Hints of his childhood in Greenville, Miss., can still be heard in Wes Kittleman’s accent. Born in 1926, Kittleman attended a neighborhood school and walked home each day for lunch. His parents never said a word to him about doing his homework. He knew they expected good grades, and he delivered.
Kittleman’s father wanted him to go to the all-boys Andover Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., considered the Yale prep school. Kittleman decided to transfer there for his senior year of high school, attending summer classes prior to the start of the school year in order to meet their admission requirements.
“Most of the boys started in ninth grade, but I think that’s too young to send anyone to prep school,” Kittleman said. His classmates did have an advantage over him, though, because they were already accustomed to the rigorous coursework. “It was a big jump from Greenville to Andover.”
Kittleman quickly caught on, graduating sixth in his class at the prestigious prep school. “I only applied to three schools, Harvard, Yale and Princeton,” he said, adding, “and I got three ‘fat’ letters,” referring to the thick packets student receive when a college accepts them, juxtaposed with flat rejection letters.
Kittleman decided to major in chemical engineering and business administration at Yale and joined the school’s tennis team, rising to the role of captain by his senior year. He surmises that was due mostly to the fact that several of his teammates were drafted into the war while he was ineligible because of his poor eyesight.
“I was probably an average college tennis player,” he said. Kittleman began playing golf at age six, taking up tennis shortly thereafter.
At Yale, Kittleman completed five years of coursework in four years. Out of the original 113 students who began the chemical engineering program when he did, only nine graduated. Though Kittleman was one of the nine, he still quips, “but I wasn’t smart enough to know I made a poor choice. I don’t believe I could have possibly been happy doing that.”
Perhaps it worked out perfectly, then, that he couldn’t find a chemical engineering job when he graduated. Instead, he returned to Mississippi and joined his family’s wholesale grocery business.
In 1951, he met Jane, a beautiful young lady from Greenwood who graduated from Ole’ Miss and was teaching in Jackson. Within two weeks of meeting, on their fourth date, the couple decided they were destined to be married.
“That was a ‘God-thing,” Kittleman said, “because she’s been the greatest blessing in my life.”
The family business was struggling. “We were charging customers the same as chain stores were charging retail customers,” Kittleman said. “My uncle wanted to modernize.” But their efforts proved unsuccessful.
By now, Kittleman and his wife had two young sons. They decided to move to Dallas, and Kittleman accepted a management position with Wyatt Food Stores. Later, Wyatt sold out to Kroger, and fearful that he would be asked to relocate, Kittleman resigned.
“All of this, I think, was to get me to Greenhill,” Kittleman said, referring to Greenhill School in Dallas. Kittleman’s preacher told him the school, founded in 1950, needed a business manager. He applied and was hired. It was 1961.
“There was something in me … I felt I was meant to be a teacher,” he said, “although I had only taught Sunday school.”
The headmaster, Bernard Fulton, decided to let him find out, giving him one seventh grade math class, along with his duties as business manager.
As the school year began, Kittleman soon realized teaching was more difficult than he expected. “I was stumbling, doing things wrong, yelling at students. I was struggling with discipline.” Fulton and a few teachers talked to Kittleman. He decided to observe the classroom of Mrs. Fulkerson, a teacher who stood barely five-foot-three and who spoke with a soft, gentle voice.
“She was in total control of the same kids who were running wild in my room,” he said. “I learned that discipline is what it’s about. The kids have to know that and you have to know that. Mr. Fulton and those teachers saved me.” Kittleman said discipline and rigorous coursework have an important similarity. Both require the teacher to have high expectations for the students, knowing they will rise to what is expected of them.”
Later, Kittleman began teaching by day and serving as business manager by night. When the school needed a tennis coach, he realized that all things are tied together in life. His years playing tennis at Andover and Yale prepared him for the position.
“My salary was the princely sum of $4,000, so I took extra jobs to feed my family.” All of those jobs were at the school.
He also began taking math courses at Southern Methodist University. “I’m not by any means a mathematician,” he said, “but I know what I’m doing and I know how to explain it to others. If anything, I’m a practical mathematician.”
The one role Kittleman never assumed, though he considered it? Headmaster. “I realized the primary role of a headmaster is fundraising,” he said. “Most demands of the job would take me out of the classroom, and I didn’t want to do anything that would take me out of the classroom.”
Kittleman taught at Greenhill for 22 years, deciding to retire in 1983. The school dedicated its yearbook, Calvalcade, to him in 1976. The dedication pages read, “…it is his role of teacher and coach that the humanity and wit and quiet strength of the man reach out to those fortunate enough to know him well…”
In the book, Humble Beginnings: The First Fifty Years of Greenhill School,” authors Thomas and David Perryman quote the school’s business manager, Ken Piel, “There won’t be any more Wes Kittlemans, sad to say. No one will put into a school what Wes did.”
Kittleman’s oldest son, Wesley, who is a McAllen attorney, and his wife had delivered Kittleman his first grandchild, Sarah. He and Jane decided it was time to sell their home in Highland Park and move to McAllen, where Kittleman planned to spend time with Sarah and play tennis and golf.
Again, life had other plans for him. He had suffered a heart attack in 1981 and had open heart surgery. Later, an aneurysm and another surgery ended his days playing sports.
“That’s when I decided to get into the tutoring business to fill up my days,” he said. He started with one student, a boy named Gabriel, who he tutored twice a week. Now, more than 25 years later, he tutors approximately 45 hours per week. He has tutored entire families. Kittleman found it ironic that when a second-generation student came to him for tutoring, his name was Gabriel, too. Kittleman tutors several levels of math.
“I am finding that fourth and fifth grade arithmetic are giving me a lot of pressure,” Kittleman said. “My favorite subject, I have to say, is Algebra I, and I think that’s the one I’m best at.”
Kittleman said he is not convinced a fourth year of math, now required of all high school students in Texas, is the best decision. “I know all of them don’t need it,” he said.
Tess Guerra and Betsy Dyke are two of Kittleman’s current students. Guerra just completed her freshman year at South Texas High School for Health Professions (Med High) in Mercedes. She plans to be an equine veterinarian. She first came to Kittleman for tutoring because “I heard he’s an amazing tutor … and he is. He’s helped me a lot. I’ve not been such a stellar student in math, but that has changed.” She plans to keep Kittleman as her tutor throughout high school.
Dyke, who will be a senior at McAllen High School, started going to tutoring with Kittleman in seventh grade.
“A friend told me about him,” she said, “and I fell in love with him. In a classroom, a teacher has 30 students. With him, it’s one-on-one for 45 minutes. You have all his attention. I love the days when I have Mr. Kittleman. I go to class a lot less scared. I can also help other students, by showing them ways teachers doesn’t tell us but that Mr. Kittleman has shown me.”
“My main objective is to get fired,” Kittleman said. “Because if I get fired, that means I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. You work yourself out of a job.”
Kittleman said he doesn’t think he could teach in today’s public school. “I graded every paper every day,” he said, “returning them to the students the next day. You can’t do that when you have 30 students in each class. I taught four sections with approximately 16 students per class.”
Kittleman’s other passion is the study of the Bible and his activities at his church, First United Methodist Church in McAllen. Kittleman has ready the Bible daily for 53 years. “In that time,” he said, “I have gone through the entire content of the Bible 50 times. And still, every day, I find fresh, good stuff.”
Kittleman and his wife have three sons, Wes, John and Tom and 12 grandchildren. Wes’ son, James, is the best student Kittleman has ever tutored. “He can work problems faster and better than I can,” he said. “He’s like a machine gun. He just attacks the lesson.”
In the article, “The Anatomy of a Master Teacher: A profile of Charles Wesley Kittleman, the teacher, the father, the husband, and man,” author Thomas W. Black provides readers with Kittleman’s principles:
1. Teachers must be prompt in their attendance and in grading and returning work to students.
2. Teachers must be honest with students and parents, giving them both the good and bad news.
3. Teachers must be in control of the classroom. Students must know who is in charge.
4. Adding humor is an important ingredient for effective teaching.
5.T eachers must know their students outside of the classroom, too.
6. Teachers must enjoy what they’re doing. It will be reflected in their creativity and imagination.
Black sums Kittleman up with these words:
Behind the conservative philosophies and lethargic countenance lie an almost child-like enthusiasm for life, a depth of understanding rooted in Christian doctrine and a genuine concern for the educational welfare of his students that qualify him not only as a Master Teacher but a unique individual worthy of study and recognition.