Teacher's former students honor her as she turns 90

February 17, 1992|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,Chicago Tribune

WHEATON, Ill. -- She was one of those high school teachers you never forget, an inspiring instructor who went out of her way to learn about her students' lives outside the classroom.

In her class, she pushed them to excel.

She never married. The only "family," as she called them, she had besides six siblings from rural Iowa were the thousands of students who passed through her English and literature classes at the old Wheaton Community High School, now Wheaton Central, from 1929 to her retirement in 1965.

They called her Miss Felgar.

Grace Felgar's 90th birthday was Friday, and more than 100 former students chipped in to bring her to Wheaton from her retirement condo in Pompano Beach, Fla.

Among her more famous students are Washington Post investigative reporter and editor Bob Woodward (Class of 1961) and White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner (Class of 1956).

They did not make the festivities, but they said they have not forgotten Miss Felgar.

Miss Felgar taught as if she were "a drill instructor," Mr. Woodward said in a telephone interview. She required students to read a book a week -- including the "Iliad," the "Odyssey," and works of 19th century English and Russian authors -- and then participate in panel discussions on them.

She challenged students to think of the world in terms beyond "the classic, small-town, Midwestern environment" of Wheaton, he said.

At the party Friday night, Miss Felgar, greeted with a rendition of "Happy Birthday," exclaimed, "Oh, isn't it marvelous. It's just like old times."

About 35 former students attended the party. One of them, Gloria Henderson Vear, a 1948 graduate, drove 4 1/2 hours from her Hillsdale, Mich., home, with her husband, Bud, a 1944 Wheaton graduate.

"She was tough, and she didn't accept anything but the best, and she was fun," Ms. Vear said. "She was one of those teachers who could walk out of class and she'd come back and no one had made a sound. You don't see those teachers anymore."

Miss Felgar could offer no special formula for her success with students. You have to be interested in them," she said. "You have to make them realize they all have special talents and abilities.

"You help them understand all the marvelous things going on in the world, and they're just as capable as anyone and they have to work for it. Sometimes you reach them and sometimes you don't. Somewhere along the line, they understand."

Miss Felgar retired in 1965. She said she wouldn't want to be a teacher today.

"I'm glad I'm not in teaching today. The way that kids behave and they don't pay attention to school, and I think parents are greatly responsible," Miss Felgar said. "It's not right to blame teachers for the way children behave."

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