Gary Lassin (1970)
January 11, 1999|by Yvette Ousley, Daily News Staff Writer
Blue and Gold night. Proms. Dances. Football games. You name it, Neil Cooperhouse was always there.
That's because the popular longtime biology teacher, who also served as debate coach and junior class sponsor, lived for his kids at GeorgeWashingtonHigh School in the Northeast.
On Friday, this teacher, friend and inspiration to the masses died in a mysterious fire inside the garage at his home - leaving shocked students and colleagues to mourn his death as they return to school this morning.
Cooperhouse, 48, was found behind the steering wheel of his burning car, which was parked inside the garage of his two-story house on Fuller Street near Loretto Avenue shortly after 9:17 a.m. Friday, authorities said.
The cause of the fire remained undetermined yesterday. Fire officials said the investigation was continuing. Autopsy results were also pending.
``He was an excellent classroom teacher,'' said Washington principal Harry Gutelius. ``His classes were always alive.
``And there wasn't a science room in the city that looked like his,'' Gutelius said. ``He had a menagerie of birds, fish, turtles, a lizard and a big snake - a half a dozen of really big things. And the kids had no fear of them. It was just a biologically attractive room.''
Dottie Walton, Washington's disciplinarian, worked with Cooperhouse.
``He was a very nice person, gentle, quiet, private, very well-liked by the kids,'' she said, noting that Cooperhouse was an avid skier who sponsored school ski trips. ``Everyone is just stunned,'' she said.
Cooperhouse had the distinction of being the only permanent teacher on staff who had graduated from the school and as such played an active role in the school's alumni association.
Upon graduation from Washington, and then college, Cooperhouse became a teacher in the Philadelphia public schools. It was the start of a career that would span 26 years, touching the lives of thousands of children along the way.
According to Gutelius, Cooperhouse had taught at Washington for more than a decade and had taught at WestPhiladelphiaHigh School before that.
At Washington, Cooperhouse earned a reputation as a stern but fair teacher.
And it was that reputation that allowed the biology teacher to become forensics (debating) coach - a position traditionally held by a history teacher - when no one else would take the job a few years ago. He coached his kids to two consecutive city championships during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 school years, Gutelius said.
But if students and collegues knew nothing else about him, they knew that Cooperhouse loved the animals he bought with his own money, and then brought to live in his classroom or at his house.
They were all used as teaching tools and Cooperhouse took great care of them, coming in over the summer, Christmas and Easter breaks to make sure they were fed.
But the talking bird seemed to be his favorite in and out of school.
``He liked to have live animals in his room,'' Walton said. ``He brought in his parrot who liked to talk. He had a snake in as well.''
Cooperhouse's neighbor, Florence Reinhart, remembered the bird too.
``He had a bird he would bring out and let sit in the tree,'' she said. ``It was a bird that would say hello when people went by. He just got a new car several weeks ago.''
``He was a nice young man, quiet,'' Reinhart said. ``I was shocked that he was even there because I figured he'd be in school.''
``Everybody's shocked,'' she said.
Gutelius agreed. He said counselors would be on hand to talk with grieving students today.
``It's a big loss,'' he said.
``As I speak to you, I have no idea who will replace him in the classroom until June and I can't imagine that whoever does will be able to do what he did. That's the most devastating thing of all, I don't know who's going to teach those kids the way he did.''