The passing this week of retired seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Robert Wakeham has evoked an outpouring of remembrances, affection, and respect from hundreds of former students and teachers over a 34-year career.
Wakeham, 75, who resided in Lowell, died on Tuesday after a long illness. Funeral arrangements are private.
“I think he was probably the best teacher I ever worked with and knew,” said former John Glenn Middle School Principal Thomas Nolan, who was Wakeham’s colleague and later his supervisor. “He was a great friend.”
He was “the man who took us all under his wing to teach social studies, but more importantly to teach us about life, love, and kindness,” affirmed Rhonda (Sibley) Perry, a 1980 Bedford High School graduate and one of Wakeham’s more than 2,100 Facebook friends.
Wakeham was 23 when he joined the social studies faculty of the Bedford Junior High School in 1970, hired by Principal James Kinneen. He retired in 2004 from John Glenn Middle School, returning for several weeks in the fall to help in the office.
Former colleague Ralph Bennett said he first met Wakeham when they were students at the former Lowell State College. “The ‘Mr. Wakeham’ brand became synonymous with excellence as an educator,” Bennett said. “He is remembered by innumerable learners who experienced that gift he provided.”
Other retired teachers expressed similar praise. “Bob Wakeham was as fine a human being as I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” said Frank Hirsch. “An eternal optimist, he always saw things in a positive light, and inspired those around him to think likewise.” Added Ralph Hammond, “He was a wonderful person and an outstanding social studies teacher.”
“He accepted everybody for who they were,” Nolan said. “He didn’t criticize – he always looked to help, he always wanted to make people feel good. I honestly never heard him say a bad word about anyone.”
Former students shared memories and tributes in interviews and scores of social media posts. On Facebook, “he ‘friended’ all his former students and continued to be part of our lives,” noted Danielle Bearden, BHS Class of 2003. “I think he loved seeing us all grown up and with our families.”
Wakeham was “literally the perfect educator. Wise, deeply knowledgeable, humorous, totally positive, absolutely in love with his subject matter, and genuinely kind. We’re all so very lucky to have had him in our lives,” testified Seth Cargiulo, who was a middle school student in the late 1980s.
“He let me be myself,” posted Deb (Delfino) Hanna, who was in Wakeham’s classroom a decade before Cargiulo. “His style of teaching made social studies interesting and fun. Not all teachers did that. What a great person and teacher!”
Local restaurateur Jim Morris, whose junior high memories are almost 50 years old, said, “I remember him always smiling. If there was a Teacher Hall of Fame, he would most certainly be in it.”
Added Mike Cossette, who was in Wakeham’s class in the late 1980s, “He was an outstanding human being. I wish the world had more Mr. Wakehams.”
Tracey (Gardini) Derderian, BHS class of 1999, posted a lengthy, eloquent tribute that included details of her last conversation with her former teacher in December.
“I told him that for thousands of students (affectionately known as Mr. Wakeham’s cherubs), spanning many decades, his classroom was truly a second home, a warm, welcoming, fun, lively, judgment-free zone,” she wrote. “Here we knew we’d be heard, valued, challenged, encouraged, praised, respected, and cherished by a man who was more like a second dad than a history teacher to many of us.”
Naveen Wadhera, BHS class of 1995, praised “a warm, kind, and generous teacher, a man that brightened the hallways and wished us well as we walked by, who welcomed us all into his inclusive and safe classroom, and whose genuine enthusiasm for history inspired learning.”
His classmate Aarti Kapuria said, “Just seeing him leaning on the heater in his classroom reminding his students that there was something positive, there was a beacon of light and hope while we were navigating the ugliness that can be middle school. He was an absolute icon, and has left his legacy as part of the students who were lucky to be part of his world.”
She shared an anecdote Wakeham related, about a student who was ridiculed for wearing a Tinkerbell necklace. “She was so upset, she left the room crying. Mr. Wakeham told the kids that what they didn’t know was that it was the last gift her dad gave her. At age 45, I have never forgotten that lesson and that perspective.”
George Chen, a 1994 BHS graduate, shared a different kind of story. “My most vivid memory was after he broke up a fight in the cafeteria. He was rubbing his jaw afterward and I commented that he must be annoyed that he got hit in the crossfire. Always the student advocate, he shrugged it off and said, ‘I don’t blame him. He was just trying to get away.’”
Bearden, a math teacher, pointed to Wakeham’s “passion for the subject.” But she also cited “the connections he made with students. I had just moved back to Bedford and he made it a point to check in on me, making sure I was adjusting well.”
“He had a special way of engaging with his ‘cherubs’ and made learning history fun,” remembered Kim (Alessi) Sands, a 1993 BHS graduate. “He always corrected our papers with backward checkmarks, so I tried it and loved it. To this day, I still make my checkmarks backward.”
To read a tribute to Robert Wakeham from Tracey (Gardini) Derderian, visit https://www.facebook.com/trace.1381 or https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10166824798135467&set=pb.792140466.-2207520000.&type=3.