Anyone who was a student of Dave Sutton at Union High School may know him better by his alias, “Mr. Wonderful.”
Sutton, who was a social studies teacher at the school for 26 years, said he was never a stickler for grammar when students asked for a favor.
But he did make them call him Mr. Wonderful, he jokes.
That name stuck and he is still referred to by that moniker when he substitute teaches, shops at the grocery store or even just walks down the street.
“That is one of the neat things about Union — there is a lot of Mayberry,” Sutton said, referring to the fictional idyllic town in TV’s “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“I can’t run into the store and not see a former student.”
Sutton is originally from Desloge, and was the last ever graduate of Desloge High School, but that is only because of his height.
He was the last person to walk across the stage, and the following year the schools in the area were consolidated.
Sutton noted that he and his wife, Paula, have known each other since they were very young.
“We met in the church nursery as infants,” he said.
Their families were close friends, but the couple didn’t actually start dating until after they had left for college.
“When we ultimately started dating and got married, there weren’t a whole lot of surprised looks,” he said.
Now the couple has been married for 40 years.
Both Dave and Paula Sutton attended Mineral Area Community College and Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
Sutton says his life is made up of small bits of trivia. One of those bits includes playing trombone in 1971 during Super Bowl V at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla.
“It was not the production it is today,” Sutton remembers.
The SEMO marching band performed while Anita Bryant sang.
Sutton graduated later that year with a teaching certificate, but he wasn’t able to teach immediately after graduating.
Before he was Mr. Wonderful, he also was called Capt. Sutton.
He was a member of the National Guard and would have been drafted, so instead, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at the tail end of Vietnam in 1971.
Sutton went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and was commissioned as an officer in 1972.
He said by the time he joined the Army, some troops were being pulled out of Vietnam, which worked in his favor.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere; I wanted to teach,” Sutton recalls.
Also in 1972, Sutton was married and landed his first teaching job at Oak Ridge High School in Southeast Missouri. There were only 26 seniors in the school that included grades seven through 12.
“I was the whole social studies department,” Sutton said.
He also served as the sponsor of the junior class, and played first trombone in the pep band.
“That is how I was introduced to education,” he said. “They were good, hard-working farm people. The salt of the earth, but the district had nothing.”
Sutton was only at Oak Ridge High School for one year when he accepted a job at Pacific High School in 1973. There he taught social studies and worked alongside Rich Sandoval.
Sandoval left to become an administrator at Union High School and contacted Sutton in 1977 to offer him a job at UHS.
Sutton began his 26-year career at UHS in the “old building” where Union Middle School now is located.
His first year at the school, Sutton was a floating teacher and moved from classroom to classroom.
Under the umbrella of social studies were courses including history, geography, government and psychology.
He also was the Student Council adviser, along with his friend Sandoval.
“From the very first year I was the STUCO sponsor — to the end,” he said. “That became a big part of my educational career.”
Not only did he help the students at school, but he chaperoned them during leadership and training sessions across the country.
“If there is anything a kid can learn about leadership, it is how to work within an organization or a committee,” Sutton said.
He added that another element to student leadership is to let the students do the leading.
“You have to give kids the power to do something,” Sutton said.
He further explained that the trips students would take, including Europe and across the country, were excellent learning experiences.
“I really felt like that was a big part of education,” he said, “and I got to travel to some pretty cool locations.”
Under his watch, students traveled to Great Britain and Ireland, Paris to Rome and then Germany to Austria.
Sutton also traveled with the school’s “Close Up” programs, which went to Washington, D.C., each year to see government in action.
He was the sponsor of the mock trial team, which practiced in courtrooms in the St. Louis area, and he was in charge of the “Citizen Bee.”
Sutton had served as the UHS A+ coordinator during his tenure at the school.
Up on Stage
Sutton also served as the UHS theater director for many years.
“Which is really strange because I never had a drama class — it was an avocation, not an occupation,” he said. “It was out of necessity. There was nobody else to do it.”
UHS did not have a theater of its own while Sutton taught at the school, so most of the plays or musicals were held at the Union City Auditorium.
“If we didn’t have a stage we would build a stage and put it in the play,” he said. “It’s easier if you have all of the bells and whistles, but if not, we would figure out how to do it.”
However there was one year that a UHS performance was held at East Central College, a place where Sutton feels right at home.
For more than 35 years, Sutton has been performing with his friend John Anglin in plays at ECC.
“I’ve done a lot of fun shows out there,” he said.
The first play Sutton performed in was “Carousel,” in which his wife, Paula, also played a role.
“One of us enjoyed it and the other didn’t,” Sutton said. “That was the last play she was in.”
Since then he has been in more than 30 plays.
“That spans five different decades,” he said.
One of the more memorable was “A Christmas Carol” in which Sutton twice played the Ghost of Christmas Present. Anglin had contacted him to play the role, as he occasionally did.
“That meant that he had a part for an old fat man who can sing,” Sutton joked.
Anglin remembers when Sutton and the late Bob Dierkes played gangsters in the musical “Kiss Me Kate.”
Anglin said during a dress rehearsal, the two actors should have worn tights that were part of a Shakespearian costume underneath their gangster costumes in order to make a quick change between scenes.
But there wasn’t a smooth transition between scenes. Anglin said he began calling for Sutton and Dierkes after it had taken too long for them to come back on stage.
“Out they come and David has one leg in a tight, the other leg is bare,” he said. “The other tight was hanging from the middle.”
Anglin noted that Sutton was an integral part in the need for and construction of the UHS Fine Arts Center.
“I like to think that David was able to get that beautiful theater at Union High School,” said Anglin. “He kept the theater (department) going and that was the reason to build the theater.
In the Community
Sutton was a charter member of the Union Kiwanis Club many years ago.
“I dropped out for several years, but I have been back in for 20 (years) or so,” he said.
He currently is serving as the club president for the third time.
“If you stick around long enough you have to be recycled,” he said.
Sutton said it is good to be part of community-based organizations, and Union is lucky to have several that do their best to serve the community.
“I think this is where I can be of some benefit to the community,” he said. “All of these groups are saying, ‘What can we do to make the community better?’ ”
Sutton also has been a member of Zion United Church of Christ for more than 30 years. He has served on the church council and sometimes sings with the choir.
Sutton is known to perform in the church’s Christmas and Easter productions as well.
During the construction of a second Habitat for Humanity of Franklin County home in Union, Sutton worked as the group’s volunteer coordinator.
After that he was asked to be on the Habitat board of directors and served for six years. Three of those years he was president.
In the 1980s, Sutton taught some classes at Unique Art Glass, a shop in St. Louis. He later was in the glass-making business himself.
“There are still a few windows I made around town,” he said.
One of those is above the entryway to Oltmann Funeral Home in Union.
After he retired from teaching, Sutton worked for the St. Louis Carriage Company driving a horse-drawn carriage through downtown St. Louis.
“It was much like teaching — telling stories and shoveling horse manure,” he joked.
Dave and Paula Sutton love to travel, and in late November they left for Hawaii with friends Bruce and Marvis Templer.
That was the 50th state the Suttons have visited.
“It was neat to be able to do it and to go with friends,” Sutton said.
While working at UHS with the A+ program his co-worker, Jamie Koch, had a baby. Paula had just recently retired and helped the young couple out by watching the child.
Jamie and her husband, Zeb, are former students of Sutton.
“We kind of stepped in and never went away,” Sutton said.
Today, they act as grandparents to the couple’s three children — Zeek, Luke and Jemma.
“They accepted us as grandparents and now we are Oma and Opa,” Sutton said.