It is with a heavy heart that at the conclusion of this school year we say goodbye to a staple of the Science Department for over three decades, Dr. Wachtmeister. When Doc joined the faculty in 1987, Reagan was president, gas cost 89 cents per gallon, and biology was still taught on blackboards. Despite this, Doc has changed very little and has been a constant presence on campus who has guided generations of boys in the same thoughtful, intuitive, and caring manner. In preparation for his campus visit on March 5, 1987 for an interview, a colleague in Virginia sent Headmaster Wadsworth a letter of recommendation which read, “He has always been well liked and respected by his students, and has a reputation of really knowing the material. Probably his greatest strength is his love of teaching. He really cares about his students and works hard to help them achieve success.” Twice his student, I can confirm that this holds true today, maybe even more so than it did then. With every class it is more and more evident that he loves teaching. Beloved colleague Mr. Goodband called Doc a “scholar of teaching,” which in my opinion sums up what makes him so good at it. Despite knowing the material like the back of his hand and practically being able to recite the textbook, Doc arrives at school every morning before 5:30 to brush up on the day’s lesson. This desire for improvement and perfection even after thirty years speaks to his personality and work ethic. If there is one thing I know for certain: the Science Department will not be the same next year without its Charles Darwin lookalike at the helm.
As many people know, Doc grew up on a beef-cattle farm in Fauquier County, Virginia. His dad purchased the farm in the 1940s and it is where Doc will retire. Many of the stories that he tells as part of his lessons come from his childhood “on the farm.” According to Mr. Trautz, “Doc is a master story teller…On one particular day I visited [his class], he started by telling some interesting stories to the boys about cattle reproduction, castration of bulls, and his beloved bull John Henry. This somehow segued into getting ‘the talk’ from his dad back in the day on the farm.” Doc uses these stories to help his students understand the material. He says, “One thing I like about teaching is it’s like being an actor. You get to act out different things, or use stories or metaphors to help kids remember the material. Also, we all need positive reinforcement and when I do I just ask the class a question knowing that someone will have the answer, and when they do it makes me feel good about what I do.”
Doc’s own education influenced him tremendously which is reflected in the way he teaches. He attended Salisbury School, an all boys boarding school in Connecticut. His dissection of a fetal pig during his tenth grade year there fostered his lifelong love of biology. He vividly remembers his biology teacher under whom he did the dissection. This teacher had Doc make a number of drawings to remember the parts of the pig, something he still does today with his AP Bio class. It was his high school biology class which encouraged him to further pursue bio in college at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). There he had a number of teachers who influenced his own desire to teach, including Dr. Carroll, Colonel Reeves, Colonel Pickerell, and Dr. Heisey. What Doc remembers most about “Doc Carroll” is that he had one arm and chewed tobacco in class, often missing his spittoon and littering the floor. Doc Carroll told stories to help kids learn the material, something Doc Wacht does to this day. Doc says, “Doc [Carroll] taught by telling stories, which I found out helped me remember the material. I assumed they were all true. He made a huge impact on my life and how I teach.”
Doc Wacht’s teaching career before Belmont Hill was actually much different than you might imagine. Originally he wanted to attend medical school and become a medical doctor. Directly after college he got married and had two kids relatively quickly. In addition, he pursued a master’s degree at the College of William and Mary for one year. During this time he realized that with two kids and a wife, medical school was a less viable option, so he decided to go to work. At that time Doc did not know whether he wanted to continue doing research or go into teaching. He ended up finding a job teaching science at the Augusta Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Virginia, where he stayed for two years. Once he had finished his graduate degree work at William and Mary, he was hired to teach biology at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach. Doc spent fifteen years at Tidewater teaching science courses in Biology and Chemistry and working as an administrative dean. He vividly remembers his time there. He recalls, “During that time I got my doctorate from Vanderbilt in higher education and administration. I was also a dean at the community college and being trained to be a higher level administrator. As soon as I got my doctorate I said ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ I wanted to get back into teaching full time.” His desire to return to teaching brought him to Cape Henry Collegiate School, a private school in Virginia Beach. Despite wanting to teach classes again, Doc ended up becoming the Headmaster. After a one year headship, he was hired by Belmont Hill to teach Biology and Science 1, which he has been doing ever since.
For thirty years now, Doc has been changing the lives of generations of Belmont Hill students. There is no finer example than Dr. Andrew A. Hack ‘91, who spoke about Doc at his retirement party on campus earlier in May. After Belmont Hill, Dr. Hack graduated from the University of Chicago, the Pritzker School of Medicine at UChicago, and later earned a PhD in molecular biology. Despite having taken classes with some of the most renowned doctors and professors in the country, Dr. Hack said, “I can say without a moment of hesitation, or an ounce of reservation, that NO teacher, professor or clinician has had as big an impact on my trajectory in either school or in life, as Dr. Wachtmeister.” He also went further as to explain the reasons why Doc was such a great mentor for him, saying, “In the end, I think it was two things. First, Dr. Wachtmeister clearly loved biology and loved teaching biology. I think everyone who ever spent any time in his classroom knew that immediately, and second, and maybe more importantly, he was willing to bet on me. Two seemingly simple things, but such a powerful impact.” Hundreds of students, myself included, can attest to the exact same thing. When I sat down with him a few weeks back, Doc said, “What really makes me feel good, more than anything else, is every year boys in 9th grade kids sign up for AP bio and then we sit down and go through the list. Sometimes an advisor or teacher then recommends that a student who signed up not take the course. I convince them otherwise, and I encourage the boy to stick with the decision anyway. Usually, he ends up getting excited, and really doing well, and performing well on the AP and the subject test, even when someone said he couldn’t do it a year ago. In 10th grade you have to give these boys a chance. Sometimes even if they don’t have the ability but you get them excited, they’ll do great.” This philosophy is what makes Doc such an exemplary and transformative educator. Because of the bet he took on a young and timid Andrew Hack, Hack has gone on to win international awards for his PhD dissertation, founded a biotech company out of medical school, and is now the CFO of a company pioneering in biotechnologies like CRISPR which aim to change people’s DNA. Without Doc, hundreds of stories like this literally would never be possible.
As Doc transitions into his well deserved retirement “down on the farm,” there are certainly things he will miss about Belmont Hill; the main two being his students and the other his science department colleagues. As Dr. Melvoin remarked, “Hans is a man of great passion, of strong beliefs, and of clear direction.” For fifty years Doc’s calling as a teacher and his passion for biology have diverted time from his other great love, the farm. For the first time in many years he will have an opportunity to focus solely on one endeavor: spending time with his cows. In reflecting on the state in which he leaves the Science Department, Doc says, “If you talk to any teacher, they’ll say their department is the best but I really do feel our science department is a very special group of people. We are close knit and everyday we laugh and laugh and laugh. Most of that is due to Trautz who is probably the funniest guy I ever met. My favorite thing is that there are no ‘egos’ in this department, none! That makes it so easy to work with people. From Physics all the way down through teaching the little guys we are in great shape and I think we are stronger now than we’ve ever been.” Although he would never say it and probably does not think it, much of that is due to Doc. His tireless efforts over the last thirty years have made the Science Department and Belmont Hill a much better place, and I know I speak for all of us in thanking him. Thank you, Doc Wacht!