By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now
NEWTON—Retired Newton High School physics and chemistry teacher Chuck Engel wouldn’t let students fail.
That’s what former NHS colleague Jan Hoberecht said about Engel, who died on Oct. 25 in Newton.
“He was the premier chemistry and physics teacher,” Hoberecht said, adding she thought quite a few former students will come back to Newton to attend the funeral, which is at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at Trinity Heights United Methodist Church in Newton.
She also knew Engel as a member of the same supper club and through Trinity Heights United Methodist Church.
“It was very important to him that the students learned the material, experimented safely in labs and paid close attention to details,” Hoberecht said. “All important for scientists. He respected his students and wanted them to be successful. He demanded attention to scientific study, and NHS graduated the best chemistry and physics students. Many through the years let him know that those first courses in college were easy because of all the background they had from high school. Many students went into science professions due to him.”
Another thing Hoberecht remembered about Engel was he was serious about details in labs.
“If a student made a slip in details, Chuck would let them know and offer them detention or Kangaroo Court where the penalty could be some crazy thing,” she said. “Leaving a key in a lab drawer that should have been locked was the most common mistake.”
In addition, Engel’s Atta Boy and Atta Girl awards were famous throughout the school, and sometimes they went to adults, like Hoberecht, who received two, one for videotaping one of Engel’s lectures so he could critique his own teaching.
“He took great joy in awarding them,” Hoberecht said. “I know a former student/retired teacher who has his Atta Boy framed and hanging in his home. The students treasured them.”
Many students went into science as a career because of Engel, Hoberecht said, and he did substitute teaching after retiring.
“He was a special man,” she said. “He was the kindest and nicest man.”
Engel and Hoberecht belonged to a supper club, and after a meal at someone’s house, Engel did the dishes or got them in the dishwasher in every woman’s home, she said.
The supper club also got involved in taking Hoberecht to cancer treatments when she had lung cancer, and Engel wanted to take her to one. The doctor and Engel started talking about chemicals while Hoberecht was on the table, completely ignoring her because they were wrapped up in conversation.
Hoberecht said Engel’s second job was farming.
“I think they started out in 1979 with the family,” she said, adding his granddaughters were big into 4-H and utilized the farm animals there. “He was so proud of his farming. He loved to get his two granddaughters involved in the farming.”
Back at school—at a time when rules came down that all chemical materials needed to be recorded and stored safely, the school district placed Engel in charge of this throughout the district.
“Well, being Chuck, he took it very seriously,” Hoberecht said. “So we named him the Supreme Chemical Investigator. After he retired from teaching, he continued in this role for a few years.”
Engel was a fellow teacher in the Newton High School science department with Fred Becker.
“He was an unofficial mentor to me as he was a seasoned longtime science department member when I arrived at the Newton High School science department,” Becker said. “He continued to be a good colleague and resource as we worked together in the NHS science department. He was a football official at many of our Newton High School sub-varsity football games.”
Becker echoed Hoberecht’s thoughts about what kind of man Engel was.
“Mr. Engel was meticulous, detail-oriented, organized, hard-working and persistent,” he said. “He expected good thinking and good work from his students.”
Things that were important to Engel included family, the Army Reserve, livestock—including sheep and cattle—and science teaching including colleagues and students.
“He often mentioned his Army Reserve service, and he truly enjoyed the service and the people he worked with in the service,” Becker said.
Becker recalled an interesting story about his mentor.
“Several years ago, Mr. Engel and I participated in a week-long nuclear science workshop at Kansas State University,” Becker said. “When we were planning lodging for the week in Manhattan, he said, ‘Fred, let’s stay in Haymaker’ (one of the dorms connected to Derby Food Service). We did.”
Engel was deployed to active duty (stateside as Becker recalls) during a Gulf War.
“So we were without his service for several months at Newton High School while he was providing service to the U.S.A.,” Becker said.
Engel retired from the U.S. Army Reserve as a command sergeant major.
“Mr. Engel’s students and colleagues loved him and his genuine and engaging personality,” Becker said. “He had a ‘bigger-than-life’ reputation for a variety of his unique, friendly and heart-warming characteristics,” Becker said. “Many of Mr. Engel’s students are grateful for what he taught them and what they learned from him as they continued their education ready for the challenges of college science coursework. They enjoyed the advantage of being well-prepared for the rigors of college science coursework.”
Becker said Engel taught thousands of chemistry, physics and other science students during his career and actively pursued several different interests in his life.
“Mr. Engel’s wife Sue was a great support for him and his family, as he was busy with a variety of activities,” Becker said. “Mr. Engel was always interested in others, what they were doing and what they were thinking. He offered good guidance as I continued my teaching career with him as a colleague.”
Becker also said Engel enjoyed being the chemical hygiene coordinator for USD-373 for several years after his “retirement” from teaching.
“Mr. Engel continued to enjoy his work with the livestock and farm throughout his life,” Becker said, adding Engel worked to stay physically fit.
“I always enjoyed conversations with Mr. Engel and conversations about him with others,” he said. “He had a positive impact on my teaching, thinking and life.”
Sue Engel, Engel’s wife, said she and Chuck went out on a blind date while students at Kansas State University in October 1964 and married June 1, 1968. They just celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.
“He was a great person all around,” she said. “Loved his boys and was so proud of the men they became. He loved farming with Tye. They raised milo and a few other row crops but mainly raised brome hay. He raised cattle and sheep and loved it. We would be out in the sheep shed at 2 a.m. helping a ewe deliver her lambs, and he didn’t complain. I did!”
She recalled a cow once head-butted him and broke his cheekbone, and he was proud to be a steward of the land.
“He was totally smitten by his grandchildren,” Sue said. “Loved spending time with them, loved their hugs, was super proud of their achievements. When our son, Toby, took his own life, Chuck was devastated. That’s when the Parkinson’s Disease really started progressing.”
In addition to family, Sue said her husband loved teaching.
“In fact, I have a picture of him at the Comfort Care Home, working on ‘lesson plans,'” she said. “He was always kind, rarely angry or grumpy. When he was activated for Desert Storm in 1991, without my knowledge, he had gone to Ruzen’s and left money to deliver flowers to me every month. He was my husband, lover and friend. I will miss him terribly, but I know he is whole again and is with Toby.”
Engel’s first-born son, Tye Engel, said his father was the most even-tempered man he’d ever met.
“He was extremely slow to anger (in fact, I don’t ever remember seeing him angry) and always ready to forgive and forget,” he said. “Quite the Christian example, I guess. He was very black and white, however. Living with Dad was pretty easy because we always knew what was expected and knew what the consequences were if the rules were broken. There was no grey area with him, and he never bluffed. Having said that, though, I always knew Dad would do anything he could to help me succeed. His love of family was astonishing. He was the rock of the family for sure—no drama and little emotion but great love and support whenever we needed it.”
Tye remembered his father telling him early on, “Your word has to mean something, Tye. If you say you’re going to do something, then you have to do it.”
He also told Tye a firm handshake was vital to getting anywhere in this world.
“Dad liked to fish, but he didn’t like to eat what he caught,” Tye said. “Pretty much meat and potatoes for him, but he was always watching fat intake and the ‘bad stuff’ with the exception of desserts. He always kept ice cream around and would eat some most every night. Anything with peanut butter. Sometimes he would eat peanut butter straight from the jar, he liked it so much. And donuts—he loved any and all. Druber’s peanut butter twists were his favorite right up until the end.”
Tye said his father always was sort of quirky and outgoing, mostly because he wasn’t real concerned about what others thought of him.
“He was very comfortable in his own skin,” Tye said. “One time I remember there was a car salesman that kept bugging him about a car Dad had been looking at from Holstein Motors in Newton. On a Saturday when Dad had an Army event, he had to go to in Wichita; this salesman came out to the house, wanting to talk with him. Well, Dad was upstairs getting ready to leave, and Mom let the salesman in the house. She hollered up at him to let him know the salesman was there, and down the stairs walked Dad, wearing nothing but his Army socks. I can tell you the conversation about that car was very short, and the salesman got the heck out of there.”
Tye also said his dad really enjoyed teaching at NHS.
“It was his passion to interact with the kids and see them learn something about science,” he said. “He also really enjoyed agriculture and being able to raise some cattle and sheep on his small farm. Every year, we used to put up hay together, and he always looked forward to that.”
When Tye’s brother died in 2019, it seemed a piece of his dad went with him.
“He was never the same after that,” Tye said. “He didn’t have the same energy any more, and the Parkinson’s he suffered from really kicked into high gear. He used to read the Bible to me when I was little and would talk about the life after this one. I think after Toby died, he was just waiting to join him.”