Retired Loyola professor charged in fatal shootings

Man, 70, swallows pills after wife, stepson killed in Pa. home, police say

April 27, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz and Mike Bowler | Julie Bykowicz and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SHREWSBURY TOWNSHIP, Pa. - A retired Loyola College reading professor whose colorful classroom style promoted the merits of phonics to hundreds of Maryland teachers was recovering yesterday from an apparent suicide attempt after he allegedly shot to death his wife and her son.

Donald B. Hofler, 70, is accused of killing his wife, a 48-year-old Harford County elementary school teacher, and her 17-year-old son Sunday afternoon in the family's home just north of the Mason-Dixon line, according to court papers.

Hofler apparently shot Rita K. Hofler and Kevin J. Gehring, took about 100 tablets of Valium and called his son from a previous marriage to tell him what he had done, the court papers state. Trooper Douglas D. Miller of the Pennsylvania State Police said Hofler admitted to the shootings in an interview Sunday evening at York Hospital, where he was taken after troopers stormed his house about 5 p.m. that day.

Hofler was in satisfactory condition last night at the hospital, where he was being watched by prison officers, authorities said. A York County judge arraigned him Sunday night in the hospital room on two counts of criminal homicide, a precursor to what could become first-degree murder charges, state police said.

Parents of Rita Hofler's first-graders at North Bend Elementary School in Jarrettsville were asked to accompany their children to school yesterday morning, a teacher said.

"The kids were told that a tragedy happened, but we tried not to dwell on it," said Susan Healy, a fourth-grade teacher at the school.

Healy called Rita Hofler "the kind of teacher who made the other teachers in the school wonder what her secret was." She said her own students would frequently ask if they could visit with Hofler in the morning.

"They would always come back with a big smile on their faces," said Healy, who was at times in tears talking about her colleague, who had been with Harford County Public Schools for 20 years and North Bend since it opened in 1991.

"Rita Hofler helped to make our school a special and better place," Principal Steve Hardy said in a statement released yesterday afternoon.

According to police and friends of the Hofler family, Hofler said he was distraught and on medications after his wife recently moved in with another man. He had asked Rita Hofler to come back to the house Sunday to talk about her intentions to end the marriage, one friend said.

Close friends said they had tried to keep Donald Hofler's spirits up after the separation.

"He wanted to know why. He thought he'd been a good husband," said Robert Peters, a former colleague at Loyola. "I went up Thursday night. He hadn't been eating very well."

An authority on the history of the English alphabet, Hofler lectured with a dictionary at his right hand and took great pleasure in discovering obscure words. He called himself an "abecedarian," a seldom-used word to describe a student of the alphabet.

"He was a wordsmith. He loved the dictionary. His classes were always delightful," said Karen Peiffer, a reading resource teacher in Anne Arundel County who took classes from Hofler in the early 1980s.

A trademark of Hofler's was the memorable way he began each course. He would stand at the chalkboard and write upside down and backward - with both hands.

Hofler taught reading teachers at Loyola College for 27 years and was named professor emeritus on his retirement in 2000. Hofler urged reading teachers to use phonics, a method in which people learn to associate letters with the speech sounds they represent, in their classroom instruction.

"When you think of the number of lives, both teachers and kids, [Hofler] has touched over the years," said Peters, "this is just a true tragedy for everyone, starting with Rita, Kevin and Don and those 22 or 24 kids in Harford County who've lost a teacher."

In Shrewsbury Township yesterday, students at Susquehannock High School mourned the death of Gehring, an 11th-grader who loved to shoot black-and-white photographs and hoped to study photography in college.

They signed a long, white banner hung over his locker, No. 709 near the school's gymnasiums. Some of the memorials read like yearbook entries - "I love ya, Kevin," - others asked, "Why?"

After school, 11th-grader Ben Fair wandered outside the single-story Penny Lane home where his best friend had been killed. The neighborhood is called Strawberry Fields. Fair peered into Gehring's black two-door Grand Am, parked in the driveway, and lingered on the front lawn despite the steady drizzle.

"I just wanted one more remembrance," he said, "one more stroll around the house."

He said the two regularly would drive into York, where Fair would skateboard and Gehring would skate in empty parking lots.

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