Full disclosure: I have known Irl Solomon for at least 65 years, dating back to our days as fellow students at the Congregation Shaare Emeth Religious School and as classmates at University City High School (Class of 1957).
If there is a consistent thread throughout Solomon’s life, it is his intellectual acuity, his vast knowledge of history and his deep commitment to the well being of the Jewish people.
He was in the very top tier of our class at U. City High, having had the benefit of such legendary teachers as Charles Grippi, Walter Ehrlich and Wesley Kettelkamp, who combined knowledge with approachability to their students, qualities that Solomon emulated in his own teaching. He earned his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University.
Solomon’s journey from his U. City childhood to becoming a beloved teacher at East St. Louis public schools, and his volunteer work as a docent at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, are detailed in an engaging book by Joe Regenbogen, “Making a Difference: The Story of Irl Solomon and the Difference One Teacher Made in the Schools of East St. Louis.”
The book, which is a real page-turner not only for childhood chums of its subject, is truly inspirational in describing how a highly gifted young intellectual made the life-altering decision to teach in the troubled public school system of East St. Louis. The city has always been a “poor cousin” of St. Louis and had attained national attention for the horrific East St. Louis race riots of 1917, which were among the most viciously racist wholesale attacks on African Americans in U.S. history.
There have been exemplary alumni among both students and faculty at East St. Louis, but the crushing poverty and pervasive racism throughout much of regional history have placed obstacles in the path of generations of East St. Louis School.
Regenbogen brings solid credentials to this impressive biography of Solomon, as the author, too, spent his life teaching high school history, which is a perfect match for Solomon’s career. Regenbogen taught in the notoriously impoverished Ninth Ward of New Orleans and then in the western suburbs of St. Louis. Previously he authored two books on the use of social studies in the classroom and another focusing on 16 residents from a Creve Coeur senior living home who had strong ties to World War II.
Solomon did not choose to teach in East St. Louis to polish his social justice credentials. He was initially interested in a teaching job in or near St. Louis. When he took the job for the public schools of East St. Louis, he did not expect it to become his passion and very satisfying career.
Regenbogen notes that in contrast to other “idealistic young crusaders” of his generation,” Solomon was motivated primarily by geographic convenience in taking the job in East St. Louis.
Discussing Solomon’s classroom techniques, Regenbogen writes, “For decades, the students in Irl Solomon’s history classroom received an education that sought the ideal balance between ‘covering the curriculum’ and motivating them to become actively engaged in the learning process …
“At the same time, however, Irl blended into his units a number of discussions, debates, and other activities designed to raise the level of student interest and engagement. Throw in a touch of charisma, a dash of humor, and a genuine interest in the welfare of his students, and Irl had become one of the most popular teachers at East St. Louis Senior High School.”
Regenbogen quotes from an end-of-the-year student evaluation of his teaching: “Mr. Solomon you are a great teacher. In fact, you are the best teacher in the school. You make the class fun, and when it is time to get serious, you make that our state of mind.”
Such an evaluation is worth all of the honors and awards one can accumulate. Solomon’s heroic career of making a significant difference in the lives of thousands of students in an under-funded poverty stricken public school system earned him election to the U. City High School Hall of Fame, where he joined such luminaries as Dave Garroway, Tennessee Williams and many others in that distinction.
In more recent years, Solomon has deployed his teaching skills as a dedicated docent at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, where he has led tours since 2002. Regenbogen notes that back in 1986, Solomon was one of 46 teachers chosen to take part in a seminar in Israel studying the Holocaust. Solomon estimates that he has reached 25,000 students in his museum tours.
Whether in an East St. Louis public school or at the Holocaust Museum, Solomon has put his natural gifts of teaching and wisdom to very good use indeed.
HMLC to honor Irl Solomon
WHEN: 1 p.m., Sunday, May 19
WHERE: Jewish Federation’s Kaplan Feldman Complex, 12 Millstone Campus Drive
HOW MUCH:Free; books available to purchase
Solomon will sign books after a discussion led by author Joe Regenbogen. A dessert reception follows (dietary laws observed). For more information, visit hmlc.org/get-involved/attend-event/