Happy 105th birth­day to a beloved teacher of life’s lessons

The Phoenix - - OPINION - By James F. Burns Colum­nist

Happy Birth­day, Miss Merz. My for­mer teacher cel­e­brated her 105th birth­day in late Oc­to­ber. I’m near­ing 80 my­self but am still learn­ing life’s lessons from my teacher.

My fam­ily’s ties to teach­ing be­gan in 1808 when Dan Hos­brook turned a log cabin into a sub­scrip­tion school (par­ents paid a penny a day or some such fee) to teach read­ing and writ­ing. One day the stu­dents came early and nailed the door shut, “bar­ring out” teacher Dan. Dan’s an­swer was to cover the chim­ney, forc­ing smoke back into the school­house. The door was quickly opened — teach­ers are re­source­ful prob­lem solvers.

When my grand­fa­ther, Charles Wil­son Burns, en­tered the teach­ing pro­fes­sion in the 1890s, he pos­sessed a four-year de­gree from a teacher’s col­lege. He needed every bit of that ed­u­ca­tion to teach chil­dren ages 6 to 17, the youngest learn­ing to read and write, the old­est learn­ing civics, his­tory, sci­ence, and math. And C.W. taught all of this. But with a fam­ily of five to sup­port, pal­try pay fi­nally forced him out of the teach­ing pro­fes­sion. C.W. be­came a mail­man, de­liv­er­ing let­ters, not lec­tures. Teach­ers are prag­matic.

And then along came Miss Merz, even do­ing some of her early learn­ing in the same red­brick build­ing where C.W. had ear­lier taught all grades. But by the time Miss Merz grad­u­ated from Hanover Col­lege in In­di­ana in the mid-1930s, pub­lic schools were in the era of school boards, bond is­sues, and state stan­dards. And even McGuf­fey’s Read­ers, long the na­tion’s text­books, had been re­placed by newer meth­ods and ma­te­rial.

Miss Merz taught English — and good man­ners — at our small town­ship school in Ohio. My ed­u­ca­tion was suf­fi­cient to get me through Michi­gan, Columbia, and MIT. Mean­while, Miss Merz had de­cided to re­tire at age 60. And that’s when she re­ally be­gan to teach me, show­ing by ex­am­ple that teach­ers have lives be­yond the class­room and that re­tirees no longer sit in rock­ing chairs and watch the world go by.

Miss Merz got mar­ried. She moved to Florida with her new hus­band. She learned to fly an air­plane. I had al­ways thought of Miss Merz as re­served. Yes, she re­served the next 45 years of her life af­ter re­tire­ment to show that rock­ing chairs are out of date.

Miss Merz — she now al­lows me to call her He­len, and we visit on the phone reg­u­larly — logged thou­sands of hours fly­ing her plane solo, even af­ter her hus­band passed away. She fi­nally landed for the last time at age 93 but con­tin­ued driv­ing her car un­til age 102.

And now Miss Merz is turn­ing 105 and an­swers the phone promptly when I call, of­ten telling me that our so­cial stan­dards of ci­vil­ity have sunk. She hears words in the pub­lic dis­course that once were con­sid­ered vul­gar. In con­trast, she is and al­ways has been a model of deco­rum, de­cency, and re­spect for oth­ers.

Miss Merz also loves to rem­i­nisce — She re­calls tak­ing the train to New York with three friends for the 1939 World’s Fair, a huge ex­trav­a­ganza whose motto was “The World of Tomorrow.” It was the year I was born, and not even Miss Merz could have fore­seen that her Great­est Gen­er­a­tion would have to rise up and risk all we had

to save the world from dom­i­na­tion by the Axis pow­ers.

Miss Merz knows that teach­ers con­tinue to learn and to teach, both out­side the class­room and be­yond re­tire­ment.

She still lives by her­self and man­ages to make three meals a day and pay her credit card by mail. I’m not shar­ing her mar­ried name to pre­serve her pri­vacy.

But, that said, I think she de­serves a shout-out of “Happy Birth­day” from all who value and re­spect the teach­ing pro­fes­sion — and re­siliency in our se­nior cit­i­zens. Miss Merz is one in a mil­lion — and one of a mil­lion and many more who teach our chil­dren.

Thank them all.

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