The life of Glen Rock’s first Poet Laureate, Okey Chenoweth

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Photo Credit: Tyler Joachim

Selected as Glen Rock’s first Poet Laureate, Mr. Okey Chenoweth exemplifies the best of the teaching profession.

After teaching for 41 years and being retired for 11 years, a former Glen Rock High School teacher is still remembered for his years of greatness and was honored with the first position as Poet Laureate in the Glen Rock School District.

Mr. Okey Chenoweth described how he felt receiving the Poet Laureate position as “a great welcome home.” He credits his success in the Glen Rock School system on his students.

The Glen Rock Poet Laureate may be able to trace his current position back to his childhood.

“Maybe being in a large family [inspired me to be a poet], but strangely enough being… alone in my head…” said Mr. Chenoweth. “ I started writing very young, and I’ve never stopped. I don’t know what inspired me –poetry itself, probably.”

Mr. Chenoweth also fondly remembers reading Paradise Lost as a senior (and also going out and reading Paradise Regained on his own).

After high school, Mr. Chenoweth’s poetry career ended abruptly when he was laid-up in the army with rheumatic fever (an inflammatory disease). During our interview, he recalled how he spent his days.  “After I read all the books in the army library, I had to start entertaining myself so I began to write.”

While in the army Mr. Chenoweth trained with the famous 101st airborne infantry, which landed behind enemy lines in World War II.  “They were my teachers,” he said. By that time, he was a recruit and already had a Master’s degree in English, so the army immediately assigned him to teaching the troops – whatever the troops had to know, he informed them.

Mr. Chenoweth started his teaching career at GRHS in 1961.

When Mr. Chenoweth first started teaching in Glen Rock, he produced scenes of plays for The Afternoons and Nights of Drama. Every scene he did with his students was, as he said, “terribly important.”

Current Glen Rock High School English teacher and Department Head, Ms. Patricia Mahoney, remembers her 14 years with Mr. Chenoweth fondly. “He was an extraordinarily kind and caring colleague,” she recalled.  “He was able to bring out the best in countless students … over the years. Mr. Chenoweth had a special talent for making students and colleagues feel especially valued and appreciated.”

Mr. Chenoweth was known for his work outside of the classroom, as well, through his dedication to extra-curricular activities.

“Mr. Chenoweth was an honored guest at the coffeehouses sponsored by MOBIUS for many years,” said Ms. Mahoney. “He would read his classic, well-loved poems that everyone recognized, and he would also read new poems that he was working on. It was a real gift.”

One of his most beloved poems is Not a Miracle Man:

I am not a miracle man                                                                                                                                                  

I do not increase the number of fishes.

And water has remained

water in my hand.                                                                                                                                   

I am not a miracle man

But I will water any flower                                                                                                        

that wants to open,  

And in climbing, (try to give)

any climber a hand.

Mr. Chenoweth explained the circumstances under which he wrote Not a Miracle Man. “This poem has more to do with my limitations than my gifts,” he said. When he wrote it, Mr. Chenoweth was working in the summer on a play called Ceremony of Innocence by Ronald Ribman.

“It was the summer when I had some very talented kids and some that were kind of strange at the same time … one of the students who was very sensitive and kind of … clairvoyant … was killed in an automobile accident coming back from New York State,” Mr. Chenoweth said. “The things you can’t cure as a teacher, you know the things that you’re just helpless to control or cure … I can’t do everything for everybody … I was not in control.”

Yet Chenoweth did not quit when faced with these setbacks, he used these reflective moments to improve his craft and guide other students.

“I had wonderful, talented students. Many of them proved my faith in them by going on to do things for a larger world …” said Chenoweth. “I might not have done this in another district, I might not have done nearly this well in another district … the students are really what kept me going and still keep me going in a way from memory.”

Mr. Chenoweth, having such a following in theater arts, started the drama department in the Glen Rock High School. He started out with the drama club where so many students joined; it had to be held in two classrooms. The Glen Rock High School was one of if not the first high school to have a drama department in Bergen County. Ridgewood modeled their drama department after ours and Ramsey and Waldwick would bus some of their student body down to Mr. Chenoweth’s drama classes until they had their own.

Mr. Chenoweth could not recollect a specific, fondest memory of working in the Glen Rock School district (since there were so many), but, if he were to choose, he would say the success of the performances and the accomplishments of the poetry readings throughout the elementary schools (where he and a couple students also did drama workshops), the middle school, and the high school.

He retired in 2002 and has not had any free time since. He is currently employed at the Bergen Community College, where he teaches an Introduction to Theatre class and a Speech Communication class, and at William Paterson University where he works with teachers. With this teaching career still ahead of him, Mr. Chenoweth writes when he has time and is still an avid playwright. In fact, he recently produced a play in New York which was sponsored by a former student of his.

“The greatest poet is also the greatest dramatist,” Mr. Chenoweth said, quoting Shakespeare to emphasize that his success as a poet and his success as a playwright are the same.

While that may be true, it would not be a stretch to say that Mr. Chenoweth’s heart is on the stage.

“That’s the interesting thing about theater, it happens, then it’s over,” said Mr. Chenoweth. “But it’s never over in your mind if you experienced it.”