George Hollingbery ’76 studied education at an interesting time, as the profession underwent significant change in the 1970s. Teachers began asking where the classroom began and ended, and how could they better reach and help students who learn in different ways.
During that time, Hollingbery says they all faithfully watched the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Set in a Brooklyn remedial high school class, the show offered a glimpse into how “difficult” students could defy expectations.
Hollingbery, a fourth-generation Coug and grandson of legendary WSU football coach Babe Hollingbery, started teaching high school sociology and other classes in Lacey. Although he had all kinds of students, he says, “I was fascinated by the kids in the back, the tough guys. How do I connect with them?”
He helped start the innovative New Century High School, a night school where he taught career and technical education. At one point, his friend Jeff McQuarrie ’98—director of the Legends of the Palouse documentaries that Hollingbery narrated—stopped by, saw him in the class, and said, “You were like Kotter in there with those kids.”
Hollingbery retired to the San Diego area in 2013 with his wife Cindy ’76, also a counselor and teacher. They moved into a condo and the previous owner said their neighbor is a celebrity, not really a surprise in southern California.
Except the neighbor is Gabe Kaplan, Mr. Kotter himself.
Naturally Hollingbery introduced himself, telling Kaplan, “What you did on TV, I did in real life.”
Comedian and actor Kaplan not only starred in Welcome Back, Kotter, he also wrote and produced it based on his own experiences as a Brooklyn teen. Hollingbery says he enjoys Kaplan’s dry wit and stories of New York, and the contrast with his own small town upbringing in eastern Washington.
“Gabe asked me, ‘How did I do as a teacher?’” he says. “I wanted to know what it was like growing up in Brooklyn. And what it was like to fly on John Travolta’s jet.”
It’s almost unbelievable, he says. “With 30 million people in California, the guy who inspired me ended up being my neighbor.”