Malcolm G. Largmann, principal who brought Townsend Harris High School back to life, dies at 89

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Dr. Malcolm G. Largmann, the founding principal of the re-established Townsend Harris High School, passed away on May 31. He was 89.

Hand-selected by those responsible for reopening the school, Dr. Largmann led THHS from 1984 to 2001. Many of the traditions and experiences that define THHS began under and through his leadership. The Queens College collaboration, the opening of the school building on the college campus, Founders’ Day, and the swearing of the Ephebic Oath are just a few examples.  

Before becoming the principal of the re-established school, Dr. Largmann was English Department Chair at Tilden High School and an English teacher at Lafayette High School. He retired from THHS in 2001 and was succeeded by former Principal Thomas Cunningham after having worked in education for over forty years.

In a wide range of interviews, teachers, alumni, and administrators credit Dr. Largmann with working tirelessly to bring to life his vision of a school that offers a stellar education, rooted in the humanities, to its students. 

Alumni Association Co-President Craig Slutzkin said, “I wasn’t close to Dr. Largmann when I was a student. I really didn’t have much interaction with him. But through both of our Alumni Association involvements, we became friends and eventually family over the past 30 years. And what amazed me is that even though we didn’t have much interaction when I was a student, over the years, he would bring up things from my days at Harris that I would have never thought he knew about – clubs I was in, teachers I was a monitor for. That is so telling – he knew what each of his students did, what they cared about.”

Dr. Largmann at an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of THHS’s reopening. Photo by Kari Iocolano, 2014-2015 Photography Editor

Many emphasized Dr. Largmann’s pride in his students, and his passion for getting to know them and their strengths.

Former Spanish teacher and Assistant Principal of World Languages Joan Walsh said, “When the school opened in September, 1984, he set the tone for the school culture by being omni-present in the hallways and in the classrooms. He made it his business to know most of the students by name.”

Former student Tanya M. Odom said, “He was so proud of our accomplishments, where we went to school, and what we did with our lives. I felt like he was always really happy to share in our accomplishments, so I think it’s really special that the teachers that he worked with while I was there and afterwards are people who were around him until the very end. That speaks to the community that we had, and that touches me on a very deep level.”

Parent Coordinator Dafne Manhart, who first met Dr. Largmann in 1997, said, “Dr. Largmann has sent me a Christmas card every year, and every year, he would write regards to Thomas and Douglas [her sons and THHS alumni]. When I heard of his passing, it really touched my heart.”

On Dr. Largmann’s drive to get to know students, Ms. Walsh shared a story of a time when he had to rethink one of his plans: “In keeping with his vision of mingling with the students and getting to know them, he thought it would be a good idea for the faculty to eat lunch with the students in the student cafeteria. Needless to say, that idea was short-lived. The students were not too thrilled, and neither were the teachers.”

Despite the plan not working, he found other ways to create communal bonds that made for unique and lasting educational experiences.

One way was through Dr. Largmann’s love of literature, which translated into his passion for a humanities education. “Dr. Largmann always recognized the importance of the school library and supported it in every way he could,” said former librarian Valerie Billy. “From experience, I can say that not every high school principal is such a strong advocate. For example, each June, I compiled summer reading lists for every grade to be distributed on the last day of school in June. Before the bibliographies were printed however, Dr. Largmann liked to see them. He always had questions, comments, additions or deletions. He cared. I was so grateful to have his input because I knew that in the end the reading lists would be the very best that they could be.”

The THHS Library now carries his name and the school’s motto, “Ad Astra per Aspera.” 

He also always remembered his roots as a teacher. Former English teacher Judy Biener said that Dr. Largmann once came into her classroom, took the chalk, and started teaching the class. When she asked him about this, he told her that he “simply missed teaching.” 

In another instance where he was observing classes, former English teacher and Classic advisor Ilsa Cowen said that Dr. Largmann was keen to help read a passage of the Old English book Beowulf for her class. She noted that, “A couple of times when he was observing one of my classes, he couldn’t resist taking over and seemed to be having a wonderful time. He was glad to read a passage from Beowulf to my appreciative class. I learned so much from his example and suggestions.”

Former Athletic Director and Dean Wanda Nix described Dr. Largmann as a tough but fair boss who made her feel that her opinions mattered despite disagreements. “The focus was always on the students and providing them with the best school experience, the best preparation for the next level and the tools to become good citizens.”

According to many, Dr. Largmann would ask students to name at least one thing they learned after the end of a school day. Before technological developments allowed for the mainstream use of online dictionaries, he would make sure that all students carried dictionaries. 

Charles Puglisi first met Dr. Largmann in 1986 after his oldest son began studying at THHS. He got to work with Dr. Largmann after becoming the co-president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association that same year before serving on the THAA board after one of his younger sons graduated in 1995. He said, “In those days, it was a PTSA. Dr. Largmann expected that all teachers, as well as students, would be active in the PTSA.”

Alumnus Seth M. Cohen reflected on the delay in the move from the school building on Parsons Boulevard to the current one on Melbourne Avenue. He said, “Dr. Largmann was just as disappointed as anyone else, but you would never have known it. The day we ultimately moved, he led the march down Kissena Blvd, head held high and that bright smile on his face, as the culmination of his life’s work, a line of students and educators, marched on behind him to unveil the opening of that grand edifice.” 

Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Largmann had a vision to establish Townsend Harris as a school that teaches students to not only excel in academics but to also be citizens who give back to their communities. 

Former English Teacher Debra Michlewitz described this as Dr. Largmann’s very own “educational Camelot” that he built through the excellence of students, staff, and teachers. In line with this, Dr. Largmann inaugurated the tradition of having incoming students recite the ancient Greek Ephebic Oath at Townsend Harris. Ms. Nix said “expectation of excellence framed the culture of the school and kept me striving to do better and be better each day.” 

Ms. Cowen said, “Dr. Largmann’s enduring legacy is exemplified in the way so many Townsend Harris graduates have made their school’s humanistic values their own and internalized the ancient Greek Ephebic Oath they first took as freshmen to leave their city greater than they found it. When several years ago the school’s core traditions seemed under threat, many members of the entire school community, past and present, rallied to their defense.”

The mentorship and influence that he provided to both students and staff had a great effect on the school community. During his time at Townsend Harris, Dr. Largmann hired many educators and administrators whom he personally mentored. 

“He was the same kind of educator in developing assistant principals and teachers as he had been with students – caring and supportive, yet holding exceedingly high expectations,” said current Assistant Principal Susan Brustein. “He always said that he ‘did not demand excellence, he expected it.’ We all absorbed his teaching philosophy.” 

Former Math Assistant Principal Harry Rattien said, “He was the most dynamic educational speaker I’ve ever listened to…I’ve always felt that way. No matter how you looked at him, when he got up on stage and he started to speak, everybody listened and it made a tremendous difference in the way people saw the schools. To me, that was his grit. It might’ve been his greatest strength.” 

After transferring to the current school building, Mr. Rattien suggested that music be played in between each class. He said, “[Dr. Largmann] agreed as long as we played classical music. That was his passion. That’s why you have music between classes now instead of bells. I thought that was a wonderful compromise.”

Former English teacher Helen Rizzuto said, “Dr. Largmann was, and will remain, an unforgettable and treasured presence in my life. His sometimes austere exterior harbored a gifted and sensitive human being who never failed to surprise me, and even now, brings a smile.  Very simply, his legacy transcends words.”

Former Social Studies teacher Anthony Scarnati said, “He taught me the importance of drawing kids into the lesson by always remembering the class is about each of the students in the room, not just those that raise their hands. I learned the value of reflecting on what I’ve done with an eye toward getting better.”

Ms. Biener fondly remembers singing to him on birthdays and at his retirement party. She called him a father figure who was always very proud of her and her accomplishments.

His successors also shared their thoughts on his passing.

Former principal Kenneth Bonamo remembered how Dr. Largmann served as an informal mentor when he began leading THHS in 2008. Dr. Largmann would often visit Mr. Bonamo and share the history and ideology behind the school. Mr. Bonamo said, “Many faculty members who worked with him spoke of his high standards and commitment to the school, and although they dwindled in number over time, they would pay homage to him whenever he visited my office.”

Former principal Anthony Barbetta described Dr. Largmann as a “very kind and supportive” person. Mr. Barbetta is now the principal of Robert F. Kennedy High School, which is in the location that the re-opened THHS began at. He said, “I am now working in the same office that Dr. Largmann worked in. I remember him telling me how much he loved the building. I have adopted something from him. I use pencils for everything and I use them until there is no longer anything left to the pencil.”

In a statement made to the Townsend Harris Alumni Association, Principal Brian Condon, who too was greeted and mentored by Dr. Largmann when he first started as principal, said, “Dr. Largmann is the standard by which all other principals are measured: we all have fallen short.” 

In a comment provided to The Classic, he said, “What I think is most impressive is that Townsend Harris is not a school. It’s an institution. Lots of people found schools. There’s new schools popping up all the time. Take a look and see how many of them last ten years, and not just last ten years, but have the level of or even close to the level of excellence consistently that Townsend Harris has had for decades. That is something that very few people can lay claim to.”

Reflecting on his passing, Ms. Michlewitz said, “[It] is a real loss. I’ll miss my telephone conversations with him and luncheon dates. We’d talk about theater, literature, and education. However, in the most important ways, he’s still here. Townsend Harris High School is a living testament to his work, his talent, and his vision. His spirit really survives in all of us touched by his ‘best piece of poetry.’”