John Saxon's Legacy
John Saxon was, among other things, a teacher, a leader, a graduate of West Point, and a great storyteller. I first met John and his wife Mary Esther in the late 1960's in my mother-in-law's kitchen in Enid, Oklahoma, while I was on leave preparing to go to Germany.
While his mother-in-law and mine had been members of the same sewing club and also the same Presbyterian Church for almost forty years, our military careers took us in separate ways, and I never had a chance to know him very well until I started teaching several years after he had already published his first algebra book, in 1981.
That night in the kitchen, John told the story about how he had been flying the supply route from Japan to Korea in between B-26 bombing runs during the Korean War. He said he had not had much sleep in the preceding five days, and he was concerned that he would doze off while piloting the aircraft, so he instructed his enlisted crew chief to make sure he stayed awake.
“I told him that whatever it took, keep me awake! I woke up the next morning and I could barely move my right arm, the pain was so intense. I looked at my right shoulder and it was a dark purple color,” John said. “I learned later that day that the crew chief kept punching my shoulder every time I started to doze off - all the way from Japan to Korea! I told him, Chief, you almost broke my shoulder. So he says to me, ' Kept you awake, Sir! ' ”
The high school where I had done my student teaching had been using John's math books for several years. I liked using them, so when I started my first job as a high school math teacher, I asked for and received approval to buy Saxon math books for two of my three math courses.
The first year I taught, I finished all the lessons in John's first Algebra 2 books. When school was out, I drove to Norman to visit with John. When I bragged to him that we had finished his book, he smiled and, pitching me his new second edition, said, “Here. Try this new edition. It's seven lessons longer.”
John and his finance officer loaded seventy of the new second edition Algebra 2 books into the trunk of my car. As I drove home later that evening, I wondered what I would say to the highway patrolman if I were stopped and he looked in the trunk. John had given me the books, and I did not have a paid invoice for them.
I remember in the early days of his company, John had a personal policy that if a student found an error in one of his math books and wrote to him about it, John would send him five dollars for each error he found.
That fall, when we started using these brand new first printings of the new second edition of Algebra 2 , one of my students found four problems with wrong answers.
I checked the answers and verified that the student was indeed correct. The four answers were wrong! The young man then asked about the twenty dollars that I had mentioned he would receive. So using my classroom telephone, I called John at his office.
I had placed the telephone on the speakerphone, so the class could hear the conversation. They appeared excited that they were actually sitting in their classroom, talking to the author and owner of the publishing company that had published their math book!
John asked me if I had verified that the answers were indeed in error, and I told him the student was correct, that the answers were in fact wrong. Without hesitation, John immediately asked the young man his name and congratulated him for finding them.
I reminded John about his “five dollar” policy. He agreed that the young man deserved the twenty dollars and that he should not have to wait around for the money. Then John, in a loud and clear voice said, “Art, you pay him,” and hung up! A warm summer evening in June and a free trunk load of seventy Algebra 2 books flashed before my eyes as I gave the young man my only twenty-dollar bill.
John was both a mathematician and an engineer. After retiring from military service, while teaching mathematics at Rose State College in Oklahoma City, he was appalled to see that the incoming college students could not handle simple math concepts. So John decided to write his own math books to correct this.
I soon learned what John meant by “at-risk adults” when, some twenty years later, I also encountered college students who still did not understand fractions, percents or decimals. They were failing their basic algebra course at the local university where I taught mathematics.
Throughout John's years of publishing his math textbooks, he always used the words “students,” “educators,” and “responsibility” when speaking about his books. He had designed them to teach the basic concepts of mathematics. They were not designed to teach just “critical thinking” or “higher-order thinking” at the expense of this critical subject matter, as many books still do today to meet requirements of textbook selection committees.
One of John's favorite analogies of what was wrong with this idea was instances when he would tell his audience, most often teachers and administrators, "Understanding should follow doing, rather than precede it. If you're going to teach someone how to drive an automobile, don't lecture him on the theory of the internal-combustion engine. Get him to drive the car around the block."
John was always aware of and deeply concerned about, our high school students as they continued to fall behind in their understanding of the basic concepts necessary to be successful in mathematics and science.
He believed so strongly in what he was doing that, in 1980, so that he could publish his first math book (an Algebra 1 textbook), he borrowed money from his children, from his bank, mortgaged his house, and also borrowed against the value of his future military retirement pay!
More than twenty-five years later, we all know John and his company were a tremendous success! And we all know the legacy that John Saxon has left the field of mathematics - especially for homeschool families.
In July of 1993, in an open letter to then - President Clinton, John Saxon warned of the pending disaster in the areas of mathematics and science. He was concerned that educators were advocating teaching critical thinking when they should be teaching basic math concepts.
He complimented the President on the fact that, while still Governor of Arkansas, he had supported a bill in the Arkansas Legislature that returned control of textbook selection to the local school boards.
Local control was something John felt would keep the “unknowing” at the state level from being able to control the local school boards and administrators, and allow them to solve these problems locally.
John Saxon passed away on October 17, 1996. His children continued management of Saxon Publishers until it was finally sold to Harcourt Achieve in the fall of 2004.
I remember the summer day in 2004 when John Saxon's children announced the acquisition of Saxon Publishers by Harcourt Achieve at the Saxon Headquarters in Norman, Oklahoma.
Just a few minutes after the children had made their announcement, dark ominous clouds swept in, and in the midst of a torrential downpour, one of the biggest electrical storms in Norman's history knocked out all the electrical power and telephone lines to the Saxon Corporate headquarters after lightning had struck the building.I told you John was a great storyteller. It appears, again, that he had the last word that day!