‘Train Whistle Substitute’ reflects on 60 years of teaching


Credit: Aysen Tan/The Foothill Dragon Press

Kienna Kulzer

Sam Marsh may be 86 years old, but he has no plans to retire from teaching anytime soon. Known by most as the ‘Train Whistle Substitute,’ this is his sixtieth year of teaching.

“Some people may wonder why I still want to teach; why not just retire? I still teach because you students keep me young,” Marsh said. “Some people think you teenagers are going to the dogs. I think you are the hope for the future.”

Growing up, Marsh wanted to be a linotype operator, but changed his mind after serving in the army. He is a World War II veteran and a Korean Police Action veteran. He was drafted to Korea right after high school when he was eighteen years old.

“It was quite a shock to the system. I had never been more than 50 miles from home and all the sudden, I’m clear across the world in Korea,” he said.

He became the Sergeant Major in the Department of Internal Security of the United States Army Military and Government in Korea in 1946. At that time, the job of the Department of Internal Security was to start up, recruit, and train the South Korean Army and Coast Guard. Although he did not enjoy the experience, he said that is was an interesting to be involved in and actually helped him later as a teacher.

“I hated the army, but it did give me some feelings of confidence about being able to ask somebody to do something and find that they would do it […],” he said. “I was always a shy, non-leader type in high school, except in the shop. There I became a leader.”

He got his first teaching job at Ventura High School after he returned from the army.

“The first year of teaching was pure hell. I had a bunch of bums. They would throw type and steal and do all kinds of things. This was in 1954. Some of them would have [eye] pupils that would be just pinpoints. Doing drugs in those days was somewhat uncommon, but I had the kids that were doing them,” he said.

“I just about decided that first year that, ‘Hey, it’s not worth it. I’ll go back into industry.’ But being naive, I guess, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll stick it out one more year and if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll go into industry.’ Well, every year got better.”

He found that he did not enjoy teaching printing or typing very much, but loved his driving instruction classes. It became his main subject for the majority of his teaching career.

“I was just happy as a clam to go to school every morning because hey, I get to teach driver training again. I get to see the happy looks on the faces of kids. I had patience with the kids because I’d had a terrible time learning how to drive myself. I had a collision at the age of 16 learning how to drive,” he said.



Marsh said one of the most shocking experiences he had as a teacher was early on in his career, when police officers asked to come into his class and arrest one of his students, who had allegedly shot someone during the lunch break.

“He [the student] and I didn’t get along very well, obviously,” he said. “The other students in the class were very curious. So was I. That was one of the reasons I went into the principal office and became a full time driving instruction teacher.”

He taught driving instruction at Ventura High School for 37 years, while also teaching it for a while at Ventura College and at a UCSB extension program.

Foothill Principal Joe Bova remembers having Marsh as a driving instruction teacher while he was in high school.

“Mr. Marsh was very dedicated to making sure kids knew driver safety. He used to wear these tie pins that would match what we were learning in auto safety. They would have things like stop signs on them,” Bova said.

“I remember there was this driving simulator and so of course we would try to crash the car on purpose, and he’d get mad at us. I was a typical Ventura High School boy athlete. I would mess around a lot in school. I probably didn’t take Drivers Ed as seriously as I should have.”

Marsh has taught hundreds of students in his teaching career.

“Parents have changed and society has changed, but kids are still basically the same. A lot of good kids. That’s why I’m still around. If there were not a lot of good kids, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve had the opportunity to see the whole gamut of kids in driver instruction because everybody had to take it at that point in time or they wouldn’t get a license, so everybody took it,” he said.

For Marsh, one of the highlights of being a driving instructor was a traffic safety drive that took place when President Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, with about 25 schools invited to participate. Teachers had to pick the best driver’s education student, then fly with them up to Sacramento. The drive was from Sacramento to Los Angeles.

“There was a girl that we chose as the best student. They had to have a certain grade point average. This girl was named Marsha Caunt. She drove in one car with a teacher watching every move she made. She tied for first place. That was the high-point of my career,” Marsh said.

Marsh became a substitute teacher in 199l, a few months after retiring from his full-time job as a driver instruction teacher at Ventura High School.

“I found that I missed the social aspect of teaching,” he said. “I found myself going to lunch at the cafeteria at Ventura High, and I figured, ‘Well, if I’m going to be here anyway, I might as well get paid for it.’ So I started subbing.”

Marsh started using his signature train whistle after he retired from full-time and became a substitute teacher. He bought the whistle at a museum he visited while on an antique train ride in Washington state.

Foothill freshman Niko Ford said that students around campus know Marsh by the signature train whistle he always carries.

“He’s the most memorable sub I’ve ever had,” Ford said. “Just, the train whistle. If you mention the train whistle, anyone I’ve met knows who I’m talking about.”

Marsh is a life member of the California Association of Safety Educators, the National Education Association, American Legion, and Veterans in Foreign Wars.

“As long as my health is good, I’ll be subbing. I have no plans to retire other than if my health becomes such that I can’t do it,” he said. “I love kids. I love seeing them progress. I love having them recognize me on the street and saying, ‘hey, Mr. Marsh, you taught me how to drive.’ Or, ‘Hey, Mr. Marsh, you still got your train whistle?’”

“I have a feeling that kids are the hope for the future. As I say, I’ve had doctors and lawyers and legislatures and teachers. There are some teachers at Ventura and I think probably Buena that are former students of mine. It’s a very rewarding career in that we have an effect by what we do on what is going on in the future,” Marsh said. “I think your generation is going to make me proud to be your teacher.”

Background Photo Credit: Aysen Tan/The Foothill Dragon Press

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