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RIP Randy Nolde

In everyone's life there is a teacher who motivated her to try harder, strive for more, reach beyond. Or in my case, a teacher who teased, goaded, poked, pried, laughed, lampooned, and somehow created an atmosphere where I was ready to work my tail off to make him proud.

Randy Nolde, we will miss you.

Mr. Nolde was my Russian teacher in high school. I first got to know him as a younger person -- the Russian Club Banquet was quite the event in my home town, and my grandmother used to take us regularly even before my sister enrolled in Russian language class.

Every year, the high school cafeteria underwent a magical metamorphosis. Huge murals of scenes from Russia -- fantastic, colorful onion-domed churches, and young peasants reaping wheat, and Armenian maidens with long braids and colorful costumes -- hung all around the edges of the room. On the menu: chicken Kiev made by the cafeteria ladies, supplemented with cafeteria salad, but also khachapuri and piroshki made by the students, and Russian tea cakes with hot tea for dessert. Exotic for our little suburban Illinois town.

Mr. Nolde would have loved this
image by Chicago artist Jeanne.
And then the performances. Our high school had a "theatre-in-the-round" -- four pie-shaped banked classrooms divided during the day with corrogated dividers and in the evening ready for transformation. Imagine this from the point of view of an eight-year-old: girls in long, colorful skirts and white blouses, hair swinging as they whirled around the dance floor, holding on for dear life to young men in silky-looking Russian peasant shirts and black Cossack pants. The music was classic Russian folk tunes, played on a reel-to-reel recorder or rendered on the spot by Mr. Nolde on accordion and students on balalaikas. In the middle of the show the 3rd year Russian class would put on a play -- in Russian! -- with enough miming and gesture, and enough silly jokes, that the entire audience of parents, siblings, friends, and random villagers like us could enjoy and understand. To my eyes then, the students and their teacher were the height of sophistication and talent, and I could hear the warmth and pride in his voice as he introduced the various numbers.

Fast forward a couple of years, and imagine me in my sister's room in the evenings, practicing reading aloud in the Cyrillic alphabet. For me, the bonus of hanging out with my older sister, and for her, the opportunity to teach me and learn herself. She had a fear of reading aloud -- one of Mr. Nolde's favorite pedagogical practices -- and together we worked on the texts until she felt comfortable. The H-looking letter sounds like an "n," she would say, and the "p" is really an "r." Got it?

Now, three years more -- and there I am in Russian at last. The Russian classroom was a corner room, and it was pretty cozy. The alphabet was only the beginning. I can still hear the language tapes (ALM Russian, Level One, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Incorporated, New York) and recall our wrestling with the language. Mr. Nolde invented ways to think about the spelling rules (the "Magnificent Seven" was a popular mnemonic, even though he was referring to a classic film I still haven't seen), and my classmates re-invented them. (A girl whose Russian name was Tanya tried to memorize the letters that cannot be followed by ы with a phrase that went "Get your car out of the garage..." Needless to say, that one didn't really work.)

I learned to play the balalaika (Moscow Evenings, if I'm not mistaken, kind of like this, though not as professional) and to dance (even to waltz) without stepping on my friends' feet or being embarrassed about towering over my male partner, and we put on a play that was a take-off on Pushkin's "The Stationmaster." We looked forward to the banquet every year, and we spent many hours preparing.

Including, of course, in the kitchen. My love of khachapuri began in the homes of my various classmates as we spent weekends together all winter long, making dozens and dozens of appetizers and desserts which we froze for the banquet. And those weren't the only meetings of the Russian club -- I remember watching The Russians are Coming! in Mr. Nolde's basement (probably in the earliest days of VCRs), and putting together the annual Russian Club float for the homecoming parade (stuffing hundreds of paper napkins into the chicken wire "skirt" of the float and trying to make the papier mache stick in the October cold of someone's barn), and an unforgettable end-of-year gathering at my friend Colleen's house.

Some of this truly introduced us to Russia and Russian culture. Indeed, Mr. Nolde let me double up in my sophomore year and then do a "fifth year" tutorial with him in my senior year where I translated Pushkin's poem Bronze Horseman (wish I still had that notebook!). Some of it was good, clean fun. Mr. Nolde didn't take himself too seriously, and he wouldn't let us take ourselves too seriously either (though he knew that our project together was a worthy one). My favorite moment was when he would stop class to count my sneezes -- and then record them on the blackboard. The record was 14.

And some of it was pure kitsch -- but he knew that, and he used humor and the exotic to bring in some of the best, and some of the most fun, students in Barrington High. Our high school valedictorians were often Russian students, but we also had a healthy dose of tennis players (Mr. Nolde was the tennis coach too) and everyone in between. I don't recall any real heritage speakers back then, but my friend Sasha was Serbian, and I still remember Irina, who was coasting on her knowledge of kitchen Ukrainian. It was our own little Slav-o-rama, right there in suburban Chicago.

A classic look, sweater vest and all.

And somehow the goatee, and the quizzical looks that often appeared on Mr. Nolde's face -- whether truly amused or simply prodding us to try a little harder -- also felt very Russian. He and the Russian Club were a central part of my secondary education, and I will never forget them.

I hope Randy Nolde knew that, about me and about the hundreds and hundreds of students who passed through his corner classroom over the years. I was very fortunate to have this early start in Russian, and to have such a caring and talented teacher in my life. Rest in peace, Randy.


  1. Thank you for this, Angie. Do you remember the borscht, too? The banquet was the first time I'd ever dared to eat it. To this day, I love beets.

    1. I don't -- but I do have a favorite borsch recipe now (in Darra Goldstein's Winter Vegetarian book, described elsewhere on this blog). See also: for recipes I made with some high school kids recently in the famed "Reading Anna Karenina Challenge"!

  2. Angela, I'm touched to have had my drawing included in such a wonderful and heartfelt post. Thank you so much. Mr. Nolde sounds like he was an amazing teacher.

  3. He was an amazing father as well. :) I am making a scrapbook of memories, and your beautiful story will be going in it. Thank you so much for writing this.

    <3 Sasha Nolde

  4. I took Russian all four years in high school (1972-76). Randy devoted himself to his classes, the students, and Russian club. He provided many wonderful memories for so many students over the years. The Russian Club banquet was a highlight of the year, but we did a float for the homecoming parade, took trips, parties, etc. I went on to major in Russian in college and took a number of trips to the Soviet Union and Russia. In 1991, I dropped by BHS to say hello. Randy remembered me by name, even though it had been 15 years. We talked for an hour. I had hoped to connect with him again some day, but the years caught up. Bolshoi spaceba.
    Dan Austin

  5. Thanks for that, Dan. As a teacher myself, I often think back on how well he balanced the humor, the knowledge, and the motivation. We were a motley lot in his classes, and we all walked away the richer for learning from him.


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