Community mourns death of 23-year veteran teacher Todd Dwyer

January 23, 2022 — by Christina Chang and Atrey Desai
Photo by Atrey Desai
After teaching at the school for over two decades, generations of Saratoga High students remember Dwyer’s genial personality, memorable teaching style and storytelling.

The school is mourning the death of longtime teacher Todd Dwyer, who passed away at age 60 on Dec. 10. 

Dwyer carved a unique career path and held occupations ranging from military service to a construction worker to a social studies teacher. He is survived by his mother, brother, wife, children and granddaughter. 

Throughout his 23 years at the school, Dwyer was known for his firebrand personality and strongly held views. He gave numerous interviews to the newspaper and yearbook student journalists over the years and expressed his own opinions published in the Mercury News

 

A Jack of All Trades

Distracted and unfocused as a teen, Dwyer dropped out of Wilcox High School in his junior year. Nobody he knew had gone to college, so he said he had no incentive to pursue higher education. Though he initially did not want to enlist in the U.S. army, he had no other options. He recalled that his dad had to enlist him because he was not 18 yet. 

In the Army, Dwyer served in a variety of roles. He was first stationed at Fort Louis, Wash., in May 1978, where he worked as an intelligence analyst.

In late 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun as the country experienced turmoil following the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. As a part of 19th Infantry Division, his task was to examine the military situation, create possible ways to extract the 54 Americans trapped in the embassy and prevent American military technology from crossing the Iran-Soviet Union border.

In a 2016 interview with the Falcon, he recalled he was up at the headquarters, colloquially called the “shed head,” for three days, typing various military scenarios.

He continued to work in the military intelligence division until May 1981 and gathered intelligence for other crises including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, before being transferred to Pyeongtaek, South Korea.

There, under special duty at a U.S. post office, he worked as tensions between North and South Korea continued to grow.

In the same interview, he remembered one specific story — among numerous that he shared in his world geography class — when a North Korean spy boat, disguised as a fishing boat, was about to be searched by a South Korean patrol vessel. 

Suddenly, the boat revealed a 50-caliber machine gun and opened up a hydrofoil hoping to escape the patrol vessel. As he was out on his morning run, he found several Republic of Korea F4 Phantoms flying at very low altitudes with their afterburners on, aiming to sink the escaping vessel. 

After Korea, he spent his final six months in the military at Fort Riley, Kansas, before being honorably discharged following his three years of service.

Returning to civilian life, Dwyer worked as a grocery clerk at Alpha Beta, now known as Lucky’s. Unsatisfied with the job, he even had a stint as a bartender for a couple years before going on to be a glazier for the cladding service, Walters and Wolf. Dwyer said working in construction earned him good money, though it was brutal and labor-intensive work.

Realizing he was unhappy with his work and that the only people he knew who led a fulfilled life were those with a college education, Dwyer went back to school at De Anza College for four years. He later transferred to UC Davis and pursued a double major in international relations and history for another three years.

After studying under inspiring professors in college, Dwyer was interested in experiencing the other side of the classroom. While it was originally just something to check off his bucket list, he soon began to pursue his teaching career.

 

Dwyer’s legacy: his impact on students and colleagues

Dwyer started off his teaching career with one year as a history teacher at Wilcox High School, his alma mater. Due to his students’ lack of interest in academics, he did not enjoy the school’s environment. 

In 1998, Dwyer’s friend showed him an ad in The Mercury News for a mid-year job opening at Saratoga High. He applied for it and got it. He soon fell in love with the academic environment and focused students who populated his classes. Dwyer taught world geography and economics at SHS for many years before becoming the sole world geography teacher at the school.

Dwyer taught English teacher Erick Rector over the summer of 1999 when Rector enrolled in a six-week economics course. 

“As a student, the thing I took away from Dwyer’s class was his passion for economics. He loved it,” Rector said. “And when you listened to his lectures, if you were able to understand everything he was saying, it was brilliant and enlightening.”

However, Rector’s favorite memory of Dwyer was after he returned to teach at SHS in 2006. 

A number of years ago, Dwyer had shown up to Rector’s English 9 class by chance as he was walking by. The class had been learning about “Romeo and Juliet,” and Dwyer came into the room and delivered a theatrical rendition of Friar Laurence’s speech.

“It was fantastic. I asked him to come in and deliver it basically every year since, and he did,” Rector said. “It was something that he had memorized before and just something he really liked.”

Guidance counselor Eileen Allen, another SHS grad, also had Dwyer as her economics teacher in the 2000-2001 school year. She recalls her best memories of Dwyer were of his “fiery lectures.”

“He was a very passionate lecturer who would occasionally drop a cuss word to make it a point and it did leave an impression,” Allen said. “I think he eventually got in trouble for that and had to try not to swear, but I thought it was pretty interesting when I was his student!” 

Allen said Dwyer taught his econ classes like college lectures. She noted that Dwyer often used the phrase: “Folks, you can’t pick your parents.”

“He taught economics through the lens that we were a group of privileged students who basically got lucky to have educated and successful parents,” Allen said. “He wanted us to understand that in a civilized society, it was our obligation to look out for the less fortunate.”  

While her parents had taught her similarly, Allen said Dwyer believed in “helping out the underdog.”

When Allen returned to work as a guidance counselor here in 2010, she got to know Dwyer as her colleague, where she said he was never afraid to speak his mind on any topic. 

Assistant principal Matthew Torrens remembers Dwyer’s kind and caring side. 

“When one of our SHS teachers’ houses was devastated by ash and water damage in the Santa Cruz fires, several of us went to help fix up the house,” Torrens said. “Mr. Dwyer was one of the first to arrive and the last to leave. He was always ready to help others in their time of need.”

Allen said that she will remember him first as a “fascinating and impactful teacher, because that is when I think he was happiest and at his best.”

“Despite him having many personal challenges in the more recent years that I knew him, I truly believe he did change the world for the better when he was in his prime as a teacher at Saratoga,” Allen said. “I think he made a lot of us more empathetic, engaged and open minded.” 

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