Richard Olenchek died from pancreatic cancer on Saturday. He was 70 years old. The obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says he was a teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools for 35 years. I knew him for four.
As head coach of the girls softball team at Vincent High School, he got to know my dad through a fundraiser they worked out for the team. By the time I got to High School it was already decided for me that I would be a member of the Math Team. That's how Dick Olenchek and my dad worked.
Mr. Olenchek could drive me nuts. We would go to math competitions where I was expected to use every shortcut I could to answer the questions quickly. Then back in the classroom he would mark my homework and test answers wrong -even when I had the right answer- with a note, "show your work."
My senior year of high school I neatly planned my schedule so that the last hour of the day was a study hall which meant that I would be leaving early. I also had a study hall earlier in the day where Mr. Olenchek tracked me down to tell me not to go anywhere at the end of the day, but to report to the math office. He told me that he was pleased to discover that I had free time at the end of the day that I could sit in the math office and correct homework and do other things for him. He asked if he needed to confirm this with my father. No, don't bother, I told him. It's not going to change anything.
On the other hand, he once offered to act as my lawyer. Part of the reason I had such a light workload my senior year (aside from already being able to graduate as a junior) was that I was going to spend a month abroad in Israel. My English teacher, rather than give me an incomplete for the grading period and let me make up the work later like everyone else, somehow managed to give me a "C". The result was I was technically grounded, even though my overall grade point average was 3.5 for the semester. Mr. Olenchek couldn't believe any of it, the grade, my "grounding", and he told my father he was willing to act in my defense in any court my dad set up.
During one grading period in his class I think I accidentally punished the rest of the class. He was in front of class wondering aloud if we were going to get in two tests before grades closed. I quickly figured out I needed two more tests squeezed in. I had a rare bad test earlier, and two tests instead of one meant I could keep an A average in his class. I accidentally let this slip aloud, bringing a chuckle from Mr. Olenchek. I don't think it was any surprise to my classmates when he did, in fact, managed to get two tests in.
Maybe he owed it to me. Before one math competition my sophomore year some teacher from another school just went on and on to Mr. Olenchek about his brilliant student. Mr. Olenchek didn't say anything. The "brilliant student" and I ended up tied for best in the city that day. Mr. Olenchek later told my dad how much I made his life easier that afternoon.
It was probably the least I could do. After all, I had a great teacher.