Webster High’s Terry Verstraete Retires Into Wild Blue Yonder


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Jun 20, 2023

Webster High’s Terry Verstraete Retires Into Wild Blue Yonder

Terry Verstraete gives a thumbs up to Webster Groves High School students,

Terry Verstraete gives a thumbs up to Webster Groves High School students, faculty and staff as he lifts off from Kopplin Field. With him is his son, Garrett. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

After nearly three decades of teaching in the Webster Groves School District, Terry Verstraete left the classroom in style on Friday, May 26, waving goodbye as he ascended the skies in a Vietnam War-era helicopter.

It was a fitting end to 29 years at Webster Groves High School, where Verstraete created and taught two U.S. military history classes. The beloved teacher was known for his admiration and respect for those who served.

Despite his storied career in education, Verstraete initially intended to become a DJ.

"The first year of college, my counselor convinced me that employment in that field wasn't too great," he said. "I had a history teacher in college who made it very hands-on and told a lot of stories. It really made a difference in how I learned. So I ended up switching to teaching. It just kind of fell into my lap."

A Florissant native, Verstraete struggled to find a job after college. While working at Schnuck's, his mother introduced him to one of her proofreading clients, George White, who was then the assistant principal of Webster Groves High School. Verstraete was hired soon after as a permanent substitute and, after a vacancy opened up, he started full time in 1994, teaching several social studies classes.

With his father, grandfather and uncle all veterans, Verstraete was quick to create two military history courses, as well as establish an annual Veterans’ Day program. Each year, Webster Groves High School invites veterans to come in and speak with social studies classes about their experiences.

"I started the class to honor those who served and came before us," said Verstraete. "The Veterans’ Day program was actually my attempt to get my grandpa to come in and talk to my class ... and he did come in once."

Webster Groves High School faculty members say "Goodbye" to teacher Terry Verstraete as a helicopter makes its final pass over Kopplin Field. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

In 2022, Verstraete was instrumental in renaming the high school's Kopplin Field — formerly Plymouth Field — after Corp. Richard Kopplin Jr., a 1917 Webster Groves High School graduate who died in World War I in 1918 while defending a town in France.

Verstraete also coached tennis for 28 years, championing the best record in Webster history in 2022, and earning Conference Coach of the Year three times.

Many would be surprised to learn this lifelong educator was not an excellent student himself. But that experience allowed Verstraete to connect with many struggling students throughout his teaching career.

"I did not have a good high school career. I had a 1.8 GPA. I got a 15 on my ACT. I can't tell you how many kids I’ve been able to relate to because of that,"he said." I always wanted to build personal and professional relationships based on being able to relate to students. I’m proud to have made a class which is conducive to learning where I’ve seen kids go from ground zero to helping them through college and beyond."

Terry Verstraete | photo by Ursula Ruhl

"Flattered and Honored"

In addition to his great love for veterans, Verstraete is known schoolwide for his nontraditional teaching style.

Chairs are removed and all desks are pushed together for his World War I exam, during which students must kneel in the "trenches" and write a letter back home over a cacophony of machine gun fire. A "Berlin Wall" appears in the classroom during the Cold War unit and students must attempt to communicate between the East and West sides. A chalk person is pelted with tomatoes, lettuce and fruit to introduce the 1960s Greensboro sit-ins.

"It was definitely one of the weirdest tests I’ve ever taken, but it was a great way to see what they experienced during the war," Webster Groves High School junior Gus Wetzel Meehan said of Verstraete's World War I exam.

It was rumors of Verstraete's teaching style that attracted Wetzel Meehan to the military history class. Now, after three years of being in his classes, Wetzel Meehan will miss the man who has become one of his favorite teachers.

"I love the way he teaches and his all-around vibe. He's a very energetic person, and he makes connections with all his students. He's playful and makes a lot of jokes," said Wetzel Meehan. "I wish I could have him again. I hope his retirement treats him well. It was one of the most fun learning experiences I’ve had at Webster Groves."

One of Wetzel Meehan's favorite memories of Verstraete is from earlier this year.

"I’m a baseball player, and he knows that and he brings it up all the time," said Wetzel Meehan. "He started talking about baseball and he told me, ‘I could probably get a hit off of you in a game,’ and I said ‘No.’ So he took a kid bat and a plastic ball and we went outside, and I struck him out."

Terry Verstraete and his son, Garrett, who just graduated from Webster Groves High School, depart from Kopplin Field in a Vietnam War-era helicopter. | photo by Ursula Ruhl

Verstraete's sense of humor isn't new, according to one of his first students. Greg Russell, Webster High class of 1997, fondly remembers napping in class — only to be startled awake by a loud noise from Verstraete dropping a textbook on the floor.

Graduation wasn't goodbye for Russell and the teacher he grew to love after the initial shock of the dropped textbook. The two reconnected after Russell's college days and have remained good friends for the past 20 years.

While Russell mourns the fact that his two elementary-age sons will not get to experience Verstraete's teaching, he wishes him the best on his well-deserved retirement.

"He's been a great educator and a great asset to the high school for close to 30 years," said Russell. "A lot of people go into teaching for different reasons, but he really wanted to have a lasting impression. He was truly passionate about his students."

Verstraete's grand exit via helicopter was an epic end to his teaching career, but his adventures aren't over. He plans to use the extra time for family and travel, including wintering in Australia.

While looking forward to retirement, Verstraete also looks back on his experiences in the district he will forever consider a home.

"I can't think of too many teachers who can say they’ve been at the same school for 29 years," he said. "I’m flattered and honored. I’m a very lucky man. This is a great place to teach."

| photo by Ursula Ruhl | photo by Ursula Ruhl | photo by Ursula Ruhl "Flattered and Honored" | photo by Ursula Ruhl