By Kristin Schultz
What began as a record for his children and grandchildren has morphed into a work for a wider audience that embodies Richard Colyer’s teaching goals: entertain, educate and inspire.
Richard and his wife of 52 years sat down with The Daily Gazette on a sunny south-facing porch at their centuries-old home in Schoharie to talk about the book and Richard’s deep roots in both Schoharie and Niskayuna.
“The Dash Between” is a curated memoir of Colyer’s life, from his childhood in the breadbasket of the American Revolution to his 33-year career as an English teacher at Niskayuna High School to his wife Wanda’s stroke and recovery in 2014.
“It’s really a funny book,” said Wanda. “He’s a very serious person; he’s not the kind of man who goes around telling jokes, but when he writes, it’s hysterical. It’s really funny.”
Where does that sense of humor come from?
“Damned if I know,” said Richard. “My father’s mother was a great storyteller. Maybe I get that from her.”
Indeed, the 250-page work is filled with humorous stories and asides, all chronicling a life of love and learning.
Richard has always told stories and used them to get students’ attention.
“The Dash Between” is divided by decades. Colyer gives historical context to each era, then shares personal anecdotes. With a life spanning more than seven decades, Colyer said the most formative era was the 1960s.
“I graduated from high school in 1960, and by 1970 I was married with three children,” he said. “I had my first job, the job at Niskayuna.”
In his book, Colyer also talks about societal changes and provides anecdotal commentary. Starting with his grandmother, he noted that women had very few options when it came to pulling themselves up.
“If they wanted money,” he said. “They had to marry into it.”
He writes about his mother, who dated Gov. Al Smith’s son. While the relationship was going well and Smith certainly would have been a jump up the ladder of society, he was a Catholic. As a protestant family, Richard’s grandmother wouldn’t allow her daughter to marry a Catholic.
“It’s a fun book,” said Wanda. “But he also deals with bigotries at the time, prejudice when we grew up in the ’60s. He tells it like it is and like it was and how he felt about it.”
Richard is also brutally honest about his own experiences and family. He admits to wetting the bed into his teen years and how that struggle spurred him to achieve.
“To offset the terrible feeling I had about being a bed-wetter, I sought to accomplish as much as I could,” he said. “I strove to be the best I could possibly be at art, music and athletics.”
He became a good trombone player and held school records in track for pole vaulting and triple jump.
“There were only 48 in my graduating class, so if you could walk without walking into a wall, you could be on a team,” he said.
“He was like a peacock strutting around,” said Wanda. “But he was really insecure [because of the bed-wetting].”
His life growing up in the Schoharie Valley was shaped by the deep sense of community and family that’s typical in a small town. He enjoyed the beauty of the landscape, time to play with friends and learn the lessons one does not learn in the classroom.
“I learned how to be a friend, have a friend, to make decisions and solve problems,” Richard said.
“There is a unique bond that people in this area have that you don’t find in other places,” added Wanda. “He always had strong bonds with friends. We’re still friends with the kids he played with on the ball field.”
Colyer also writes about his family life, both in Niskayuna and when they moved back to the family home in Schoharie. He tells tales about chickens, barns and garages and living with five women: all of whom he loves very much, but who sometimes employed a strength-in-numbers strategy against him.
“I have a wife and four daughters,” he said. “When all five of them plant their feet and put their hands on their hips, the father does not know best.”
He tells the tale of rescuing 10 nearly frozen chickens from a coop behind the house. He brought them to the cellar to keep them from perishing in the cold. All 10 survived.
“I kept finding eggs in the cellar for another year or so. While they were down there, they laid eggs in the coal pile,” he said.
There are also stories of his 33-year career in the English department at Niskayuna High School.
“It was a wonderful department,” Richard said.
Despite the support of staff and success in the classroom, early in his career Colyer wondered if he had chosen the right profession. He found himself particularly intimidated on Back-to-School night, when wealthy, professionally accomplished parents parked their Lincolns and Cadillacs and he arrived in his Volkswagen.
“Sometime after that night, I was teaching a senior literature class and called on a boy in the back of the room,” he said. “He answered the question, but instead of responding, I said, ‘Jeff, you’ve got a wonderful-sounding voice. You should consider a career in radio and TV.’
“Five years later, I get a knock on the door, and it’s Jeff. He got a job as a morning newscaster at WGY.”
He at once felt that maybe, despite the prestige of the families whose children he taught, he was making a difference.
Over the years, Colyer taught many students, but he found the most joy in teaching those who were willing to learn but needed some encouragement: the students others might have overlooked.
“It’s like a garden,” he said. “You’ve got beautiful flowers. You have tomatoes. You have peppers. Some of the most valuable things you grow are under the soil; you don’t see them. Potatoes, carrots, you can keep and use them all year round. There are students that need that kind of attention. Those are the kinds of students a good teacher pays attention to.”
On reflection, Colyer gets a bit choked up when thinking about his students. He included several letters he received from them over the years in the book.
“He would see a need in a student, and he would reach out to try to help,” said Wanda.
Having been retired now for nearly two decades, Richard spends his time with Wanda and traveling to see their children and grandchildren. With more than half a century of marriage under their belts, Richard and Wanda still admire one another.
“She and I think alike on a lot of things,” said Colyer. “She is always doing projects around the house and doing things I would never do on my own. She still catches me by surprise.”
“It’s nice to have someone who thinks like you,” said Wanda. “We have the same value structure. He does things differently, but we have the same values. He is a gentle man. He has no guile at all. He’s a kind man. I appreciate his talent.”