Remembering beloved mentor and math teacher Richard Towell

Richard Towell died Aug. 12.
Beloved mentor and math teacher Richard Towell died Aug. 12. We commemorate his 26 years of service here at St. Christopher’s where he will long be remembered for his authenticity, humor, adventurous spirit and love for life and learning. The following piece, written by Aoky Sarhan ’12, ran in the 2012 Raps and Taps upon his retirement.

“Mr. Towell is old school in the best of ways,” said the Rev. Melissa Hollerith of our beloved math teacher.

As a freshman in his class watching him sarcastically promise to bake brownies for struggling students who could solve a tough problem, I think I’d have agreed with Mrs. Hollerith’s use of the term “old school,” but I’d certainly question the “best of ways” part. However, anyone with the courage to approach Mr. Richard Towell in the hallways knows the truth, and anyone who has had a class with him or gone on his annual summer Europe trip knows, as Mr. Rich Hudepohl said, “There’s certainly a little teddy bear inside him.”

The truth about Mr. Towell is, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. Sure he picks on his kids, but they love it. From experience, I definitely agree with Mrs. Hollerith when she said, “the kids worry about not being picked on.” Without a doubt, Mr. Towell’s strategy works. He is a master at teaching boys at any level, Algebra II through calculus, because he knows a boy’s mentality and their need for attention, bad or good.

He came to St. Christopher’s in 1986 after 23 years teaching at Collegiate.

Mr. Richard Towell is the finest, most complete schoolman that I know,” said fellow teacher Mr. Jim Boyd. “His coming to St. Christopher’s transformed a very strong Upper School mathematics department into a great mathematics department. His knowledge and understanding of both the mathematics and the general secondary school curricula were and are profound. In the classroom he was a magician. Mathematicians prize an ‘economy of means’ — doing more with less. With chalk, blackboard, and imagination, he held the attention of his students — young men at a most restless age. His classroom eccentricities — both natural and calculated — are the stuff of legend.

    “… Several generations of Saints --- and Cougars as well --- are fortunate to understand that there is mathematics in general and there is mathematics according to Richard Towell. For any old Saints among the granddads reading these lines, all I need add is that Mr. Towell and Mr. Vulgan played in the same league.”

While Mr. Rich Hudepohl’s depiction of his colleague and friend of 25 years as a “lion tamer with a whip and a chair” might seem out of place, it just about sums up Mr. Towell’s philosophy. Mr. Towell will laugh at you. He will pick on you if he thinks you should do better. And he will fail you if you deserve it.

But Mr. Towell will laugh at himself too. Every time he messes up a problem on the board he will blame it on the chalk, and if he doesn’t know we are laughing at his “illustrative hand gestures” he employs to describe mathematical operations, perhaps it really is time for retirement.

All kidding aside, Mr. Towell really does have a kinder, gentler side. Few people know that he gets up very early to work out at 5:30 a.m. in the St. Christopher’s gym and then get to his classroom to provide students with extra help before school. He practices yoga weekly, organizes a vegetable coop, grows lilies and counts such chick flicks as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “American President” among his favorite movies.

Even fewer people might suspect Mr. Towell to be a man of the arts, and yet he started Arts in the Park at Byrd Park more than 30 years ago. He and his wife Anita have started a Centennial art collection here at St. Christopher’s to honor the passage from boyhood to adult and to inspire students to be patrons of the arts. He regularly goes to museums, theater productions and musical performances; he loves to travel, and he is always hunting for new restaurants in the cities he visits.

Mr. Towell is a man who loves learning and new experiences. He is never content with resting on his laurels, as many of them as there may be. To be clear, Mr. Towell is not leaving “because he is old.” As Mrs. Hollerith said, “The only thing he is not tolerant of is when people do not appreciate the gifts they have been given. Complacency is not something he is comfortable with.”

Well Mr. Towell is not about to be ungrateful or complacent. He has reached the pinnacle of teaching success at St. Christopher’s, instructing an entire generation of Saints at all levels of math and impressing upon them a love for the subject.

Now it’s his time for Mr. Towell to travel the world, enjoy himself and continue his journey. On behalf of all the Saints past and present, we wish him good travels and all our best.
A memorial service  is scheduled for Saturday, August 18 at 1 p.m. at St. James's Episcopal Church, 1205 W. Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia 23220.

Richmond Times-Dispatch Obituary
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