MIDVALE — After three decades on the job, Tom Huddlestone will retire next week as a teacher at Hillcrest High School, where he has served as the school's version of Mr. Kotter.
Talk about a tough act to follow. How do you replace a Harley-riding, karate black-belt wearing, former army sergeant who has served as mentor to hundreds of troubled youths?
Huddlestone, a trim, fit 64-year-old, has overseen Hillcrest's Youth in Custody Program since it began. He opened the program in 1981, charged with teaching and mentoring teens from as many as five high schools in those days. His students are a mix of kids who are in state custody either because of criminal behavior or because of family issues that caused them to be removed from their homes.
It is revealing when Huddlestone says, "I had a lot of kids from JJS (Juvenile Justice System) in the early years, but then it went more to kids from DCFS (Division of Child and Family Services). It's either because of what they've done, or they're just victims of their circumstances. They've bounced around foster care and in and out of a lot of schools. The majority are here because of family problems — they've been abused or neglected or their parents are in jail."
Huddlestone teaches them a variety of subjects while providing a small, personal class experience for kids who would get lost in normal, overcrowded classes. The kids have come and gone and left their mark on Huddlestone during those three decades. As the family unit has eroded in America, he has dealt with the aftermath on the front lines.
He mentored one boy who entered the DCFS system when he was 8 and by the time he was 17, he had been placed in 45 different homes and institutions and both parents were in prison.
He taught and mentored one girl who had been abused in an orphanage and then by a family that adopted her.
"She told me, 'I just want to be part of a family,' " says Huddlestone. "She was supposed to be adopted by the family she was living with, but the family changed their minds. She was crushed. I thought about adopting her myself, but a male adopting a female is awkward. I can't stand to see a kid who just wants to be in a family and doesn't have one."
The girl, who was suicidal, came to class crying one day. Huddlestone spent most of the day talking to her. She was so distraught and frustrated that Huddlestone finally took her to the gym and had her hit a punching bag.
"She thrashed on that thing for a while," says Huddlestone. "I wouldn't have wanted to be on the end of that. Finally, she dropped her hands to her sides and said she felt better. At the end of the day she walked out of here smiling."
Huddlestone, who is divorced, has no children — unless you count the kids he teaches, and he does. "It's one sad story after another," he says. "The first four or five years I took a lot of that stuff home with me. I had to conclude that once you leave the building, there's not a lot you can do."
The sad stories go on and on. There was one boy who was weeks away from graduation and had recently been allowed to return home to live with his mother. Then he was charged with stealing a car — for about the 35th time — and was sent to prison.
"I was deflated after that," says Huddlestone. "All the good things we had seen happen. … He's a three-time loser now – he's been back to prison two more times."
Huddlestone became a friend and counselor by default in this job. There are times when his class reminds him of the old "Welcome Back, Kotter" TV show.
"There's very much that feeling of us against the world," he says. "If one kid's having a hard time and another kid has been through that, we'll take time away from English class to talk about it and see how others dealt with the problem, or I'll take them somewhere and we'll talk about it. My philosophy is, if you're having problems, come on down here and talk about it. Let's not have an explosive situation; you don't have to figure it out on your own. We've had amazing success with kids who come down here and open up about stuff that's going on in their lives."
Huddlestone's experience is not all warm and fuzzy Hallmark moments, of course. There have been times when he has packed a pistol at school (he has a concealed-weapons permit), mostly when he heard that street gangs were looking for one of his students.
"I work with some kids who have committed serious crimes," says Huddlestone. "At one point I decided that occasionally having that (gun) backup would be an advantage. I didn't do it all the time, just in situations where gangs were looking for a student. We're out there by ourselves in portables. I wanted to be able to defend kids in my class. We did have a situation when two gangs were looking for a student. I brought a gun that time. But I've never had to pull a gun out at school. I've never had to get physical with a student either. My rapport with students is such that it never gets that far."
Apparently, Huddlestone will never go to law school, which is where he was headed three decades ago. While serving overseas in the Army, he oversaw a GED program and liked it so much that he returned to school to get a degree in education. He moved from Detroit to Salt Lake City and heard about the Youth in Custody Program.
"A lot of people didn't want anything to do with it," he recalls. "I thought it sounded interesting."
He devoted the next 32 years of his life to it.
"Tom will be hard to replace," says Todd Bird, who oversees the program for Canyons School District. "He's a great mentor who builds an unconditional relationship with his students."
Looking back, Huddlestone says, "When someone graduates or they come tell you they are going to college or getting married, that's your pay raise."