Beloved teacher retires after 35 years of guiding students at Steamboat Mountain School
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Thirty-five years ago Joanne “Doc” Lasko flew to Colorado to interview for a position at a private boarding school in the small mountain town of Steamboat Springs.
She was a Ph.D. who had taught at American University and was currently teaching at a prestigious girl’s boarding school near Washington, D.C., when she decided she’d like to work in the Rocky Mountains. It was 1984, and the Whiteman School had just lost its English teacher and dorm mother.
“When I first went to my interview, there was a dirt road, dirt parking lot, tiny little buildings … I was used to entirely different campuses,” Lasko said.
At the time, Head of School John Whittum was favorably impressed.
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“She was the only Ph.D. that I know of that ever worked at the school, and she was an English teacher of some caliber,” said Whittum, now long retired.
It was a no-brainer to hire her. Lasko took several days to decide but then loaded up her little Honda with a 13-inch TV, a dog, a box of books and a box of clothes.
Lasko soon found herself thrown into the “Whiteman” way of life.
Joanne “Doc” Lasko is well known for her love of literature. Here’s her suggestions for summer reading:
• “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse: “A story of a Brahmin boy and his life story. It was the summer reading I got before I went to Duke for my freshman year. It grabbed me. The kids loved it.”
• “The World According to Garp” by John Irving: “It’s a masterpiece, a real page turner.”
• Anything by David Sedaris: “He does little vignettes of life. He’s hilariously funny.”
“One minute you’re cleaning toilets with the kids and the next minute you’re teaching Kafka,” she said. “We still had coal back then, and one of the dorm jobs was shoveling coal. I would cover my nose with a bandana. I quickly learned that the coal room should be one of the girls’ jobs.”
New dorm parents also had to spend their first six weeks in the dorm with no days off.
“I was a wreck by the end of the six weeks, but in hindsight, it was a good thing,” she said. “I knew those girls inside and out, and they knew me.”
In fact, Lasko said she can now admit she used to sneak out to the hot springs in Strawberry Park when she had a break from class, just to get some relief. By the end of the year, the headmaster offered Lasko the job of academic dean.
Steamboat would become her home for the rest of her life. She had to learn to ski and drive a double-clutch truck while hauling a big trailer. She would be school nurse, counselor, confidante to many and learn to survive in the wild.
And though she never had children of her own, she would travel the world with teenagers, teaching in monasteries with them, living without running water or electricity and creating sustainable gardens.
Lasko’s love for the little school in the woods, now known as the Steamboat Mountain School, was quite evident as she taught her final AP English class this year.
“I cried when I read my last poem in class — I burst into tears,” Lasko said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks that I won’t be teaching at the school I love.”
A teaching career remembered
Going back in time to 1988, things weren’t going so well for private boarding schools across the country. Lasko had left the school formally but was teaching English to competitive skiers at night.
At that time, a new head of school, Jim Spillane, had an idea to keep the Whiteman School relevant by expanding its core mission to include the education of competitive skiers. He needed Lasko to help build the curriculum and convinced her to return to Whiteman.
“She was instrumental in getting the school back on track and restored faith in the school’s academic abilities,” Spillane said.
Lasko was asked to regale readers with at least one fond memory from her time at Steamboat Mountain School.
She chose to talk about the early years when “you couldn’t find a single car on Lincoln Avenue at 9 p.m., and horses were still used on campus.”
“My chemistry teacher friend was a pool shark. Her dad owned the only bar and pool hall in Woodhole, New York, so she grew up shooting pool. And I liked to shoot pool,” Lasko shared. “So when we had a little time off, we’d go down to The Hatch, the old cowboy bar, and we could run the table. We got to know the cowboys and construction workers.
“We had this music teacher, Oscar Spidahl. He was this sophisticated, classy jazz guy … could play anything. Well, he wanted to see what Steamboat was like, so I said, ‘You need to go The Hatch with me at least once.’ We took him on a Friday night after a rodeo. It was jam packed with the real deal, and cowboys were lined up at the bar. Oscar had on a nice shirt with silk scarf. When the bartender asked him what he wanted, Oscar flipped his scarf over his shoulder and said, ‘a Chablis, please.’ The whole bar started snickering … Whiteman School meets The Hatch. Oscar never went back.”
Former art teacher Sandy Graves was hired by Lasko in 1993. She said Lasko had a gift for dealing with teachers, students and parents as academic dean.
“She supported us and facilitated everything we needed to do,” Graves said. “She gave us autonomy, and we had an amazing amount of trust. It was such a great experience because she just gave us the benefit of the doubt, and she gave the kids the benefit of the doubt.”
While Lasko wore many hats over the years, none were as important as teacher.
“Her love of literature and her love of teaching, it is what we’ll miss most,” said Margi Missling-Root, director of experiential education and a longtime teacher at the Steamboat Mountain School.
“And her ability to teach reluctant English students,” Missling-Root added.
In fact Missling-Root’s own son attended Lasko’s classes as a freshman and senior.
“He went to a very good college, and his writing skills were so above all his classmates. He credits her with teaching him to use critical thinking in his writing and grammar. She’s a brilliant teacher.”
The next chapter
Lasko, who traveled the world as the child of a government employee, then traveled the world as a teacher, now wants to spend some time with her 95-year-old mother before hitting the road again.
She hopes to travel to Africa with her sister and spend more time with her brother and many nephews and nieces. She also wants to sit at her beloved piano every day and play to her heart’s content.
Steamboat Mountain School will honor Lasko for her 35 years of service during the school’s annual Alumni Weekend bash Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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