In Memoriam: Wendall Zartman

JaDa+Johnson+and+her+mother%2C+Joycelyn%2C+pose+with+Wendall+Zartman+at+JaDa%27s+graduation+in+2017.

Courtesy of JaDa Johnson

JaDa Johnson and her mother, Joycelyn, pose with Wendall Zartman at JaDa's graduation in 2017.

By Ella West, St. John's School - TX

When AP World History teacher Wendall Zartman finished his last online class on April 16, he concluded as he did every day—by waving a warm goodbye to his students. Several hours later, after experiencing a bout of pain, he checked in to St. Luke’s Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. The next morning, Zartman passed away due to complications from cancer that he had been battling all year. He was 69. 

Zartman, along with his six siblings, spent his childhood in Fort Worth until he moved to Houston to attend the University of St. Thomas, where he majored in history. Zartman first began teaching at Key Junior High in 1973 and then moved over to Lamar High School in 1977  before joining the Upper School History Department at St. John’s in 1998 and eventually becoming  Department Chair. 

As a student, Zartman always enjoyed history, but he did not love all his high school history classes. He made it his mission to impress upon his students a deeper, more meaningful understanding of history.

SJS parent Hailey Bechtol took Zartman’s world history class as a sophomore at Lamar in 1986.  

“The one thing that has always stood out to me the most about Wendall as a human being is that he is incredibly kind,” Bechtol said. “His enthusiasm and passion for what he is teaching is contagious. He brings you into the excitement. It really didn’t matter what he was talking about.”

Even over 30 years later, Bechtol vividly recalls Zartman’s compassion. One day Bechtol was sitting in his class when an administrator pulled her out of the classroom to inform her that her grandmother had passed away. 

“Wendall came out in the hallway, and I just remember him being so vividly concerned about me,” she said. “I could sense that he felt my pain. That’s just the kind of man he is.”

Zartman and Bechtol later became colleagues when she began substitute teaching at St. John’s. Zartman even taught her son Pete (‘16). 

After his death, many former students from both Lamar and SJS shared their remembrances of Zartman over a lengthy Facebook strand, each one recalling their favorite memories. 

JaDa Johnson (‘17) recalled Zartman’s profound effect on both her and her mother Joycelyn, whom Zartman taught at Lamar.  

“Without question, I attribute who and where I am to the people around me that have so graciously helped me get here, and Mr. Zartman is no exception,” JaDa wrote on her Facebook post. “He is one of the main reasons I study [International Relations] because he artfully exposed us to the history of a world.”

Zartman first met Amy Malin, a future history colleague at St. John’s, back in 1996 when Malin was in graduate school at Rice University. Zartman, an educator for the university’s teacher certification program, spent a summer sitting in the back of Malin’s classroom, helping her develop her course, “Who Writes History.” 

Malin attributes her teaching abilities to Zartman’s guidance that summer. Several years after Malin became a teacher herself, she joined the teacher certification program at Rice as an educator, where she and Zartman developed a close friendship. 

In 2013, Zartman, then the History Department Chair, reached out to Malin about a teaching position at SJS. 

“Even as a colleague, he was still my mentor,” Malin said. “If there was anything I needed guidance with about teaching at St. John’s, he was there for me. Our friendship grew because I got to see him every day.”

Malin remembers all the mornings when she would walk by Zartman’s classroom and hear him loudly playing music. One of Zartman’s favorite artists was Aretha Franklin, particularly her song “I Say a Little Prayer.” Malin would wave good morning, and they would discuss what was going on in their lives.

I could sense that he felt my pain. That’s just the kind of man he is.”

— Hailey Bechtol

“He brought out the best in me,” Malin said. “He treated everyone as if they were special. He just had a wonderful spirit, and fortunately he touched so many people, so I know his spirit will live on.” 

Zartman began receiving cancer treatment over the summer, and when he came back to school in the fall, he began a chemotherapy regime. He did not let his health impact what he did in the classroom. Instead, he continued to teach and guide his students. 

“He is a really positive person,” said Sarah Clark, a sophomore in Zartman’s class Rise of the Modern World. “He brought happiness into the classroom every day. He always asked us how we were doing. He was always so energized with his teaching, so we never even knew he was sick.”

Zartman was known throughout school for his dapper attire, his sponsorship of Model UN, serving as the graduation marshal and chaperoning just about every event at school. 

“Mr. Zartman first introduced me to Model UN when I was a freshman, and he inspired a passion for world affairs and social justice in me,” senior Athena Adrogué said. “I am so grateful to have worked with Mr. Zartman.”

When junior Marco Stix found himself struggling in Zartman’s AP World History class last year, he began attending tutorials frequently. After a few weeks, Stix started going into Zartman’s classroom just to hang out, which is how “The Song of the Day” was born. Because they shared a similar taste in music, Stix would write a song title on Zartman’s board every day for him to play. 

During the pandemic, Stix and Zartman emailed each other, right up until the end. Since Zartman’s death, Stix has been listening a lot to Willy Nelson’s song “Buddy” because it reminds him of how close they became.

Even though he would sometimes wind up late to his first period class, Stix would carve out time to visit with Zartman: “I just loved spending time with him. When he died, it felt like I lost a friend. When I was around him, it reminded me how important it is to be caring and loving of one another. [To be] appreciative of one another, appreciative of life in general.”

A week after he passed away, Zartman was to formally receive the Lamp of Knowledge Award, which is given annually and is awarded to a current faculty member who inspired recent graduates to live by the St. John’s Mission and guided students to fulfill the entirety of their potential. 

“Mr. Zartman was a wise, kind, ethical soul,” Malin said, “who treated everyone he met, no matter their status in society, with dignity, grace and his warm smile.” 

The School is working with alumni to finalize several ways to honor Mr. Zartman, according to administrators.  More specifics will be provided in the fall when the SJS community returns to campus.

This story was originally published on The Review on May 21, 2020.