Fifty Years of Teaching Excellence with Dr. Mac LaCasse

This story appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Indian Springs Magazine.

While growing up on the Indian Springs School campus, Kevin LaCasse ’88 realized at an early age that his father, Dr. William “Mac” LaCasse, was revered by students in the physics and calculus classes he taught there.

“I knew that everyone respected him because after kids would graduate, they would come back and pull up to the house just to say hey,” says Kevin, who later learned first-hand as a student, along with his twin, Steven ’88, and sister, Karen ’95.

Since joining the Indian Springs faculty in 1972, LaCasse has had a profound impact in the classroom, after hours as a co-coach in academic competitions, and behind the scenes as one of the institutional anchors of the faculty.

In surveys, alums regularly name him as one of their most influential instructors. After reaching the half-century milestone in May, LaCasse was awarded the MacDonald B. Fleming Distinguished Service Award.

“He’s dedicated 50 years of his life to this place and this age group,” says Scott Schamberger, the head of school. “For 50 years, he’s been at the top of his game.”

David Oh ’87, who took both physics and calculus from LaCasse, draws a direct line from those classes to Oh’s work for NASA as lead flight director for the 2012 project that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars and the ongoing Psyche mission to explore the largest metal asteroid in the solar system.

“All of that really traces back to that first knowledge about physics and calculus that I got from Dr. LaCasse,” Oh says. “That formed the basis for the work I did later at MIT and then in the aerospace business.”

But LaCasse’s intellectual curiosity goes way beyond the topics he teaches, extending into art, history, and other areas of the humanities. One way it finds expression is through his love for crossword and Wordle puzzles.

“A lot of math and physics guys, it’s pretty much math and physics, you know what I mean?” says Dr. Jonathan Gray, assistant head of school for academic affairs and a former chair of the math department. “His breadth of knowledge speaks to the genius there.”

Dr. Bob Cooper, another legendary teacher and LaCasse’s longtime friend, points to the daily dining-hall lunch group of Mac Fleming, Cooper, Richard Neely—all history teachers—and LaCasse. The conversation, naturally, usually revolved around history.

“Mac LaCasse knew as much history as the rest of us,” Cooper says. “Mac is just one of the smart people. He could come in and teach my class. Easily. But I certainly could not go and teach his class.”

Humble and soft-spoken, LaCasse downplays his skills and accomplishments when asked about his career. “I just hope I made a difference for some people, a positive difference, and haven’t put too many barriers in people’s way along the line.”

William McMullen LaCasse’s nickname, Mac, is a birthright. Men in the McMullen branch of his mother’s family tended to go by that moniker. “I got stuck with it,” he says wryly. “From birth.”

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s during the race to space and eventually the Moon, LaCasse had visions of being a cutting-edge scientist when he started a five-year doctoral program in physics at Vanderbilt University.

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” LaCasse says in a recent interview. “It was never, never a part of what I wanted then. Everybody who was in that program with me had the same idea—we’re going to go into the frontiers of physics and make some great contribution.”

But political winds shifted as the 1970s dawned, and federal funding for physics research began to evaporate. With career prospects drying up, many of LaCasse’s fellow doctoral classmates dropped out.

Then just before graduation, LaCasse learned about a temporary opening teaching physics at a small private all-boys school in Alabama. He had never heard of Indian Springs School but was familiar with Alabama, having lived in Montgomery as a youth when his father was posted there with the Air Force.

And while teaching wasn’t part of his original game plan, LaCasse felt fortunate to make some use of his advanced degree when he started at Indian Springs on August 1, 1972.

He was hired to fill in until the regular physics teacher returned from a sabbatical. When the instructor didn’t, LaCasse was asked to stay on. He added calculus to his portfolio in 1973 and has taught it exclusively since switching to part-time in 2010.

LaCasse may have arrived armed with a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from St. John’s and a doctorate from Vanderbilt, but Alabama still required him to obtain a state teaching certificate, which he did over a few summers at the University of Montevallo.

By then, LaCasse knew he had found his calling. “I never planned to be here for 50 years,” he says. “But each year, I came back. It just became a habit.”

Teaching at Indian Springs had many plusses—high-caliber students, housing and utilities, and meals at the dining hall during the academic year.

Another appeal was the rural setting—this was before Interstate 65 cut through Shelby County when Indian Springs owned property on both sides of Alabama 119. “Raising children in this atmosphere was a very big plus,” he says.

The LaCasse twins were barely walking when the family moved onto the campus, and Karen lived there her entire life until each graduated from the school.

All describe the joys of growing up with other faculty kids to play with, a huge campus for a playground, and onsite cultural opportunities like movies, plays, and other performances.

Steven paints a picture of Mayberry in the country. “I often tell people it was like the 50s,” he says.
“We knew all our neighbors very well, which is very unlike most neighborhoods. We had free reign of the campus to bike around. We’d go to the dining hall every night and were with the boarding students. It was a great place to grow up.”

LaCasse has seen tremendous changes at Indian Springs during a career that spans nearly three-quarters of the school’s 70-year-history.

An all-boys school when he arrived, Indian Springs switched to coed in 1975. Back then, the student population was smaller, and boarding students comprised a larger percentage. 

The campus itself has been reshaped. Development outside its boundaries has exploded.

“Society has changed, and the school has changed with it,” LaCasse says. “If you drove a car, when you got on campus, you had to give your keys to the dean of students so he would know you didn’t drive off. It’s not like that now. Every student has a car, and they’re not going to give their keys to anybody.”

But LaCasse says he still takes the same basic approach to teaching based on how he learned. “I was accustomed all my educational life that you walk into the room, and somebody’s giving a speech,” he says. “You pay attention, and then you leave. That’s pretty much the lecture format that I have followed.”

But his teaching persona is not that dry. Steven recalls walking by his father’s classroom one day and hearing him at work. He was struck by how different Dr. LaCasse seemed from Dad. “I could hardly believe it was him,” Steven says.

Dr. LaCasse was more talkative in the classroom, and his sense of humor shone brighter, the teacher’s children say.

“He could keep it lively,” Kevin says, launching into a Dr. LaCasse imitation to demonstrate. “He’d point at one question and say, Is Aaaaaaaa the answeeeeerrrrr? Or is Bbbbeee the answer?’”

Kevin’s imitation continues, his voice steadily diminishing to a conspiratorial whisper, “‘ No no no no. It’s not B. It’s A.’”

Then there was LaCasse’s metaphoric “physics bus.” Any former student can still practically recite their regular admonition: Don’t fall off the physics bus, or it will run you over.

“You have to stay up with what’s going on in physics because every class builds on the last,” Oh explains. “Once you fall off the bus, getting caught up is hard. I remember using that on my own kids when they were in high school, telling them to ‘Stay on the physics bus.’”

Both Schamberger and Gray say alums in fields related to physics or mathematics constantly cite LaCasse as a catalyst for their careers. Former students, in general, say they breezed through college physics or calculus after his class.

“His ability to relate to young people, take complex ideas and break them down so that it seems easy at the next level, it’s just unbelievable,” Schamberger says.

Oh says that when he started at MIT, he was able to skip the first semester of physics as well as calculus, and the second semester in those classes mostly covered what LaCasse had already taught him.

“That’s at a world-class college,” Oh says. “What that says is we were getting a world-class science and math education at the high school and early college level at Indian Springs.”

LaCasse has been an influential teacher in another way. Many alums and students who now play bridge learned the card game from him through the campus club he sponsors.

Dr. Gray, who joined the faculty after LaCasse had gone part-time, recalls glancing into a classroom late one Friday afternoon during his first year.

“I see a huge group of students feverishly playing cards,” Gray says. “There was Dr. LaCasse, laughing, cutting up, and playing bridge. It’s his thing.”

When some students tried to get Gray into the game, he protested that he didn’t know how to play. “They said, ‘Dr. LaCasse will teach it all to you. You’ll love it.’”

LaCasse and Cooper quickly bonded after the history teacher joined the faculty in 1974. They enjoyed playing each other in chess and pairing as doubles partners in tennis.

“We are both extremely competitive,” says Cooper. “I think he’s more competitive than I am.”
Their competitive streaks manifested in another way, through the school’s academic decathlon and scholars’ bowl teams.

Cooper was already coaching the latter when he learned about the decathlon, a grueling test of knowledge in 10 subjects in which each competitor gives a speech and takes a “Super Quiz.” He recruited LaCasse to co-coach.

Each school’s six-person team had to be equally divided among A, B, and C students. That gave Indian Springs an edge.

“We had really good C students,” LaCasse says. “We had outstanding B students—killer B students. They would have been A students at a lot of places. So, we got together some pretty good teams.”

Every year from 1988-1998, Indian Springs’ decathlon team won state. It won regional titles for six consecutive years. In national meets during that run, it perennially finished in the top 11 nationally, rising as high as No. 5.

“In the end, the only reason we gave it up was every other team in Alabama dropped out because we just won the state every year,” Cooper says.

To prep, Cooper and LaCasse would assign work for students on the team, and then all would meet Sundays on campus to refine speeches, take practice math quizzes, and gain instruction in the other subjects.

“For the kids, it was like taking another curriculum on top of the curriculum they had,” Cooper says.
One subject rotated, providing another twist. “One year, it was aviation,” LaCasse says. “Dr. Cooper got a friend of his who had aviation experience to come in to talk to the students about it.”

Where the academic decathlon was rigorous, the scholars’ bowl was brainy fun, LaCasse says.

“Dr. Cooper was the person who got that started at Indian Springs,” LaCasse says. “Being kind of competitive myself, I decided to see if I could be a co-coach.”

Contestants ring buzzers, “Jeopardy”-style, to answer questions. LaCasse and Cooper would work out their teams, with one playing the quizmaster and the other competing with his own buzzer.

LaCasse or Cooper—generally both—took the scholars’ bowl teams to regular weekend competitions around the Southeast. It also was successful in national tournaments, finishing third one year.

“We were full-bore on this stuff,” LaCasse says, who co-coached from 1992-2009 and solo in 2010.
Leading the two teams was a huge time commitment. But it’s an example of what both educational titans bring to Indian Springs, Schamberger says.

“I think LaCasse and Cooper are prime examples of this isn’t a job,” says the head of school. “It’s a passion that these wonderful, dedicated individuals give to students here. It’s in the classroom. It’s outside the classroom. It’s during school hours. It’s outside school hours. It’s on the weekends. That’s what leads to the transformational experience at Indian Springs.”

Indian Springs has attracted and retained many brilliant, dedicated teachers over the decades.
“There is a continuity of education here,” LaCasse says. “The people who graduate from Indian Springs feel good about sending their children here. What else could you say?”

Gray, the assistant head of school for academic affairs, ticks off name after name of faculty veterans in addition to LaCasse, who form the academic foundation at Indian Springs as it enters its eighth decade.

“One cannot give enough credit to the historical perspective and heritage from long-term faculty members,” Gray says. “These pillars of their academic disciplines set a tone for what the expectations are in any given department.”

But as students change and the subjects they learn evolve, these pillars also must constantly recast themselves, Schamberger says. Unlike old dogs, they must keep learning new tricks.

And LaCasse is a master magician, Gray says. He recounts how, when Covid hit in early 2020 and teachers had to pivot to remote instruction, LaCasse was issued a new Mac book, an iPad, and a digital pencil to enable him to lecture via the internet.

“He took it all home, and he was teaching remotely within weeks,” Gray says. “This is the new norm in education due to Covid. For him to jump in there and not have any guidance at all, he did a masterful job. He always does. He’s just a natural.”

That’s LaCasse in a nutshell, Karen LaCasse Juliano says. “He is just a quiet guy doing what he loves to do. He loves teaching. He loves teaching the students at Indian Springs.”

So much so that when Schamberger asked him to return in August for the 51st year, LaCasse didn’t hesitate.
“I guess the greatest thing that I can say about Mac is when I’ve come to him and said, ‘Mac, I need you. Would you consider doing this for the school?’ He gives me one response every time: “‘Scott, I can do that for you. I can do that for Indian Springs.”

This is the story of a dog that kept a class schedule. 

Many at Indian Springs School from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s had some kind of encounter with Pandora, the LaCasse family mutt that routinely escorted twins Kevin ’88 and Steven ’88 and later sister Karen ’95 from class to class. When she could get away with it, Pandora would go inside with them.

“She was pretty smart,” says Steven, who grew up on the campus with his siblings. “She’d trade between me and Kevin depending on which teachers would let her into the classroom and which ones would not. So, parts of the day she’d be with me, and parts of the day she’d be off with Kevin.”

But fall and springtime changes tended to throw off her inner clock. After one such switch, Pandora showed up at Mike Lantrip’s door when she thought Kevin should be in his algebra class.

“Mr. Lantrip politely explained that we reset the clocks last night, and you’re going to have to come back in an hour,” Kevin recalls, pausing when asked if she returned on time. “You know, I think she did.”

Pandora didn’t always make the grade. “When it rained, she would stink,” says Steven. “Some teachers and students didn’t like her stinking the room up.” It even prompted one instructor to send home a report card, explaining that Pandora got a D for coming to class smelling like a wet dog.

In those days, most faculty living on campus had dogs, and they pretty much had the run of the place. Pandora was perfectly content with that arrangement—with one exception.

“She was terrified of thunder,” Karen recalls. “Once, during my brother’s soccer game, she got scared by thunder and ended up jumping in one of the visitors’ cars. They didn’t realize that Pandora was in the car until they got home.”

But the bright lights of Hollywood apparently didn’t faze Pandora, like the time she appeared in a John Badham production.

On campus making a promo for the school, the 1957 Indian Springs grad and award-winning director used Pandora to help portray a typically idyllic scene, capturing multiple takes of her and the LaCasse boys on bikes rounding a corner at the library.

Mac LaCasse is bemused by her, at one point pausing while telling Pandora stories to affectionately note, “She was a very strange dog.”

Take, for example, the daily procession to the dining hall by people and pooch. The humans piled into LaCasse’s old Dodge, but Pandora insisted on leading the way, setting the pace by repeatedly jumping in front of the car.

“She knew we weren’t going to run her over,” Kevin says. “Every time we rounded the faculty circle, she’d cut across the Fleming yard and get back in front of us. She would do this the whole way. Every day. She did not want us to get there first.”

Her passing in 1994 is noted in that year’s Khalas, where her photo is the centerpiece in a campus-dog collage. The inscription, a quote from Leo Bustad, describes the joy that Pandora and her canine cohorts brought to campus:

“There are two times when you need animals the most, when you are very young and when you are very old—and often quite a bit in between.”
190 Woodward Drive, Indian Springs, Alabama 35124
Phone: 205.988.3350
Indian Springs School, an independent school recognized nationally as a leader in boarding and day education for grades 8-12, serves a talented and diverse student body and offers admission to qualified students regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Located in Indian Springs, Alabama, just south of Birmingham, the school does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation in the administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, or athletic and other school-administered programs.

© 2023 Indian Springs School. All Rights Reserved.