Louis Kokonis, beloved math teacher, dies at 91

Louis Kokonis, beloved math teacher, dies at 91
Louis Kokonis with his younger brother, Nick, on one of their trips. (Photo/Angie Hylton)

By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

Alexandria City High School math teacher Louis Kokonis died January 4 at age 91. He worked in the school system from 1959 and taught until his death.

Kokonis is the longest-serving teacher in the history of Alexandria City Public Schools. He joined the school system in 1959 at Francis C. Hammond Middle School before moving to the high school math department.

A Washington, D.C., native, Kokonis grew up on Shepherd Street with his twin sister, Matina – who died in 2009 – and his younger brother, Nick, who is 86 and living in Maryland with family. He never married and had no children.

Anyone who crossed paths with Kokonis – whether it was a student, colleague or family member, remembers him as a kind, understanding man. To friends and family, he was known as “Lou.”

Anne Williams, a student of Kokonis’ for three years from 2016 to 2018, said she was inspired by his teaching to become a teacher herself. Currently, she is studying in England to become a physics professor. 

“He gave me the opportunity to help other people in the [Algebra II] class,” Williams said. “He was always there to help after school if you needed it. … I felt very appreciated by him.”

Williams recalled many of the times in his classes she would turn around and help students or would attend many of the Advanced Placement exam review sessions where Kokonis provided pizza, bagels or donuts.

Anne Williams, a former student, learning from Louis Kokonis in his classroom. (Photo/Anne Williams)

“It was always amazing to be able to work with Lou,” Martin Nickley, a fellow math teacher at ACHS who worked with Kokonis since 1981, said.

“The number of times that [other teachers] would go in and talk about clarification of a subject or a topic with him, because we knew that he would know. … His focus was on his students and they [were] most important to him, and helping them to gain success was the most important thing for him.”

Nickley said Kokonis had a way of connecting with students and assisting them with any questions they had.

“What he did in that building on a daily basis for all those years was the most incredible thing because he honored the profession and was so dedicated,” Nickley said. “I think [he’s] just such a shining example to all of us in that building of how you approach this career and how you approach this profession, and that by choosing this profession, you’re putting the students first and wanting to put the students first and wanting to do all that you can to help them to be successful. And that’s what he did every day.”

Another former student, Shannon Auth, who took a math class with Kokonis in 2002, said there was a noticeable difference in Kokonis’ energy in class every day compared to other teachers.

“You could tell what teachers were there just showing up for work every day … and you could tell that he was one of the teachers that just loved what he did,” Auth said. “I mean, he just loved it. You could see him light up anytime you would ask him a question, it didn’t matter. There was never a stupid question. There was never a wrong question.”

Louis Kokonis’ most recent Alexandria City Public Schools photo. (Photo/Angie Hylton)

Auth said as a shy person, she treasured Kokonis’ understanding for not wanting to be called on or pressuring students for participation.

“You had to pay attention in class because he spoke almost at a whisper at all times,” Auth recalled. “He didn’t push me out of my comfort zone and didn’t mind if I saved my questions for after class so that he could help me in an environment that was more comfortable for me. He helped me in that way to be more confident in my math skills and … just feel safer in the classroom.”

She said although she would not one day become a math teacher, Kokonis’ passion inspired her to pursue what she loved.

Kokonis’ niece, Angie Hylton, said some of her earliest memories are the Saturdays where he would take Hylton, her brother and their three cousins to the park.

“Of course when we were at the park playing, he would just be on the bench grading all his papers,” Hylton recalled. “He would always volunteer so the parents could get a break.”

She said he always accepted food as gratitude for his time and never turned down a plate of cookies or spaghetti. During his time in the military, he loved to deliver food and often took other shifts to grab extra, according to Hylton. She also said in the past 10 years, Kokonis has regularly traveled with her and her husband, Andrew, and Kokonis’ younger brother, Nick, across the country.

“They liked to go out west, see Colorado, California, Wyoming, all those states,” Hylton said. “It’s been very fun having older gentlemen in the backseat. My husband and I are driving down the road and just listening to them chat in the back.”

Hylton said Kokonis loved the mountains and taking photos of the outdoors. She recalled several times where Kokonis worked to get the perfect shot of canyons to take back with him.

“He just loved the scenery, and it must be because he was in the city teaching every day,” Hylton said. “He just loved the openness of the wilderness. It was very calm and peaceful. We even tried to get him to go to … Tennessee or one of those places and he said, ‘No, it’s not the same. I’m telling you, the Grand Canyon and all those places out there, the rocks are much better.’”

Hylton also recalled a time in Las Vegas when her children accompanied them and were at a hotel with many antique cars to look at. She said the whole family saw a different side of Lou that day.

“It was fascinating listening to some of the stories he told us about the old cars,” Hylton said. “My son was really into them too, so it was fun to watch. And my husband does cars too, so it was good to see them all connect. He was so loving and caring and so much fun to be with.”

Even at 91, Kokonis was white water rafting with Hylton and her husband this past summer at Snake River, Wyoming.

Louis Kokonis, seen with his camera, took photos of the outdoors and stayed adventurous until his last days. (Photo/Angie Hylton)

“We were all suited up with our little life vests and just kind of rolled down, and there were some little rough rapids, and we held onto him, but he was so excited. He was so happy to be out in the free open back on the river,” Hylton said.

Hylton also said the family was not aware of all of Kokonis’ teaching awards and recognition he received for his service at ACHS. She said his modesty and love for teaching led him to downplay many of his accolades. She wasn’t aware of his impact until his death and going through his belongings.

“I’m coming across all sorts of letters [from former students],” Hylton said. “One gentleman was a lawyer who wrote back to Lou, he said that even though he didn’t go into mathematics, he sat down with his boys at the kitchen table to go over math and all that stuff flooded back all the learning lessons, and he was able to help his kids because of what Lou instilled in him.”

Bridget Kelley – now known as Bridget Bailey – echoed this. Kokonis was her Algebra II teacher in 1987; before his class, she was never great at math and was nervous entering the course.

“I had not done particularly well in Algebra I and here I was going into Algebra II,” Bailey said. “Mr. Kokonis was very patient and he explained things in ways that made sense. He was very soft-spoken, but he was able to command the attention of the class and he made sense with his teaching.”

Now, as a fourth grade teacher, Bailey said she loves teaching math to her students.

“I know that I did not feel confident in math before I had him,” Bailey said. “My confidence really did go up. … I like trying to show [my students] them different ways to get where they need to go and to help build their confidence and realize that [math] doesn’t have to be a foreign language.”

Kokonis is survived by his brother, five nieces and nephews and many grand-nieces and nephews. ACPS will be holding a celebration of life Wednesday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. On January 19 at noon, the family will be holding a funeral service at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. In lieu of flowers, the family requests any memorial contributions be made to the Louis Kokonis Scholarship fund.