The Passing of a Legend

The Passing of a Legend
William R. MacMullen ’78

Dick Cobb Remembered

Dick Cobb died on January 26, in his sleep, in his apartment just a few miles from Taft's campus. He was 74. With Cobb's death, Taft has lost one of the finest teachers it has ever known. A lot of people on this campus loved him. It's a sad time for this community, including the hundreds of alumni who are grieving over this news. He was the best of Taft.

Dick taught at Taft for over 40 years, from 1969 to 2013. He was a dear friend—someone I learned much from, someone with whom I laughed a lot, someone I will never forget.

Lance Odden, one of Dick's closest friends, wrote me, "Dick Cobb was a paragon of what it was to be a great school master—a brilliant teacher who made Latin riveting, an inspirational coach whose record of 24 consecutive victories against Hotchkiss will last forever, and one of the most caring advisors in school history. He loved Taft even as he exemplified the school motto every day of his life."

When I arrived in 1976, Dick was already one of the most respected teachers on campus. By the end of his career, he simply was the face of Taft teaching.

Dick Cobb will be remembered as a legendary classroom presence. When you talk of command over the material, of the ability to engage and inspire, of creating a rigorous and challenging classroom, of making the material come alive, of assessing learning every day—you think of Cobb. A lot of teachers came to Taft and heard, "You need to sit in on one of his classes." I have heard scores of alumni talk about having him for Latin: how you could not hide, how he called on you repeatedly, how you were terrified of being unprepared, how you worked harder for him than for any teacher, how he would not give up on you, how you laughed a lot, how you came to love learning.

He was a great coach. He coached JV boys' soccer for a decade and golf for a few years, but it was with girls' basketball from 1973 to 2001 that he will be remembered: a record of 297–144, five Founders League titles, seven Referee Association sportsmanship awards, and always a classy, tough, demanding, caring, brilliant coach—and one who just had so darn much fun.

He was the best corridor head I have ever known, most of his years in CPT, and for many years the director of residential life. He embodied how we educate at all hours of the day and in all corners of campus. He was tough and had high standards, and students were a little afraid of him, in part because he seemed to have superhuman abilities in finding mischief or rule breaking. But he was also really funny and caring, and he never forgot what it was to be a teenager. He might come down hard on a knucklehead whose late-night corridor sports woke him up—and then ask him to come by the apartment for a snack the next night. He loved catching students doing something good. He could be tough, but there was always a smile in his eye and his actions said, "I care about you, I'm going to demand a lot of you, and I'm not going away."

He was an incredible advisor. There are a lot of men and women—I meet them all the time in my travels—who offer versions of "If it were not for Cobb, I would not be where I am, who I am." He was wise, caring, and honest with every advisee; but he was perhaps at his best with the ones who were maybe pushing back on the institution, or who were struggling to find their way. He knew that the teenager who seemed to be stiff-arming you might actually be trying to grasp your hand. So he proved what adolescent psychologists tell us: that the best incentive for positive teenage behavior is the desire not to disappoint someone they respect. That's why until his death, Cobb was receiving holiday cards, wedding invitations, and baby announcements from Tafties across five decades.

He was institutional memory and wisdom, and a lot of people— including Lance Odden and me—consulted with him before making really hard decisions. No one questioned his fairness, and everyone asked for his insight. He ran the Disciplinary Committee for years, and even controversial decisions of that group were accepted, in part because faculty and students knew he had been in the room. When he spoke, you listened. If we had a faculty yearbook, he would win the "Talks Least, Says Most" award every year. I remember being a young teacher and hearing him speak in faculty meetings; and for a rookie looking for mentors, it seemed as if his words had been translated from Latin, etched in stone, and lugged down from some mountaintop.

He was a great mentor, to teachers of all ages, in all departments. In fact, his nickname was "The Wily Mentor." He never gave edicts, just suggestions, helpful questions, an open ear—nuggets of wisdom you carried in your pocket the rest of your days. I often saw him in the dining hall having lunch with some teacher who no doubt was looking for guidance. For years I would tell new teachers, "If you wonder how to speak in a class committee meeting, just listen to Cobb."

I saw Dick at the gym last week, and we chatted while watching the girls' basketball game. Dick was where he always sat; and over the two hours, I could see the steady stream of people coming to say hello—colleagues, alumni parents, folks working in the gym, some faculty kids—he always smiling and reaching out his hand in greeting. He was where he always wanted to be. Though he had a house in Maine, and he never lost his Maine roots, Taft was home, and he was Taft, as good as Taft ever gets, Taft's motto writ large and with humility and compassion.

We are planning on a celebration of his life at Taft on Alumni Day, Saturday, May 11 at 1:30 PM.