Remembering a Life That Won’t Be Forgotten

Kurt Koeplin, CHS teacher, coach and friend, passes away


Fred Avett, Adviser

As the school year begins and the voices of students fill the halls of Chamblee High School, one prominent voice is missing. Maybe it’s most prominent.
In June 2022, Kurt Koeplin, a fixture of this school and its culture for two decades, passed away unexpectedly. This shocking news spread quickly despite the summer break and former students and colleagues reacted with heartbroken disbelief.
A member of the social studies department, Koeplin taught AP Psychology for many years, coached the Chamblee girls basketball team and golf teams, contributed memes and jokes to the Chamblee teacher Facebook group on a near-daily basis, and was a part of many graduations when he announced the names of graduates from the stage.
Brian Ely worked alongside Koeplin in social studies for 20 years.
“I was lucky to know Kurt Koeplin,” said Ely. “I was lucky that on our first day of work at Chamblee High School [in 2002] we sat next to each other on the bus to go to the county pep rally at Hallford Stadium. We hit it off immediately. He told me about being from Wisconsin, teaching in Daytona Beach and later in Forsyth County, about selling cars, and about meeting his wife, Cathy, when they worked at Red Lobster.
“The pep rally featured ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It,’ the new superintendent riding on a Harley [Davidson motorcycle], and mass confusion as the teachers all tried to find their buses back to school,” Ely continued. “After that, I can’t believe we stayed 20 hours, let alone 20 years.”
When asked, Dr. Andrew Milne could not remember the first time he met Koeplin.
“I’ve been here forever,” he said recently, “and it just seemed like Kurt was always here, too.”
“I remember him as a strong world history teacher originally,” said Principal Gail Barnes, who began her career at Chamblee as a social studies teacher. “He taught two doors down from me, and that was a great hallway to be on. It was a senior hallway [in the old Chamblee High School building], and we all decided we would own the hallway because – you know – some of our seniors aren’t always on time. So between myself, [Steve] Rubino, [Jennifer] Tinnell, Kurt and [Amy] Branca – it was a great hall. And [Susan] Katz and [Viki] Stephens were there, too, so it was a great area. We all worked together to support each other and support the kids. He was always a great support and he was always willing to pitch in and help out.”
“Our early years at Chamblee were challenging,” recalled Ely, “but Kurt’s passion for basketball kept him motivated. We frequently talked hoops as he taught me all about strategy for team defense. While coaching the boys’ team, [Kurt] came and helped the girl’s team ‘staff’ create a twist on the box and one to stop the other team’s dominant player. Needless to say, they both worked to perfection.”
“He was a coach at heart,” said Barnes. “It’s what he did in the classroom. It wasn’t just about being a teacher; it was about being a coach. He was always a coach who helped everyone get better.”
And Koeplin was known for using cartoons to help. Well, one specific cartoon.
“He and I both agreed that if there was something worth saying it could be said through a quote from The Simpsons,” said Dr. Milne. “And he used The Simpsons to teach AP Psychology. That was his thing. And it taught me – he taught me – that if you are enthusiastic about something, there is a way to work it into your classes to teach and impart wisdom and thinking.”
“In the fall of 2019, we both had fifth period AP Psychology,” said Ely. “Since he was the grand poo-bah of AP Psych, I immediately came to him for help, support and resources. He came up with the idea of combining the classes into a force so strong it had never been seen before: MegaPsych.”
“While I learned on the job,” continued Ely, “I got to watch a master at his craft. His activities and lessons were riveting and he had thought of everything. We built brains, tried to catch tennis balls with one eye covered, and gained a whole new appreciation for The Simpsons. Usually, I just got to hear from students about who their favorite teachers are and why. With MegaPsych, I got to see it and actually be one of those students.”
Ms. Barnes also noted Koeplin’s teaching style and engagement with students.
“He was a great teacher,” said Barnes. “You know how now they always say ‘don’t do anything in class that’s longer than 15 minutes?’ That was always his thing. He was always switching up activities. That is one thing I remember about him in the classroom. He kept kids engaged.”
One of Coach K’s side jobs at Chamblee was to provide laughter to his co-workers.
“I was lucky Kurt had a great sense of humor as he would send out a hilarious meme,” said Ely, “or when he would send a well-intentioned student on the challenging task of tracking down the ever-elusive backboard stretcher.”
“Kurt was always a helper – to students and to teachers,” said Kaspar. “He was always there when I needed him. He was funny and quick to say sorry. He loved and connected with other people over even one common thing. And he was a man of deep faith.”
“People have public depths and private depths,” explained Dr. Milne. Kurt “had this whole ministry in his background that I did not know about. But I knew enough about him to know he had political beliefs he was committed to, and he also had school and sports that he was committed to.”
“I was lucky he was such a great supporter of our students in all activities,” Ely said. “He coached basketball throughout his time here and added golf coaching for many years. Kurt and Cathy even came to see the baseball team during Spring Break when we were playing in Daytona Beach.”
For many years, CHS held an annual Bulldog Bash on the night of graduation. With the gymnasium open, graduates could come and spend several hours with their classmates one last time. The all-night event – which featured little to no sleep – was chaperoned by a handful of dedicated teachers.
“I most cherish the many Bulldog Bash nights we chaperoned together,” said Kaspar. “I always loved hanging out after such a big day and staying up all night sharing in that special delirious excitement with the new grads and Coach K. We had plenty of time to swap stories. We had hours to laugh with individual students and give parting words of encouragement. Those nights really embodied Kurt’s spirit for me: chugging Mountain Dew, wearing a cut off Chamblee tee, and pushing through a long day just to celebrate the kids and send them off with a final hug and ‘we’re so proud of you.'”
“I was lucky we got to team up at Bulldog Bash when it came time to announce the prizes at about 4:30 a.m.,” said Ely. “We would alternate between a fired-up announcer and an NPR voice. If the students were awake – they appreciated it.”
Even the shutting down of schools in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic could not separate Koeplin from his friends at Chamblee.
“I was lucky that even when the pandemic hit,” said Ely, “we were able to get together at Jennifer Tinnell’s and do what we’d enjoyed for years: talk basketball, play mini-golf, drink some bourbon, and argue about which Styx songs are the best.”
“I’ll always miss our school-adjacent hangs during the pandemic years, our outdoor ‘department meetings’ with Tinnell and Ely,” said Kaspar.
“He had a rich life. He loved his wife, his dog, his camper, his breweries, and his politics. He was such a good guy,” said Dr. Milne. “He was a larger than life person. If you taught near him, you heard his booming voice down the hall. And the kids talked about what they were doing. So he was a huge presence. Someone that full of life should not just be gone.”
“He lived,” said Barnes. “He always planned out his travels with his camper in July. [Kurt and Cathy] loved good food. They loved each other. They just lived. And you kept on learning about him. Like the fact that he was in seminary school – like I knew that, but had filed it away somewhere – but when you bring that back to the forefront and who he was on the day-to-day – it makes sense. You saw that in how he lived his life.”
Two decades as a Chamblee Bulldog came to an end for Kurt Koeplin, but, as with all great teachers and coaches, he achieved immortality. His lessons, his laughter, his dedication and friendship will live on for many more decades through the thousands of students he worked with and friends he made along the way.
“I was lucky that my last time with Kurt was at Chamblee’s 2022 graduation at Hallford Stadium,” said Ely. “We had just finished 20 years at the site of our first day.”
“While Kurt has been called upon for bigger things now in a greater place, he has left me and all of us with so much,” said Ely. “He will always be with me: when I see a charge in a basketball game, when I use a memory-building technique, when I have a sip of bourbon, when I laugh with my Chamblee friends, when I wear a sleeveless shirt. He is there. He’s always been there. He’ll always be there. Fly high, brother.”

Jennifer Tinnell, who also worked alongside Koeplin for two decades at Chamblee, was asked to speak at his memorial service. The following is an edited transcript of her talk about her dear friend.

Kurt loved his life as an educator, coach, brother, friend and husband and when he was working, he was playing. He was a “master of his craft” according to his peers and students, and he gave 100% all of the time. Many of us here know some different sides of Kurt and as I cried after his passing, I also grinned while shaking my head, that “I know something you don’t know” feeling. How can a single brain quote so many movies and recall so many lyrics to songs and always be so ready with an off-color comment that is so spot on?!
One of his students described him as “slightly mischievous” as he leaned forward during classes to excitedly tell a joke. When Kurt told a joke or shared a story – just like he taught – you felt like it was the most important thing you’d hear all day. When Kurt spoke, we listened! A student I saw in June after Kurt’s passing mentioned how much he treasures that Coach K called his name at graduation. Some described Kurt’s voice as deep or raspy or gravelly or a rumble, [former Chamblee teachers] Jeremy Karassik and Chris Smith dubbed it his strip club DJ voice.
What we all have in common is that we all adored this gentle man. We all know he was genuine, charismatic, passionate, enthusiastic, humble, humorous, good looking and wore a cut off sleeveless tee the likes of which we will never forget.
I am humbled, honored and heart broken to be writing these words. I would venture to say that Kurt’s wife Cathy may not have comprehended how much her husband was admired and loved. He loved her so much as his wife and caregiver to others. She supported him for over half of her life in personal adventures and with her time on the sidelines as Coach K’s wife.
Kurt had four sisters, Karen, Chris, Cindy and Karla. I cannot imagine growing up with a zealous, rambunctious little Kurt. I know that Kurt was a man of faith and the only reason I chuckle when thinking of him attending seminary school, well, is his tendency to be the opposite of reverent with his sense of humor. I will miss his memes. I will miss knowing that during department and faculty meetings he was not always on task and was texting me to try to somehow fit the word “moist” into the conversation that my principal was leading. When we went to virtual instruction, we were both totally freaking out about technology because he and I still have VHS players in our classrooms! And we’d both still rather do actual paper work for our teams rather than go “paperless” and DragonFly and Google Classroom. He has a three-ring binder for his “famed” AP Psych art assignments.
Kurt, myself & a handful of friends have been through five principals in 20 years and many of us wanted to “opt out” numerous times, I just had the nerve to say it out loud. And I know he is still mumbling, to keep this proper, about finally being close to finishing that “gifted” certification that he was voluntold to complete to maintain this AP Psych class load. Kurt pushed the boundaries and got away with everything he could and at the same time, ALWAYS did what was best for his students.
Kurt and I had a lot in common and when people have talked to me about Kurt, more than a few have said he was like my brother based on the way we interacted with one another with zero expectations, judgements and bountiful ease. Kurt and I shot it straight, not always on the golf course, more in one on one conversation. We could talk about anything or also not talk. We were comfortable sitting in silence. And as special as I know I was to Kurt, this is also a recurring theme with those that have known him for his 20 years at Chamblee.
Of Kurt’s gregarious side, I will miss: his gregarious side when sharing food testimonials, bragging about his golf kids, the basketball games where his girls were showing marked improvements and their hard work was paying off, debating with pals about which Styx songs were the best., our putt-putt memories and fire pits at my house when we were “fellowshipping.” Ely, Kaspar and I had so many laughs along with the occasional invited guests. I will miss seeing his prized white truck parked outside my house, but Cathy will keep it rolling in style.
And then there was the introverted, private side. All Kurt really needed lately was his wife, his truck, his dogs Woodford and Willett, his Cherokee Wolfpup Travel Trailer and let’s not leave out the bourbon. He and Cathy had the entire next calendar year mapped out, well actually the rest of their life mapped out together. They would have celebrated 22 years of marriage together in July. He loved Cathy so much. He sent me a text during the Blue & Gold silent auction saying how beautiful she looked.
Recently, Kurt and I talked about the years we had left in teaching, saving up, minimizing and enjoying our lives. I want to be mad at Kurt but there is no time for that. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now.” Kurt made the most of his 55 years. Kurt never did anything for attention or acknowledgement and if his students felt that he was “the best,” then mission accomplished. I believe that Kurt lived with no regrets.
The week before he passed, Kurt and I were texting about our summer golf outing and how to fit that in with basketball training and his travel plans. If you have put off traditions or get togethers with friends, I’d encourage you to go ahead and make that happen.
In the days after Kurt’s passing someone said that they hadn’t known Kurt that long, but that he had already made an impact. My first thought was that you’re right: you did not know him long enough. My 20 years isn’t long enough. But we made it count.
I want more Packers updates. I want my only friend that I actually know that attends NASCAR races. Steve and Sheila want more dinner dates. I want to hear your deep voice as you are teaching the hell out of your students and giving coaching advice, more vein bulging and sweating so much you are rarely without a rag. Gail Barnes wants to “not” know what you are doing in your classroom with Psych experiments and Freudian rooms and how you packed those classes with a must-have senior year course! Many of his students have written that he was simply the best teacher they ever had. They miss walking into room 4008 and hoping it was a designated Simpsons learning day.
Here’s what I find solace in is the last time we said goodbye. I walked him out to his truck with his to-go Greek food for Cathy. I had given him his summer treat of which I am not sure he had yet partaken. We hugged ’cause we always did and said, “see you soon.” I have zero regrets with Kurt, which cannot be said for me with everyone I know. Thank you Coach K.
Some advice for most of us here today as quoted by Styx: “Get up, get back on your feet. Let’s see what you’ve got. Just take your best shot & don’t blow it.”
Kurt’s zest for life will continue to inspire all of us. We are each better for knowing him. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your world. Lead with your heart and you can’t go wrong!