Chamblee’s Unsung Hero Phe Nguyen Set to Retire in June

Phe+Nguyen+posing+for+a+National+Art+Honor+Society+portrait.

Photo courtesy of Sania Hassan

Phe Nguyen posing for a National Art Honor Society portrait.

Catherine Cossaboom, Staff writer

Ask any student or faculty member, and they’d tell you that Chamblee wouldn’t be Chamblee without Phe Nguyen. Mr. Phe first came to Chamblee High School 24 years ago from Vietnam, and ever since he has been an integral part of the school. He has gotten to know the students, made friends with the teachers, and become the most beloved custodian (and the hidden math genius) of the school. He has a very special relationship with the student body, taking special pride in handing out math problems for the students to solve, giving out candy and other snacks, and simply stopping to talk to everyone around him. In June, Mr. Phe will retire, and countless students and teachers are sorry to see him go. 

“I think he’s one of the smartest people in the building, and he’s very friendly, and I know he’s got a reputation among kids for handing out candy,” said math teacher Irwin Wardlow. “From my experience with him here at the school, he’s just an awesome guy all the way around.”

Social studies teacher Mattie Kaspar appreciates Mr. Phe’s kindness and thoughtfulness.

“Mr. Phe is super loving,” said Kaspar. “He’s very caring, he always asks me how I am, and he remembers specifics about my life. He also once took me to Waffle House on a Teacher Workday and paid for my meal. It was kind of a kidnapping but it was a precious kidnapping. He was like, ‘No, I’m paying for this. You’re such a good person,’ and it was so kind. I talk to him every day. He’s such a joy, he’s such a light, and I’m gonna miss him. I can’t believe he’s leaving.”

Wardlow tells a particularly memorable story: when Mr. Phe taught him how to solve a math problem.

“Mr. Phe introduced himself to me my first year here. I was very very busy, and I still didn’t know exactly what I was doing and was trying to do my best possible job,” said Wardlow. “He comes and keeps introducing me to different math problems, and he gave me a system of equations to solve and I didn’t know what the heck it was.”

Today, Wardlow loves one of Mr. Phe’s problems and continues to use it each year in his precalc classes.

“It’s the system of equations that has to do with a hundred cans of milk and a hundred people and number of women, men and children [that each drink a different amount of milk],” said Wardlow. “He would just laugh at me when I was trying to solve it and everything, and of course now I find that it’s a piece of cake and I use it to teach the kids different representations of equations and what a dependent system is.”

Junior Iris Tsouris also met Mr. Phe through math. 

“I was doing a math competition in Ms. Tulchinsky’s room, and Mr. Phe has this reputation of giving math problems to students sometimes,” said Tsouris. “He saw me doing math because I was kind of in the doorway, and he came in and he wrote down a math problem on a napkin […] So I did it and the next time I saw him, I gave him the problem and he gave me another one and it continued.” 

For Tsouris, this means more than just math problems.

“Mr. Phe told me he really likes good students and fostering that ability in them,” said Tsouris. “Even though he’s not a teacher, he cares so much about student success and he also cares about you as a person. Sometimes, you’ll just be sitting there and he’ll give you a snack or a stack of napkins that he found. For me, since I’m a junior and I’m looking at colleges, he literally gives me magazines that have college stats in them. He tells me about Yale and stuff because I think he visited that [campus].”

Although English is not his first language, nobody can say it better than Mr. Phe himself.

“All our school and students are very good. They study, they enjoy success in school, academy and sport, and they have a lot of spirit,” said Mr. Phe. “I’m proud of this school. It’s a good school. Good students.”

Junior Claire Turney also has a great relationship with Mr. Phe, whom she first met when he was helping pick back up her campaign posters for junior president. 

“He knows my name because I would have my campaign posters up in the hall for SGA,” said Turney. “He learned my name when he was holding up one of my campaign posters […] and he was like, ‘Turney? Is this you?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, thank you for picking it up,’ because people would trash my campaign posters, and so he helped me hang it back up. Ever since then, he just calls me ‘Turney’ and I love that he knows me on a last name basis.” 

Mr. Phe also gives Turney snacks, and Turney always appreciates them. 

“He likes to give people [packaged] food because he picks it up off cafeteria tables after lunch and instead of throwing it away, he gives it out to people like sometimes he gives people napkins or forks,” said Turney. 

In addition to all the students and teachers, Mr. Phe’s supervisor and plant engineer Kenny Lyons also appreciates his hard work. 

“Mr. Phe’s a good employee,” said Lyons. “He comes to work every day and he does a good job. He likes to communicate with the students and tell the history of some of his life experiences, and overall, he’s just a nice person and a good guy.”

Overall, the Chamblee community loves Mr. Phe, and his retirement is bittersweet for everyone.

“I think he’s such an integral part of this school, and I’m just going to be extremely sad to see him go,” said Tsouris. “It’s always so nice to walk into the building and see him walking through the halls, and he waves to you and you wave to him back and you’re like, ‘Hi Mr. Phe!’ That always makes my day and makes me feel happier, so I think losing that is going to be really hard. It’s also so great to see a custodian making a connection with students.”

Turney echoes that sentiment.

“I’m really sad to see him retire,” said Turney. “I just think he’s been around for a very long time, and he always tells the stories about how his son is a doctor and went to medical school for 12 years but now he makes so much money. I don’t know if he needs to be working here. I feel like he’s pretty well off; he just does it because he’s a sweet old man. So I think he deserves it but I am going to miss seeing him around so much.”

Kaspar is also sad to see him go. 

“It doesn’t seem real because he’s a Chamblee institution, so it’s going to be really weird not seeing him every day, and he was always someone I could count on, obviously to fulfill his duties but also for a laugh too,” said Kaspar. 

As for Mr. Phe himself, he’ll be spending his retirement relaxing, staying home and reading books, but he’ll also miss Chamblee and his role here.

“In Chamblee High School, [it’s] a very good environment,” said Mr. Phe. “I made some friends here, teachers and some students. I worked here 24 years ago, therefore, a lot of students met me. If they have free time, they come see me. They make me proud of them.”