Four decades of Missoula high school students learned the rules of the road under Dick Schipporeit's calm guidance. By his last years teaching at Sentinel High School, students were remarking how he'd taught their moms to drive.
So Schipporeit's passing last week touched generations of Missoula residents, past and present, who remembered him fondly as their teacher, or their children's teacher.
In honor of his passing, we present a story written on June 6, 2008, by Rob Chaney, while Schipporeit was still behind the wheel with Missoula's youngest drivers. Read on and you'll understand why he is, and will be, missed and remembered.
After 41 years of teaching, Dick Schipporeit knew a certain day was coming.
"This year, a student came up to me and said, 'You taught my mother how to drive,' " Sentinel High School's longest-serving drivers education instructor said. "And then she said, 'And know what else? You taught my grandmother how to drive.' I traced it back to 1969. She was right."
Schipporeit will attend his 41st consecutive graduation ceremony this Saturday.
"How in the world can you not go?" he asked. "I've been watching all of them for four years. I couldn't sleep if I didn't go."
Fellow teacher Cindy Gaumer recently tallied Shipporeit's other accomplishments for a nomination as Traffic Education Teacher of the Year, an honor he received in April. They included 41 years teaching business education, 30 years as business ed department chairman, and 20 years as a Montana Officials Association basketball referee (which inducted him into its hall of fame in 2001).
Schipporeit was a student teacher in Missoula in 1967. He got hired at Florence that year, but popped in to see the prom and graduation because he knew the students. In 1969, he was hired full time at Sentinel and never left.
He's also attended 41 junior prom dances. In that time, he's seen the boys' lapels go in and out, and the girls' hemlines rise and fall. Tuxedos replaced sports jackets. Voguing replaced the jitterbug. Parents got involved – in a bit of social jujitsu many still don't realize.
In the mid-1980s, Schipporeit said student drinking incidents were growing more troublesome at prom. Someone came up with the idea of the Grand March promenade, with all the parents invited to watch. Even though most parents left after the ceremony, the risk of getting busted for alcohol breath with an audience of adults looking on made a big impact.
"We haven't had the problems since then," he said. "It was a great idea."
Change has come much slower to graduation. The more traditional ceremony has less room for innovation. The thing Schipporeit noticed lately was the growing amount of consideration and respect students showed one another, especially to anyone needing help reaching the stage or dealing with the pomp and circumstance.
Through it all, the lure of the automobile has kept Schipporeit in school. His father was a shop foreman at the Bakke Motors Ford dealership, and one of Dick's first jobs was as a parts runner there. He started racing and upgrading Mustangs, a passion he still maintains.
"I liked it so much, I thought: 'Why not be a drivers ed teacher?' " he said. Anyone who's heard the classic Bob Newhart "Driving Instructor" routine can imagine the stress inherent sitting next to a novice driver. Schipporeit doesn't remember it.
"I always feel relaxed in the car," he said. "It doesn't bother me. I try not to yell or scream, and I hardly ever use the foot brake. Some guys just ride that thing. I don't – I think it helps the kids relax.
"The first two or three drives, most of them don't have the confidence," he said. "Part of my goal is to make them relax. They just do so much better for me."
Schipporeit even developed a motorcycle drivers education program that ran for 15 summers in Missoula. It taught things like how to react when something falls out of a truck ahead of your bike ("Rise up on your toes and pop the front wheel up – people would see us doing that and say, 'You're teaching this?' "). The program faded as MCPS started charging tuition for basic drivers education and few students could afford to pay for both classes.
But that wasn't all. He also became a bus driver for Beach Transportation. He still starts every morning at 6 a.m., backing 18 buses out of the Beach barn. Although they're parked just inches apart, he's only bent one mirror since 1980.
"We figured that's about 102,000 buses," he said. "When I bent that one, we just put it in a vise and straightened it out. Then we put it back on the bus."
With all that driving seniority, Schipporeit now mainly takes the team-travel assignments on the Beachliners. He's gone from the racket of boom boxes powered by car batteries to the silence of a motorcoach full of iPod devotees.
"I've been here 41 years, and there's one Sentinel teacher who's worked for 42 years," he said. "I'm going to stay two more years. I've got to make 43."