One of the things that we undertake at the historical society is the documentation of the lives of people who have made a difference in our community’s history. I was pleased to have us focus this past week on the longtime history teacher Charles Kahill. Without a doubt, the Kahill legacy has been cemented by his grandson, David Kahill, who has also been teaching world history at South Portland High School since 1999, and who is also the boys’ track coach.

Charles F. Kahill taught history in South Portland from 1937 to 1973. Courtesy photo

Charles F. Kahill was born in 1913, the son of the noted Maine artist, Joseph B. Kahill, and Loretta Moran Kahill. Charles grew up in Portland and attended Bowdoin College, then earned his master’s degree from Columbia University. His teaching career began in 1937 at South Portland High School where he taught world history and coached the track team.

He enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and served overseas during World War II. He was discharged in 1946 and continued his teaching and coaching career in South Portland. In 1967, when the ninth-grade classes were moved from the high school to the new two-school junior high system, Mr. Kahill moved to Mahoney Junior High where he retired from teaching in 1973.

Two of the most important skills of a good teacher are undoubtedly; 1.) making the subject relevant and 2.) finding a way to engage students. Charles Kahill was a master at both and was beloved by students for decades.

His son, Charlie J. Kahill (the South Portland attorney), was one of several family members who weighed in on the life and legacy of Charles F. Kahill. As Charlie described it, his dad used “humor and exaggeration … for getting class attention and bringing prominent ancient figures to life. He also, from time to time, modeled both the appearance and actions of these figures.”

Charlie continued, “One of my early recollections of my father’s teaching immersion was his desk at home. Set in our dining room, it did not meet with my mother’s approval. Strewn with books and newspapers — New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, etc. — it represented his devotion to making ancient history relevant to the modern world.

“He believed that the past held the key to the future — to going forward with sound judgment and morality. Many former students of his have told me that he was not only a good teacher, but also a positive influence in their lives. There is in South Portland a Kahill Court, so named because of the respect the developer held for his history teacher. Bob Hanson, South Portland School Board member and founder of the successful law firm of Norman and Hanson, once told me that Mr. Kahill was one of the two or three teachers that made a difference in his life. Another former student emphasized to me that no one in his classes was given special status — ‘We all felt that we were treated equally.’ Charlie was also a track coach — the Kahill Trophy at Mahoney Middle School being named for him.”

During World War II, Charlie Kahill served overseas in the U.S. Army. Courtesy photo

In addition to their son, Charlie, Charles and Christine also had a daughter, Carolyn. Carolyn followed her dad’s footsteps and became a middle school social studies teacher in New Hampshire. According to Carolyn, the best advice that her dad gave her about teaching and talking with parents about their children: “Remember … these people have never created anything as awesome as this child that you have. Even if the kid is failing, the child is still the best creation that they have made. Be positive about the child. Find something good about the child.” Often, after parent-teacher conferences, students would tell her, ‘You are the only teacher that said something nice about me.’

His grandson, Jim Cogan, had more examples of the playful side of Charles Kahill: “You really can’t talk about Gramps without telling stories about him ‘spoofing’ us. I remember having a fourth-grade project where I had to identify the historical contributions of a group of individuals that my teacher had given me. One of those individuals was Gen. John Stark of New Hampshire. Gramps, the retired history teacher, told me he was the first person to run around naked and that’s why they call it being stark naked. Fortunately, mom interceded before I turned in the assignment. He loved making things like that up about historical figures, like that Erik the Red got his name from cutting himself while shaving.”

Dave Kahill had these memories of his grandfather: “He was totally engaged in his grandchildren’s lives. He embraced our interests and immersed himself in them. I loved baseball as a kid, and he used to spend hours playing baseball with us in our backyard … he was very physically active and loved nature … after retirement, he had a little row boat moored in a bay by the Nonesuch River. He often used to row that dinghy miles out into the ocean … to Pine Point, into Casco Bay, and to Peaks Island. And, he loved hiking.

“My father and he went on many hiking adventures, and he went on my first mountain hiking adventure, Mt. Chocorua, when I was 4 years old. His father, Joseph, of course, was a famous artist, and Charles F. was quite an artist as well. After hiking Mt. Chocorua, he painted a summer landscape of the mountain for me, and a fall landscape of Mt. Chocorua for my sister, Dorothy.”

Charles F. and Christine Kahill. Courtesy photo

Granddaughter Joanne Cogan Johnson also grew up to be a career teacher. Her memories include, “Gramps rowing around everywhere. Gramps telling Jimmy and I that marshmallows come from the marsh; we didn’t really believe him, but we decided to check it out just in case. He seemed to have a snack under every newspaper, nook and cranny of his den.

“When he and Meme were dating circa 1941, she told me he took her to Peaks with Amato’s sandwiches to the backshore. He made her walk and walk just to get to the perfect spot on the backshore. She knew she loved him when they finally sat and she ate that very soaky sandwich anyway … He painted great waves, loved handball and watching (grandson Dave) play baseball … the thing he loved more than anything, however, was our grandmother, Christine Elizabeth Hobbs, or as he called her ‘Pixie.’ He was a romantic and a writer, a soldier and a man of honor.”

When I spoke with Dave Kahill this week about the legacy that his own teaching career represents, he had this to say, “Personally, having a sense of place, community, and connection gives my life meaning. My grandfather was a world history teacher and track coach at South Portland High school, and I’m a world history teacher and track coach at South Portland High School. I can’t tell you how many people I have met over the years who have described my grandfather as one of their favorite teachers, and a person who made a difference in their lives. That connection certainly gives meaning to my life, and of course I hope that as a teacher I am able to make a difference in some of my students’ lives.”

From the experience of my own kids, who all graduated from South Portland High School within the past five years, I can affirm that Dave Kahill is indeed following solidly in the footsteps of his grandfather. I think Charles would be very proud to see Dave continuing the tradition of making a difference in students’ lives and keeping that Kahill legacy alive.

Note: If you enjoy reading about South Portland history, please consider a donation to South Portland Historical Society to help support its mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you. If you need to contact the society, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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