Teacher Louie

Were you fortunate enough to have at least one special teacher? Many of us enjoy such a treasure.

My special teacher, Louie Mihalyi, died recently. He lived and taught in the speck of a village, Glenfield. In the sparse North Country of New York State. Those who attended his funeral learned one secret of his success. More about that later.

Louie taught biology and chemistry with clarity. That was important to a student, like me, who was intimidated by science.

He taught with precision. This came, I believe, from his preparation. Every school morning he rose at 4.30 to prepare his lessons for the day. He did this to the day he retired.

He disciplined us with the wisdom of a master. First, he made most students feel he believed in them. He expected a great deal from them. He knew they were capable of more than they put out. And so, the greatest punishment for many of us was his disappointment. Any sign we had let him down.

Other teachers shouted. Some strong-armed us. Some marched us to the principal’s office. Louie calmly asked me to leave class and stand in the hallway. I saw disappointment embedded in his face. This was all he needed to do to plunge me into shame and regret.

Our school was tiny. Only 16 in my graduating class. Some felt we were clinging to shreds of civilized living on a frontier. Yet Louie helped us feel we were as immersed in the world of science as we would be at any school in the country. And his kids passed the big exams in great numbers.

Yes, he retired from teaching. In a school. But he never stopped teaching.

He wrote a weekly article for the Watertown Times. In it, he taught us about creatures of the North Country, from insects to bears. He taught us about the flowers and trees, lichen and rocks. He taught us about the birds, common and rare.

He taught us about the history of the area. The fires. The storms. The Hungarian settlers of the 1920’s and 30’s, his father among them. The French of the 1700’s. Life in the village, even the ice cream shop of his youth. The loggers and those who cooked for them deep in the Adirondack forests. He taught us some of what a boy with a curious mind and encouraging mother could explore. He taught us we are all connected - every living thing to every living thing.

Whenever I visited in summer we toured his huge gardens. He never stopped teaching. “This is a new variety. Supposed to give us bigger tomatoes, but it looks to me as if it’s more prone to insects.” “Here’s a good way to mulch.” “We have a bit of an infestation, but they only hatch once every so many years.” “I tie them up this way, ever since I learned...”

He taught us how he nursed birds and animals back to health. He taught us how to get birds to eat from your hands, perch on your shoulder.

He taught us by example to keep fit. By walking, hiking, cross-country ski-ing until the last of his 85 years. He taught us a few secrets of a solid marriage. By his gentle endless collaboration with his Bernice. And by the respect he showed for her feelings and thoughts.

He taught us to think of others. Once my wife and I arrived with our tribe. His many grown children happened to be home. We spent a delightful afternoon of garden and talk and lunch and talk. And talk. As they farewelled us I asked about his mother. He revealed she had just died. The funeral was one or two days before our visit.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Well, we have been mourning. We didn’t feel it was fair to inflict you and these happy children with our sadness. So we decided to avoid the subject while you were here.”

Everything I note above contained lessons precious as gold to me. I realized that if you were prepared to keep learning he was prepared to keep teaching.

The secret? One of his former students said at the funeral “He made me feel there was no other student who could be as important to him as I was. I think he made most of us feel that way.” A great lesson in that, too.

He certainly made me feel that, as a student, and later as a friend. The dearest words he ever spoke to me were “You’re a part of our family, you know.”

In some societies people honor teachers they deeply respect by addressing them as “Teacher Emily” or “Teacher Art” for as long as they live. Even newspaper stories will identify them this way.

If it was my job to fashion a tombstone for Louie Mihalyi I believe it would begin with “Teacher Louie.”

I hope you were so fortunate to have such a teacher.

From Tom ... as in Morgan.

For more columns and for Tom’s radio shows (and to write to Tom): tomasinmorgan.com.

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