Thom Ruckert was the epitome of cool. Tall and lean, he had long hair and wore round, wire-rimmed glasses. When he came to Glen Cove High School to teach English in 1969, he was 24. Teenage girls fell in love with him, but so did his colleagues and the administration.
Ruckert was 72 when he died unexpectedly on July 18, collapsing in his Bayville home from an apparent blood clot.
An avid cyclist and kayaker and a former runner, Ruckert was always in great shape. “He was incredibly healthy,” said his daughter Lissa Harris, 43, a former Locust Valley school board trustee. “That’s why this is so shocking.”
Doreen Hauser, 60, of Glen Cove, hadn’t seen Ruckert since she was a high school senior, but she said she remembers everything about him. “Mr. Ruckert was my favorite teacher and the nicest man you’d ever want to meet,” Hauser said. “He looked like a hippie with his long ponytail and jeans. All us girls thought he was hot.”
Bucking traditional learning methods, Ruckert would often take his classes outside, spreading a blanket out on the lawn. “He was very laid back, and made learning fun,” Hauser recalled. “I was big on cutting classes, but never his.”
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 31, 1945, Ruckert moved with his family to Bellerose when he was 11, but he always felt a connection to Iowa. When he was in his 40s, he began getting tattoos. “He got a tattoo that said, ‘Made in Iowa,’” said his sister-in-law, Carol Varca. “He loved it there.”
Ruckert had a difficult upbringing. His father, Leroy, moved the family often, and would disappear for months at a time. When he was home, he was abusive to his wife, Ruth. A womanizer, gambler and alcoholic, Leroy was everything that Thom swore he would never be. Although his father’s failings inspired him to pledge that he would someday have a good, steady, nurturing home life, the abuse left a mark on him.
“He built a wall inside him from the pain he experienced during his childhood,” said his wife of 50 years, Valerie. “He wanted a strong, stable marriage, and would never argue, because he was so afraid he would recreate what he grew up with. He rarely even raised his voice.”
During his 32 years at GCHS, Ruckert was able to help students that other teachers had given up on. He persuaded many not to drop out of school. “He really understood troubled kids,” Valerie said. “The former students that came to the funeral home — so many said that Thom took the time to know them and saw a spark in them, and then directed them.”
Harris said that her father wanted to give students what he never received from his father — encouragement, and the confidence that came with it. “He liked to teach students about themselves,” Harris said. “If you knew what kind of learner you were, he reasoned, you could do anything.”
One of Ruckert’s former students, Mike Albergo, 49, who purchases props for the Metropolitan Opera, said he might never have graduated from high school had it not been for Ruckert. “You hoped you were the one student he helped, but it seemed like he helped so many,” Albergo said. “School wasn’t easy for me. He was a mentor, and like a big brother to me. They should do a film on him and call it ‘Silent Hero.’”
In 1978, Ruckert created GCTV, a student-run television station, and made working there an elective English class. He saw it as a way to reach students who had become discouraged with conventional teaching methods. “In the studio, Thom had the kids do active learning, and they wrote scripts,” Valerie said. “He wanted the kids to believe that they could succeed. He believed everyone could.”
Christopher Barry, GCHS’s media communications teacher, who now runs GCTV, did his student teaching with Ruckert. “He was the best educator I ever came across,” Barry said. “The kids loved him, and went the extra mile for him. When I saw him working with the kids, I’d say, ‘This is how I should do this.’”
In the 1990s Ruckert selected a group of freshmen who didn’t respond to traditional teaching and created a classroom that he believed would be more conducive to learning. “The classroom had couches and artwork,” Barry recalled. “He was trying to save them. Seventeen kids graduated from that program that would have never graduated.”
Kimbel Martin, 48, Ruckert’s oldest daughter, who lives in Glen Head, said that her father’s belief in his students taught her how to be an effective manager. “He taught me about people in general,” she said. “He’d say student A and student B can’t be graded or judged in the same way. We all have different abilities and skills.”
Martin manages an ophthalmology practice, and uses her father’s methods to benefit her employees. “I find myself thinking, ‘Let’s give them a chance, there’s something out there that I see and can pull out of them,’” she explained. “I am always thinking that I just need to figure out what they need to make them fantastic.”
Their experiences at GCTV led some of Ruckert’s students to careers in the entertainment industry. Steve Yaconetti, 57, is a freelance camera operator who has worked for NBC News, and on two “Mission Impossible” films. He credits Ruckert with his success.
“I was one of the original TV geeks,” Yaconetti said. “When I had off periods I’d go and hang out with him. Some of us weren’t the best students, and he was a motivating force.”
Valerie Lasser, a Manhattan film editor, graduated from GCHS in 1990. She credits Rucker with her success, too. “He helped me not to be afraid to embrace my passion,” she said. “When you meet another of Thom’s students, you immediately know you’ve both shared something special, electric even. Thom’s soft timbre resonated with anyone who crossed his path, and his door was always open.”
He also had an impact on his colleagues. Retired GCHS English teacher Sally Zwiebach, of Roslyn, who knew Ruckert for 43 years, described him as extraordinary. “He’s known for the TV studio, but what is lost is how much he did for the English department,” Zwiebach said. “He helped us get better, always pushing the envelope.”
Zwiebach said she was comfortable teaching traditionally, standing in front of her classroom, but Ruckert wanted her to do more. “I incorporated cooperative learning into my classroom, putting the chairs in circles and grouping the students,” she said. “He was like a graduate course in the art of teaching.”
Remembering Ruckert’s good qualities is easy for his widow. Having met him when she was 19 and he was 20, she has spent most of her life with the man whom she said she isn’t ashamed to admit she picked up at a Mineola bar. “He looked like Paul McCartney and was so handsome,” Valerie said with a sigh. “We started out so young, and the odds were against us for success.”
Asked what she will miss, she paused, her eyes filling with tears. “We did everything together, and I’ll miss everything about him,” she said, wiping her eyes. “We still loved each other and liked each other, too, and counted on each other. He was a solid guy — trustworthy, honest and caring.”