Warren Reich estimates he had about 1,200 students in his German language class at Mont Pleasant High School in Schenectady during his eight years of teaching, but more than half a century after he taught his last class, none of them had ever contacted him.
That is until Frank Parillo got a unique idea.
In 2009, the 1957 graduate of Mont Pleasant was 70 years old and living in Orange County, Calif., when it dawned on him that he should reach out to his German teacher. “I think I was doing a crossword puzzle and they asked what city in Germany was famous for making steel,” Parillo said. “And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I learned that from Mr. Reich.’ ”
Reich had been Parillo’s German teacher for three years, after Parillo had been counseled to take the subject because it would help with his planned path to be a pre-med student in college.
“I enjoyed the course and I enjoyed him,” Parillo said. “There was something about him I could relate to ... even though he was a pretty formal guy.”
It was the bond derived from that experience that prompted the former student to go hunting for his former teacher. Now a headhunter for medical companies, Parillo used his professional experience to aid his search and found Reich with a search site called Net Detective. The search proved fruitful, to the point where it even offered a phone number and address in Guilderland.
“I sent a letter out first, to get his attention,” Parillo said. In the letter he included a handful of German proverbs to demonstrate that he hadn’t forgotten his lessons and that Reich hadn’t been wasting his time. This was followed up with a game of phone tag across the country before Parillo got through to his teacher. “We talked for an hour,” he said.
At first, though, the former student had to give the former teacher a quick refresher course on who he was.
“I don’t think he remembered me,” Parillo said. “I didn’t think he would remember me. He had so many students.”
In fact, the then 86-year-old Reich had no idea who he was talking to.
“I couldn’t think of what he looked like, I hate to say it,” Reich admitted. “It bothered me that he remembered me so well and I didn’t remember him, but I suppose that’s a normal thing.”
The call itself would have surprised Reich even if he did remember the caller, as he said none of his high school students had ever contacted him. He taught at Mont Pleasant High School from 1952 to 1960 and then taught at SUNY-Albany until 1969, when he moved to the state Office of Higher Education. Some of his college students had kept in touch.
The ensuing conversation didn’t really touch on their shared experience at Mont Pleasant, according to Reich. “We talked a long time, much of it philosophical,” he said. “It was life in general.”
The call was a welcome surprise, as Reich said he enjoyed talking to Parillo, who has a large personality. “I find him to be an interesting person,” he said. “I’m very glad he called me.”
As for whether other students should emulate Parillo’s effort, Reich said they shouldn’t feel required to pick up the phone, but described it as a nice gesture. He said, “If they feel positively toward their teacher and feel that they’re in a sense indebted … I think that’s a nice thing for a former student to do.”
In a sense Reich has already been heeding his own advice, as he has weekly conversations with a former college professor, who then became his colleague. Every Thursday Reich contacts 99-year-old Willard Skidmore, of Delmar.
Before Parillo and Reich’s chat was over, Parillo made a promise to call twice a year — on Christmas and on June 26, Reich’s birthday. He said they’ve had two Christmas calls and two birthday calls, which Parillo characterized as light conversation that tended to tread on familiar territory. “You repeat some of the same stuff. [That’s] what happened as you get older,” he said. “We rehash old stuff and still laugh at the same thing.”
This played out in person on Thursday, as the phone pals ate lunch at the Capital City Diner with Reich’s wife, Nina. Parillo said he was a little surprised by his teacher’s white hair, as he remembered a young man with black hair.
Parillo said he hopes that other people will learn of his actions and reach out to a teacher that meant something to them years ago. But he wouldn’t recommend reaching out sooner than he did.
“Not necessarily,” Parillo said. “It might be more effective 50 years later.”
He did acknowledge that waiting this long could have a serious flaw, noting, “I would have felt badly if I had called him .. and he was dead.”
As for how much longer the calls will continue, Reich believes they could continue indefinitely. “I don’t see why not, unless I get afflicted with something,” he said. “I’m 88, so you don’t know what could happen.”