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May 26, 2014
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Vail Valley teacher George McCollum closes out 51-year career

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. … If it is teaching, then teach.”

Romans 12:6-7

EDWARDS — Wednesday morning, George McCollum quietly slipped away from his retirement party early and, smiling broadly, disappeared into a classroom to do what he was born to do — teach.

McCollum is closing the book on a 51 year math teaching career. His latest incarnation is at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic School in Edwards.

For the occasion, hundreds of St. Clare students strapped on bow ties, McCollum’s trademark. They never looked better.

McCollum is a practical man. He’s the proud owner of 60 bow ties and 120 string ties. He wears them in succession, like a math equation, and that’s why you don’t remember seeing him wear the same tie twice.

See how good and uncomplicated life can be for a practical man?

“I’ve never met with students without a tie,” he said.

McCollum was raised in Boulder when it was a Republican stronghold. In 1963 he launched his teaching career in a one room schoolhouse on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. He spent four years in a slightly larger school and landed at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum in 1968, when graduating classes averaged 35 students.

He retired from Eagle Valley a few years back, then spent some time with the Vail Academy before St. Clare’s.

He had the very good sense to marry Pat in 1964. They’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary next month.

That’s the good stuff

The good stuff never changes, like the twinkle in students’ eyes when their lights come on and they get it.

He taught several of the teachers he works with. He taught his students’ parents.

Kids haven’t changed much, he said. They have access to all kinds of new technology and information, but they’re still kids.

“Math hasn’t changed either. The names and terms have changed, but that’s about all,” he said.

Multiply seven times seven and you’ll always get 49. Always. It never changes.

And neither, thank heavens, does McCollum.

McCollum is a larger-than-life classroom presence, his deep booming voice filling the room.

After 51 years, his favorite expression is still “hot dog!” when a student gets it right. When a student asks for a little more time by saying “wait,” he still responds, “WAIT?!? Wait broke the wagon down!”

Discipline is key

Vern Brock sat under McCollum’s instruction for three years, 1974-76, at Eagle Valley High School. Sure, Brock remembers the math, but also more than that.

“Kids feed off discipline, they don’t endure it,” Brock said. “If all the teachers had that mindset, many of education’s problems would not exist. You didn’t test his limits.”

Once upon a time, a substitute teacher took McCollum’s Eagle Valley High School math class. McCollum had been dragged away against his will to attend some meeting. Great teachers hate meetings — yet another reason McCollum is a great teacher.

Anyway, the substitute strode into the classroom and the kids immediately cheered, thinking they’d have their way with him. The substitute drew himself up to his full height and barked loudly, “Even if Mr. McCollum isn’t here, his rules still apply!”

The sub had no idea what those rules were, but the class quieted down and got to work.

“Kids like discipline, and they want it to be consistent,” McCollum said.

Jimmy Pavelich is an eighth grader at St. Clare. He told his younger brother John that he felt sorry for him. He wouldn’t have Mr. McCollum for math.

The gift of teaching

St. Clare principal Sister Marirose, something of an artist, made him a personalized coffee mug.

McCollum started attending St. Clare’s Wednesday morning mass, then drinking coffee with the pianist after mass was done.

St. Clare needed a math teacher to handle a couple classes a day, and McCollum, who’d retired a couple times, doesn’t have a natural aptitude for leisure.

“He’s a truly dedicated teacher. He has the gift of teaching,” Sister Marirose said.

Gifted teachers can teach anything. McCollum chose math because he’s great at it. He started college at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. He did the math and figured if he took 24 hours the fall quarter, 23 hours the winter quarter and 19 the spring quarter, he could finish that year. He finished his degree at the University of Northern Colorado.

Is that you?

Once McCollum was driving through the Southwest and stopped in a small town where Jeff Fedrizzi was the fire marshall. McCollum picked up the phone and called the station.

“Is this Jeff Fedrizzi, who attended Eagle Valley High School?” McCollum asked.

“Yes,” Fedrizzi replied.

“Do you have gum?” McCollum grilled him in a deep, ominous tone.

“Mr. McCollum, is that you?”

It was, and it still is.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated May 27, 2014 08:57AM Published May 26, 2014 06:45PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.