ALEXANDRIA, VA – Every morning Louis Kokonis drove his trusted old 1982 Toyota Corolla to Alexandria City High School. He would park the car in his reserved spot. In his trademark knitted vest and crisp white shirt, carrying a tote bag stuffed with papers, he would walk into the high school and begin to do what he’d been doing since 1959 – teach his students some of the hardest math classes in the curriculum. Louis Kokonis loved teaching mathematics and was still at it just days before he passed away on Jan. 4.
“Lou was driven to be at school every day, even if it was by a 42-year old car,” former principal Pater Balas told the assembled audience during a Jan. 17 memorial..
Family, teachers, administrators, principals, and current and former students packed the auditorium at Alexandria High School to remember and eulogize a teaching icon. Mr. Kokonis stands out as a teacher who never stopped working, once he began. When many teachers left the classroom after the pandemic, Kokonis stayed with the profession he revered, insisting he was not ready to retire.
It was that dedication, that passion, that singular commitment to his craft that made Louis Kokonis so unique, colleagues recalled.
“At age 91, he was still teaching his students. He was one of the most driven educators in the profession. His longevity as a teacher is not just a testament to the Titans and to ACPS but to education overall,” Balas remarked.
Kokonis never married or had children. He treated his students as if they were family.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher,” Mr. Kokonis recalled during an ACPS interview. “I was influenced by many of my high school teachers and for my love of math.”
Kokonis spent most of his life in the Washington DC area, leaving for only two years to serve in the Army. He began his teaching career with ACPS at Francis C. Hammond Middle School before moving to Alexandria City High School, formerly T.C. Williams.
Balas recalled a phone call he would never forget. It was during the pandemic. The high school was shuttered but security was calling to inform him that someone was in the building. The then principal demanded that security review the cameras, get a screenshot of whoever was in the building, and send it to him immediately. “Well, wouldn’t you know. It was Lou! He was in the building making copies even though we were virtual!”
Balas added, “You could not keep him out of this place!”
Sehar Saba was one of Kokonis’ BC calculus students. She stopped by his office on Jan. 3 after a long winter break to check in on him. Kokonis said he was not feeling so well so Saba helped him pack up his things and held the door for him. Choking back tears, Saba realizes she was the last student to see her beloved teacher alive.
“I am sad that I won’t be seeing him anymore. But I’m happy that we got to spend time together and make good memories,” Saba told the assembled crowd.
John Porter, a former longtime principal of the high school, worked with Kokonis for 27 years. Porter called his colleague “a trailblazer and a pioneer,” and credits the long-time teacher with implementing dual enrollment at the school. Through a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College, advanced math students are able to take college-level courses.
“My uncle would probably be embarrassed by all this attention. He was always so shy and humble and never wanted to be the center of attention,” said Nicole Hylton, Kikonis’ great niece. “Lou just wanted to teach and inspire others. He inspired me to go into teaching.”
Hylton remembers that tote bag. Her uncle would carry it everywhere and would sit in the corner of the living room at Thanksgiving and grade papers.
Balas, who had been with Alexandria City Public Schools for 22 years before leaving for Wakefield High School in Arlington this past June, recalled riding in the 2019 Scottish Walk Parade with Kokonis just before the pandemic. Kokonis was honored for his 60 years of service with the school system. “I drove, Mr. Kokonis waved, we talked,” Balas recounted. At one point, Mr. Kokonis turned to Balas and said, “I hope I’m not taking up space for important people who really deserve to be here.”
Balas thought about all that has happened in our country since Kokonis began teaching. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and Kokonis went on to live through twelve additional presidencies.
“Lou educated our children during incredible paradigm shifts in our country and in our world,” Balas shared. “Cold War, Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, desegregation of schools, recessions, AIDS epidemic, 9/11 terrorist attacks, election of the country’s first black president, and a global pandemic that shut down the world.”
The audience was moved to both tears and laughter as they heard stories of their extraordinary teacher and co-worker. Afterward, participants filed into a room across the hall from the auditorium to view a large display of photos, and comments from Mr. Kokonis himself. Former students filled a poster with sticky notes, thanking their beloved teacher for over half a century of exemplary service.