Unknown Genius Teachers: Who’s Yours?


images-GoldenApple_BAt first glance, our culture seems good at celebrating great teachers. We talk endlessly about how important they are. We give out Teacher of the Year awards. We watch them onscreen — the Dead Poet Society guy, the Stand and Deliver guy, the To Sir With Love guy, the teacher in “Glee.”  They’re heroes.

But what about in everyday life? Do we have ways of locating and celebrating heroic teachers? Are there ways of identifying unknown geniuses?

Take Cosimo De Pietto, choir teacher in Brooklyn’s Erasmus High School in the 1950s, for example. Now, I can say with absolute certainty that you’ve never heard of Cosimo De Pietto. De Pietto was a terrific choir teacher by all accounts – he was tough, he was inspiring, he led many to a career in music.

The most interesting thing about De Pietto is that one of his choirs contained two students named Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond (how’s that for a powerhouse chorus, Gleeks?). Both Diamond and Streisand credit Mr. De Pietto for helping to form their passion for music. (Though, as Streisand points out, De Pietto never let her solo.)

It’s a remarkable story – two world superstars from the same high-school choir. Turned onto music by the same man, taught the basics by the same man, guided by the same man. You would have to work hard to find another person who affected American music as profoundly as Cosimo De Pietto.

With that in mind, let’s measure how modern culture appreciates Mr. De Pietto:

Total Google hits for “Barbra Streisand” and “Neil Diamond” = 22,000,000

Total Google hits for “Cosimo De Pietto” = 136

I don’t know about you, but I think these numbers are out of whack.  I think there should be a way to recognize and pay tribute to the best unknown master teachers.

So here’s the deal: you nominate the best unknown genius teachers or coaches of all time, provide a short biography, and I’ll start keeping a list.

To get things going, here are a couple:

Marvin “Towny” Townsend: Started two youth baseball teams in Tidewater, VA, that produced five major-league ballplayers; invented revolutionary new techniques to teach the art of hitting using yogurt lids.

Jim Steen: Swim coach at Kenyon College; his swimmers have won 47 NCAA titles; nicknamed The Stroke Whisperer. Quote: “The road to success has no neon signs to herald your arrival.”

Who else belongs on this list?

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30 Responses to “Unknown Genius Teachers: Who’s Yours?”

  1. Hey Dan,

    My nomination is Rudy Duran, Tiger Woods’ coach from the age of 4 through 10. I was priveledged to hear him speak recently and I kept thinking of The Talent Code throughout his talk.

    Rudy owned and ran a small 18 hole, par 3 public golf course. He would reserve the 1st tee on a Saturday morning for junior
    competitions even though he could have sold those the spots to adults 3 time over. Tiger was coached by Rudy once per week for about 2/3 hours at a time and 85% of their time was spent on the course. There was very little technical instruction, much more playing and competing with Tiger trying to beat Rudy. Rudy would say to Tiger ‘I own you’ and Tiger would try his utmost to beat Rudy in line with his ‘Personal Par’ (an informal handicap designed to enable Tiger to compete from the same tees but score in line with Rudy and his dad). Rudy said that he would play the games and wait for the ‘coachable moments’ and then ask Tiger a few questions about how he might approach the shot again.

    In my view Rudy Duran had an enormous role in the development of one of the greatest golfers the game has ever known. He taught Tiger to play golf first rather than to teach him to hit a ball and understood that he just needed to guide him rather than to instruct him. So many other coaches would have tried to give Tiger technical information and to develop his swing.

    I believe that Tiger’s phenomenal ability to score even if he is not hitting the ball well is what sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries. I also believe that Rudy Duran provided the platform for this to take place.

  2. Candice says:

    One of my nomination would be Coach Wooden. I don’t have the stats and you’ve spoken about him a number of times but he’s one of the worlds greatest teachers!!

  3. Steve says:

    Mike Messere. Varsity Boys Lacrosse Coach West Genesee High School, Camillus, New York. 15 State Championships. Numerous High School All-America’s, Numerous College All-America’s, several former players named into National Hall of Fame. Numerous former players are now college coaches, high school coaches and youth coaches. In the lacrosse world, Mike Messere is what John Wooden was to basketball.

  4. Dale says:

    I’m sure it’s pushing the limits of the definition of “teacher”, but I nominate Daniel Coyle. After being a long-time fan of The Talent Code, I’m just now reading Lance Armstrong’s War and both those books teach more about skill-building and the hardcore training mindset than any number of other sources. Coyle is a helluva writer and a helluva teacher.

    Also L.D. Weldon of Graceland College (retired) seems to fit the bill. He was a transformative coach for Bruce Jenner back in the 1970’s as described in Finding the Champion Within by Bruce Jenner. Now Jenner might not be much of a role model now (with his Kardashian family), but he was a great athlete.

  5. Chuck says:

    Erich Sailer of Buck Hill, MN has coached 15 racers to the US Ski Team and 4 Olympians including the US’ greatest racer Lindsey Vonn and slalom great Sara Schelper. He is a USST Hall of Fame instructor and has a hot bed that preciously replicates the ones you describe in your book. It’s a tiny, lame hill with more cold than snow. Yet year after year he turns out the very best racers in the country. No other ski coach in American can say this.

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey Dale — Thanks! That’s incredibly nice of you, and I really appreciate it.

  7. Dale, I second the motion. Nominate Daniel Coyle right quick. I have learned a tremendous amount from the Talent Code. Myelin has become my new mantra, thanks to Daniel’s book. I also approach my coaching more like John Wooden, even planning my sessions down to 5 minute intervals. Mr. Coyle, you wrote yourself a doozy and the book will be with me forever. My only concern is that Daniel requested that his unsung heroes be ‘unknown.’ Well if Tony Robbins tweets about your book to his army of followers, ain’t no way you’re unknown. (Not to mention the New York Times…)

    I would like to nominate a football coach from Maine. Rod Wotton, head coach at Marshwood High School for 27 years. In 1987, Coach Wotton led his team to 45 wins in a row, the longest High School football winning streak in the country. He won State Titles in all four Maine classes. Perhaps most tellingly, after retiring at Marshwood he went to a winless local school in New Hamphire and led them to, surprise surprise, the State Championship title.

    I got to know Coach Wotton by washing his golf clubs at Rochester Country Club. Coach was an avid golfer. What I remember most about his presence was the way other adults acted around him. Whenever he came into the pro shop it was like one of those old EF Hutton commercials. Things got a lot quieter. People listened carefully to Coach as if his football genius might rub off on their golf games. As many people in Seacoast New England say to this day: “Rod is God.” He, like Wooden, wasn’t having any of it. He shunned accolades to an almost obsessive degree. He quietly went about his business, raising a lovely family (I worked with his son Jeff in the pro shop as well) and winning football games. Lots and lots of football games.

  8. Track coach at Iowa City West High School, Brian Martz. From a fairly small talent pool, he’s produced a handful of athlete who have gone on to high skill, but more impressively is that he coached 7 athletes who now coach at the highest levels of the NCAA sport.

    Carson Boddicker

  9. Ted says:

    My vote would be for Alain Lemieux, the four year older brother of Mario.
    Mario has said that he idolized his older brother and tried to copy the way he played and learn from him. Alain was an amazing mentor, not only because he was four years older and a future NHL player himself, but also because he knew Mario held him in high regards and he made sure that Mario was always with him when they played on the frozen flooded soccer field near their house in Montreal.

    I wish I knew more about Mario’s development. I have never seen a player quite like him ever (including Gretzky) It was as if the game seemed in slow motion for him. He saw options that many seasoned players couldn’t even begin to grasp.

  10. Susan says:

    Thanks, H, for suggesting Gregg Breinberg, director of the PS22 Chorus from Public School 22 in Graniteville, Staten Island. I ran across Greg’s You Tube videos last year around this time and since then have used them to inspire teachers in my school district, in every discipline. If you want to see a person who is truly a heroic teacher, visit the blogsite at ps22chorus.blogspot.com.
    I wrote an email to Greg last New Year’s Eve to let him know how he impressed me. I suggested that he was probably getting as much from his kids as he was giving… and he wrote back to say that he truly was blessed to be able to work with the kids from PS22. What a humble, sincere, heroic guy.

  11. djcoyle says:

    Talk about great: In India, just 2 percent of all applicants make it into their hugely competitive institutes of technology. This guy started a class, for free, for underprivileged kids — and out of 30 kids in the class, guess how many made it in? (If you guessed 30, you win!) This is worth a listen: (and thanks to my brother Maurice for finding this): http://www.worldvisionreport.org/Stories/Week-of-January-1-2011/Indian-Math-School

  12. Atrad says:

    Who else belongs on this list?

    I think this yogi teacher relatively unknown definitely belong to this list. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Tirumalai_Krishnamacharya

    He taught his students different types of yoga based on that student’s nature and several of his students became giants in yoga bringing various branches of yoga to west. Example: BKS Iyengar (Hatha yoga), Pattabhi Jois (Astanga Yoga), TKV Desikachar (Vinaysa Yoga), Srivatsa Ramaswamy and few other students.

    More details of each of these students can also be found on wikipedia.

  13. Atrad says:

    Small addition to above comment. Following article explains his contributions to yoga via his teachings and students
    “Krishnamacharya’s Legacy” – http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/465

  14. johnhaddad says:

    There is a wrestling coach in Virginia Beach named Keith Lowrance.

    He had an extraordinary mentor in Coach Billy Martin at Granby High School. Martin coached dozens of state champions (highly unusual) and Lowrance proceeded to take Martin’s teachings and expand them.

    Keith himself went on to coach 35 State Champions and 102 State place winners and placed teams in the state top 3 seventeen times. His coaching record is a phenomenal 272-31-2.

    Coach Lowrance has had many of his former wrestlers become coaches. Together they have produced over 20 State Championship Teams.

    Lowrance is fanatical about teaching. He has produced 30+ intensely detailed instructional tapes and in every one you’ll here him talk about repetition.

    Lowrance continually breaks his strategies into simple, teachable parts. When you see the finished product you’ll see his wrestlers using advanced techniques that appear quite complex. Throughout the learning process, however, nothing is either complicated or advanced.

  15. Nicole Federici says:

    David Holland, the viola teacher and conductor at the Interlochen Arts Academy. He was my favorite teacher (I’m a professional violist) and I’m willing to bet he was a favorite of a lot of others too.
    He has educated more top tier performing string players than I can count – soloists, chamber musicians, and members of the world’s finest orchestras.

    and then, I’d have to vote for Howard Hintze, who was an English professor there as well. Everyone who attened the IAA wanted to take his classes- and most of us still talk about them to this day as being a great influence on us artistically. While David Holland taught string players- Mr. Hintze taught actors, musicians, writers, dancers and artists.

    If you do a book on great teachers- these two must be on the list- I’m sure you have heard of many of their students- thanks!

  16. debbie carter says:

    so glad to see my uncle recognized.attended many a concert at brooklyn college when a child and still have letters of gratitude from former students(my mom was mr. d’s sister.

  17. Art Golden says:

    I was a student of “Mr. D” from 1965 thru 1968, as was my father and uncle before me. He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest teachers I have ever known. I can’t even imagine what Erasmus would have been like without him. A true gentleman who demanded the best from his students, and his students gladly gave it to him.

  18. Anna DiVincenzo says:

    I was a student at Erasmus Hall High School. I sang in the Cantata -Ms.Segrestrom. Mr. D. would show up during rehersals – he demanded perfection. Since I was a new student from Italy, Mr. DePietto would ask me to sing traditional Italian songs “like his mamma did”. All the girls had a huge crush on him!!! So handsome!!!! Ironically, we became neighbors when I married.

  19. Cathy Townsend says:

    I just wanted to say, I’m Towny’s wife and I’ve seen that you’ve mentioned Towny twice in your articles. He was a very inspirational man. He made students (yes, he was a teacher, too) believe in themselves and not give up. He taught values like honesty, hard work, and motivation. He taught those values through baseball and related it to life. His funeral at age 54 in 2007 was a testament to those values as most of the speakers were former and current students. I still hear from them today. He worked, by preference, in an intercity middle school as a Dean of Students, but even the “trouble” kids knew and respected him. He has been truly missed by all. I know there are others like him and I’m happy to read about them here.

  20. Eady Shebroe says:

    Mr. DePietto taught at Erasmus Hall while I was a student there. Not only did he conduct the Choral Club, but for one term he also took over the Orchestra of which I was a member. I have very fond memories of him. He was Chairman of the Music Dept., yet he cared enough to sit down to explain to my class why he had to make a decision which was against what the students would have desired. I think that was very considerate of him.

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  22. Perry Newman says:


    You are so right, Mister D was the most influential teacher in my life as well.

    I was a part of the his chorus 66-68 and I have never seen an educator put in more effort and strive more for perfection than he put into the six Xmas and Spring concerts I was a part of.

    I did not have the best voice coming in to the chorus in 1966 but Mr. D found the time to tutor me privately and he instilled in all of us that striving for anything short of perfection is unacceptable.

    Mr. D was elegant, dignified and committed to EHHS and his students.

    I feel privileged to have been a part of his chorus and a close second to Mr. D was our basketball coach Bernie Kirsner.

  23. Madeline says:

    I was in the EHHS Choral Club from 1964-67, directed by Mr. D. Just to be admitted to Choral Club was special. We had to audition, and the best were accepted to Choral Club, the rest being relegated to the Contata and Boys’ Glee Club. He was definitely tough, but as the previous posted stated, no one put on a better or more professional concert. I still have the records of our Xmas and Spring Concerts.

  24. count puck says:

    WRONG! I HAVE heard of Mr. Di Pietto! I suppose I am one of the 136 people who googled him. I was a student in the E.H.H.S. chorus from 1956-59, and knew and adored the person we called “Mr. D.” I was in the very chorus (we did not say “choir”) that la Streisand was in…SOOOOO obnoxious, telling everyone she was headed for stardom. True, Mr. Di Pietto gave all the solo work to one, Trudi Wallace, who was a more conventionally pretty type, and who no doubt thought she was also marked for greatness.

    Di Pietto, even in retrospect, was certainly a charismatic individual, as befits any proper conductor. It was from him I first got an inkling of the concept of professional standards. And he had great taste : Handel, Bach, et al, and zero kitsch. We shall not see the like again any time soon!

    Wonder whatever became of Trudi Wallace…

  25. Every day i meet someone can teach me something but a great teacher is that one wich show me the way to do things that i don’t know or don’t thinking about

  26. Fra nk Grady says:

    One small correction I was at Erasmus high school the year ahead of Barbra Streisand
    You say. “Small high school” Erasmus was the largest school in the largest city in the USA
    We had over 7 thousand students and Mr de Pietto’s Christmas concerts in the chapel were a fantastic spectacle

  27. djcoyle says:

    Thanks for the correction — you’re absolutely right!

  28. Yoga says:

    Not everyone can teach and especially to be a good teacher

  29. Ira Chester says:

    Mr.D was a great teacher, However as a member of the Erasmus Hall Boys Glee club and a member of The All City Chorus from 1948 to 1952 I’d like to give credit to Ms. Catherine Durakis the teacher in charge of the Boys Glee Club. I’m sure that less people have heard of her, but I hope that she is remembered here.
    Thanks, Ira Chester

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