MARK BENNETT: Reading for adventure, the lasting lesson of Mr. Moon's class

Sharing knowledge: Ron Moon teaches a class at Terre Haute South High School in the 1970s. He taught in Vigo County high schools for nearly 40 years.Submitted photo

Years ago, we kept a dusk-to-dawn street light glowing above our driveway, partly for security but mostly so our kids could play basketball after sundown.

One evening, I drove our family home from multiple school events and parked the car by the garage. Our oldest son had been reading a book along the way. He got out of the car and leaned against that light pole, still reading the book in the last flickers of sunlight. The rest of us went inside.

More than an hour later, I asked my wife where our son was. We looked out a window and saw him, still leaning on the pole, still reading that paperback under the street light.

Good books hold that power.

That memory came to my mind last week, after hearing that my high school English teacher, Ron Moon, had passed away at age 84. I was already an active reader by my senior year at Terre Haute South High School, but my scope of topics was narrow. If it didn’t happen on a sports field or at a rock concert, I probably didn’t read about it.

Then I landed in Mr. Moon’s “Reading for College” class. In reality, his class was really about “Reading for Joy.”

I seem to remember feeling refreshingly shocked when he handed out a list of suggested books. Each student could choose books from the list to read during the course, or — and this was the coolest part — we could choose other books, as long as Mr. Moon gave approval. Of course, I would have to step up my literary game from its previous level — a steady diet of Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and Mad Magazine — but this flexibility seemed like freedom to explore.

And that turned out to be the point, to consider reading an adventure.

Ronald K. Moon’s obituary detailed many highlights of his life. Those ranged from his family ties to his university degrees from Indiana State and Indiana, 40 years of teaching in Vigo County high schools, honors, service duties in his lifelong Clay County hometown of Centerpoint, carrying the torch in 2016’s Indiana Bicentennial Relay, and a fondness for racing, classical music and opera.

The obit also described him as “a voracious reader who enjoyed a variety of subjects, from Civil War history to Shakespeare.”

I saw that firsthand in Mr. Moon’s class.

He seemed fascinated that I was already a staff writer at the old Terre Haute Star — albeit part-time in the sports department — as a high schooler. More than once, he’d ask what story I was working on next. Usually, it was an upcoming local high school or college event. Regardless, he showed an interest in what I was writing, and newspapers in general. I remember him extolling the virtues of his neighborhood paper, the Clay City News.

In Mr. Moon’s classroom, all those years ago, his enthusiasm inspired me to see reading as an opportunity, instead of an academic requirement. That’s the mark of a great teacher. Somehow, a 17-year-old guy wound up reading groundbreaking works of literature that had nothing to do with football, Led Zeppelin or Alfred E. Neuman.

I read two totally different books based on airplanes (a machine that I had never boarded, at that point) — Charles Lindbergh’s Pulitizer Prize-winning 1954 autobiography, “The Spirit of St. Louis” and Joseph Heller’s irreverent 1961 classic “Catch-22.” The latter led me to later tackle Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical 1969 war novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Each book report came with Mr. Moon’s encouragement to keep reading. I left his class enlightened, not just for college but for life.

His son, businessman Bruce Moon, has heard and read numerous memories, such as mine, since his father died Aug. 28. Ron’s students were numerous, after all. He taught nearly four decades in Vigo County, first at West Vigo, then Wiley and finally South, where he chaired the English department. Even after retiring at age 62, Mr. Moon served another 13 years in those classrooms as a substitute teacher.

“He just loved education and never got burnt out on it,” Bruce said. “And, he just felt like he was making a difference, even if it was one kid in a class.”

Like students, Bruce saw his dad’s passion for reading, as well.

“He read everything literally about everything, from Greek philosophers to what current people are writing about civil affairs,” Bruce said. “It was rare that you could engage him in a conversation in which he didn’t have an opinion or a thought on it, because he was so well-read.”

Newspapers remained a central part of his reading diet. If Bruce was about to take a business trip to San Francisco, his father would say, “Well, pick up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. I haven’t seen one in years.” Before trips to New York, he’d tell Bruce, “Pick up a Daily News,” the city’s 101-year-old working-class tabloid.

Ron did the same on his own travels. “If the hotel where we were at had the local paper, he’d pick it up, get his cup of coffee and see what was going on in that community,” Bruce said. “He just loved the engagement.”

In retirement, that included catching up with former students — sometimes on Facebook, other times out in the community.

“Whether we were at a store, basketball game or wherever, he’d run into a [former] student he’d taught,” Bruce said. His dad often remembered the person’s name, amazingly, and then chat about trivia from their era in class. “I always stood there in amazement,” Bruce added.

The younger Moon figures his dad’s teachers at old Brazil High School must have sparked a fascination for reading and teaching. Upon graduating from Brazil, Ron Moon knew he wanted to be a teacher, his son said.

“It’s great that he absorbed that and passed it on to the kids in Terre Haute,” Ron said.

Maybe a few got so caught up in a good book from his class that they kept reading as the sun set, and a street light came on.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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