind his lab bench, settling his backside against the front of it, and resting one arm across his chest. With his other hand, he’d nudge his glasses up the bridge of his nose and stroke his beard. “What’s on your mind?” he’d say. “Ask me anything.”

This was an irresistible challenge to a roomful of teenagers, to see how long we could keep Mr. O talking about anything other than chemistry. It wasn’t too difficult.

We had just switched to a double-period, every other day schedule when I had him, and it was a triumph if we could keep him talking until the end of the first period.

It was certainly a unique approach to starting class. At the time, more of my teachers than I’d like to admit seemed to have given up on finding new ways to engage students decades earlier.

Not Mr. O. He was a veteran teacher in the best way possible, one who understood that learning never ends and encompasses more than what can be taught in a classroom. He yearned to share all of his knowledge with his students, not just the part he was required to.

And that is the part of him that has stayed with me over the past 15 years and will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

I’m sad that he’s gone. I’m even sadder that I never got the chance to have a drink with him and just hear what he had to say about life. I’ve thought of him often over the years, especially with the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War going on. I’d love to be able to tell him that he played some part in my becoming a historian. But instead, I’ll have to tell you.

If what we were always taught is true, he’s in a place now where he has attained all knowledge, all answers, and all wisdom. And that is the most comforting and satisfying thought I can share on Mr. O’s behalf.

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One Response to Remembering George Oesterling

  1. Cliff Struhar says:

    Wow – reading this took me directly back to 1974: “He’d begin each class period by coming out from behind his lab bench, settling his backside against the front of it, and resting one arm across his chest. With his other hand, he’d nudge his glasses up the bridge of his nose and stroke his beard.” RIP Mr O. I hope the comments from former students show how much we appreciated being taught by him.

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