Posted by: calloftheandes | June 22, 2018

Across the Decades, Dave Landers Invested in the Lives of Students

Dave Landers, left, visits with his cousin and fellow Reach Beyond missionary retiree, Marty Erickson, at a mid-2009 mission reunion in Colorado Springs, Colo.

By Ralph Kurtenbach

What was needed for—in a school administrator’s assessment—the most poorly behaved class in the history of Alliance Academy International (AAI) in Ecuador? Why, one of the best of course—a young California teacher named Dave Landers.

Others had tried to rein in the young people. They had faced off in a setting where “the girls were bright and beautiful but were generally under-appreciated and overwhelmed in a classroom dominated by strong male personalities,” according to Tim Erdel, an AAI alumnus who was one of them.

Beleaguered teachers had abandoned the homeroom (one of them at semester break) and left the school; some even left the teaching profession altogether. Gang activity had surfaced  in the dorms for children of missionaries. It was the 1960s and To Sir With Love was yet to hit the screen. But a plot line paralleling that of the popular movie played out within the tightly-knit evangelical missionary community in Quito, Ecuador.

“When Uncle Dave arrived and took charge. . . both he and we thrived,” continued Erdel, interviewed via email after Landers’ death of heart and renal failure. In answering about Landers, he alternately used the honorific “mister” and the familiar “uncle” then customary in the Ecuador expat missionary community.

“All sorts of things were possible with Uncle Dave around,” Erdel said. His fellow seventh graders—despite height disadvantages—beat those of eighth grade in basketball. Landers’ encouragement motivated middle school kids to defeat high schoolers in a skating competition. An eighth grade Student Council candidate won an upset victory over an opponent who went on to be recognized as Outstanding Senior and as valedictorian at graduation.

David Landers 1933 – 2018

Erdel, now a college professor in Indiana, was enrolled with Steve Saint, whose father, Nate Saint, had been speared to death with four other missionaries in Ecuador’s Amazon region in 1956. These deaths motivated many evangelicals to volunteer for career missionary work. Other students were the children of missionaries, businessmen and embassy workers.

Born February 26, 1933, Landers lived with his parents and a younger brother for a time on the Samoan Islands in the Pacific. His mother was a cousin to Nate Saint’s wife, Marj. The family was in Hawaii in 1941 when Pearl Harbor came under attack.

After high school, he studied at the University of California-Berkeley and later received a degree in Bible from the San Francisco Baptist College.

Nate [Saint] took Dave and me on plane rides in the Piper Family Cruiser on separate occasions in the early ’50s,” said Landers’ cousin, Marty Erickson. “It was a direct result of that encounter and Marj’s frequent letters that influenced Dave to go to Ecuador with [his wife] Kay and son, Jay in 1958. My wife and I followed that influence years later in 1969.”

One former student of Landers recalls “difficult open book tests where you had to have read it well to even get a ‘B’—excellent for college preparation.” Another found his classroom “engaging and magnetic”. (Photo from AAI yearbook, The Andean)

As a missionary with Reach Beyond (then HCJB) Landers began teaching at AAI in 1959. He taught science, biology, math, photography and Bible. He taught middle school but mostly high school. Later, during time in the U.S., he earned a master’s degree in Educational Technology. An avid runner, he coached track. An  environmentalist, he was a member of the Sierra Club.

Before his students, he neither bragged on nor hid the interesting life he had led prior to Ecuador. From his father, he understood something of command and leadership yet his manner more enticed and inspired learning than demanded it through exercised drill under authority. Martha Gross recalls “difficult open book tests where you had to have read it well to even get a ‘B’—excellent for college preparation.” Ken Fast found his classroom setting “engaging and magnetic”.

“Somehow he made his classroom a safe place to ask anything,” said Becky (Houghton) Leenstra. “I remember asking a very specific question about marital intercourse during biology class. His answer was straightforward and included how he and his wife approached the issue. He didn’t flinch, nor did classmates snicker. He definitely had a rare gift.”

Young, handsome and athletic, his presence was commanding, yet it was a love of students that stood above his other qualities. He seemed to grasp that even in the best learning environment, breaks were essential. In block capital letters, he would write on the blackboard each Thursday, “Joy Day”. The following day was “Joy Supreme Day” and “Joy Supremest Day” was reserved for the final day of the  school year.

“If you did something really dumb in class,” Carolyn Wolfram recalled, “Mr. Landers would just put his finger on the side of his nose and look at you. This signal meant diputs (stupid spelled backwards).” It was lighthearted, not hurtful, according to Wolfram. “It helped us to learn to think before we did things,” she said, “and promoted common sense, and we liked that he did this for us.”

“In his literature class, he required us to read a book a week and do a one-page report,” recalled Fast, who began squeaking by with summaries of Hardy Boys mysteries. “Shortly thereafter, he spoke with me and said something like, ‘That’s not what I had in mind; why don’t you read something like The Brothers Karamazov?’” he continued. “So I did—all 800 pages and wrote a report. All this because of one simple challenge by Landers to deepen my reading tastes.”

Debra Haynes agrees that Landers urged students to rise to occasions and reveal abilities unexpected. “He was very gracious to let me choose my advanced biology projects even though he probably thought they were crazy,” she said. “But he let me do it and pushed me to get all I could out of it even though they probably weren’t ones he would have chosen.”

Sons and daughters of missionaries have boarded with the Landerses. Additionally, for nearly two years, their friends’ son, Greg Watson, lived with them. “I had been getting into trouble and my mother had a hard time dealing with me (my father had gotten sick and was in a wheel chair),” said Watson. When Watson arrived in Ecuador, Landers took him as well as his sons, Jay and Luke, to watch auto racing.

“It was with Dave I got to shoot a gun for the first time,” he said, “I still love to go shooting and now like to take my son also. It was with the Landers family that I went water skiing for the first time in Manta.”

Ken Fast had enrolled in the photography course in which Landers instructed as well as demonstrated techniques in the darkroom. “Big encouragement came when I submitted on of my first portraits—of a lottery ticket vendor in downtown Quito,” Fast said.

Mid 1960s Alliance Academy International yearbook dedicated to Dave Landers

“It was really a lucky shot, but Mr. Landers looked at the print and said to everyone in class, ‘This is a good photograph,’” Fast said. He went on to study photojournalism and pursued a media career that took him to several countries producing for different organizations. “Had it not been for that photo class and that teacher,” he said, “I would have missed that introduction.”

“He was among the sanest of Bible teachers I have ever known,” said Erdel. “From the very beginning, he very matter-of-factly laid out a whole range of evangelical/Christian viewpoints on the age of the earth, on evolution, on interpretations of Genesis and so forth; and yet he did not seem disturbed by anything while doing so.”

“I have rarely had any teacher on any level—all the way through five graduate degrees including a PhD in philosophy—who was less threatened by views that were not his own,” Erdel continued, “or who could present opposing views so fairly.”

Erdel said that when he and one other classmate adopted a pacifist view on war, Landers—the son of a U.S. Navy commander—“never embarrassed either of us in any way.”  Wolfram—who has put in 31 years of teaching, including 25 at AAI—said, ‘I always dreamed of being a teacher like him, but knew it was far beyond my capacity.”

Landers died April 8 in West Covina, California at the age of 85. In his latter months of life, he had been receiving hemo-dialysis treatments, which he elected to end as he saw their effectiveness decrease. A memorial service was held on May 19 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Upland, Calif. He is survived by his wife, Kay, two sons, Jay (Denise), Luke (Vicki) and a daughter Jill (John) Shalongo, and grandchildren.

Landers taught for three decades in Quito before retiring to California. A teaching colleague, Rob Quiring, recalls a day in the early 1980s when a study hall student urgently asked him for a pass to talk with Landers. He learned later that Landers’ class devotional that day had fallen on a young heart ready to receive Jesus Christ as Savior.

“Several years later,” Quiring recounted in an education trade publication, “another new teacher was complaining about being stuck in the ‘backwater’ of the Alliance Academy instead of pursuing further academic degrees. I responded with, ‘One could do far worse than invest in the lives of students as Dave Landers has done.’”


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