Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hobart Pumpernickel - Year 1

I took World History in 10th grade. Not that I had a choice in the matter; it was a required course and included a NY State-mandated Regents exam at the end. As I recall, we devoted a lot of class time to pre-20th century history. We barely touched upon World War I and I don't think any World History class in those years ever made it all the way to World War II. Makes me wonder how far they get now, with another forty years of history having taken place.

The class was noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the teacher, Mr. Lerz, was a font of odd and interesting historical facts. For example, when we were studying the history of ancient Egypt, Mr. Lerz advised us that that famous Queen of the Nile pronounced her name "Clee-oh-PAY-trah." He never explained how he knew this, though he alluded to having had a fling with her and, therefore, knew her on a first name basis.

When we got to Leif Eriksson -- Mr. Lerz insisted the spelling in the textbook, Ericson, was incorrect because Leif's father was Erik, not Eric -- we were advised that the Norwegian explorers called themselves "VEE-kings." When someone asked why the Minnesota football team did not pronounce it that way, Mr. Lerz replied that none of them had ever been in his class or they would know better.

And when our journey through the years brought us to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Mr. Lerz told us that it took the executioner two swings with the axe to chop her head off. This prompted one of the girls in the class to ask, "Was she still alive at half-time?" Everyone started to laugh as one of the boys said something about a marching band and cheerleaders parading through while the axeman got ready for the second swing. But it turned out to be much more than an amusing anecdote.

In fact, it was that moment in World History class in the autumn of 1966 that resulted in the creation of something that virtually every student in the Class of 1969 remembers: Hobart Pumpernickel.


Hobart Pumpernickel was the 426th member of the 425-student Class of '69 at Elmont Memorial High School. By the time graduation came some two and a half years later, he had had a regular column in the school newspaper, stories published in the literary magazine, and his photograph in the yearbook. But who he really was remained a secret to many throughout his career.

Mr. Lerz's first encounter with Hobart came the day after the Mary, Queen of Scots incident. It came in the form of a multiple-choice test with all the questions based on the Lerz version of history. A few of the students, who had seen the test earlier in the day, encouraged him to read it aloud to the entire class. Had he refused, or crumpled it up and tossed in the trash as another teacher did in a similar situation a year later, Hobart's career might have been quite short-lived. But Mr. Lerz enjoyed a good joke, even if it was at his own expense, and so he read it.

Through the rest of the school year, Hobart's handiwork turned up on Mr. Lerz's desk from time to time. While a number of the students knew from the very beginning who Hobart was, Mr. Lerz did not find out until the last day of class, some six months later. Oh, he was pretty sure he knew who Hobart really was and would make comments about it, much to the amusement of those students who knew better. It only after reading the last question of The Hobart Pumpernickel Regents Exam that he realized his error.

That question read:

Hobart Pumpernickel is really
a) a complete idiot
b) an absolute genius
c) Bob Rozakis
d) all of the above

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