December 1995

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Thank-You, Miss Relihan!


Robert F. McNamara

Of Role Models

Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, "I am a part of all that I have met." The reverse is even truer. Let us phrase it, "All that I have met is a part of me."

How very much of our own individuality—our mindset, our habits, our phrases, even our gestures—is something we have acquired from others, consciously or unconsciously. Although each of us is one self, we are clothed in a patchwork of others.

Chief among the "others" are parents. Next in influence are our teachers, the casual as well as the professional. When we were young, perhaps we viewed them as enemy; now we appreciate them as genuine friends.

Thoughts of my own teachers have been generally grateful, but my words of praise have been all too few. I have therefore resolved here and now to make some amends at least, by expressing public thanks to my past instructors. I single out one to receive laurels for the rest.

E pluribus unam. She was Miss Elizabeth M. Relihan.She taught English in the public schools of District No. 9, Corning, New York, from 1891 to 1941.

When I started researching this little testimonial, I turned first to the Relihan obituary in the Corning Leader of August 17, 1959. It was helpful but only minimally. (I am not a feminist, but I can only rejoice at the recent increase of interest in women's biography. In my various historical studies I have too often encountered in newspapers spacious obits for the hims but niggling notices for the hers, even the more influential of them.) The story of my subject is of added interest because she did not come from the Anglo-Saxon background that used to produce most American schoolmarms, but from upwardly mobile Irish immigrant stock.

Elizabeth Relihan was born on May 13, 1872, in Gang Mills, a woodmilling center on the Tioga River just south of Painted Post, New York. She was one of the twelve children of Timothy and Mary Powers Relihan. The parents were presumably from the south of Ireland, and the father was presumably a lumberman in a local milling industry that dated from before the Civil War. (The John Relihan of Gang Mills listed in 1854 as a parishioner of the nearest Catholic Church, St. Mary's, in Corning, may have been Elizabeth's grandfather.) But by 1872 the Tioga River valley was running out of trees, and the large plant at Gang Mills would eventually cease operations in 1885.

When the gang saws ground to a halt, many of the Gang Mills employees accepted the invitation to migrate to Michigan, where there were still forests to be indiscriminately felled. The Relihans chose rather to move to nearby Corning, and Elizabeth M. attended Corning Free Academy. By the time her high school class of 13 graduated in 1891 she had decided to follow a teaching career. Academic credentials for teachers in elementary public schools were still pretty relaxed in the 1890s. A normal school certificate was not yet demanded, to say nothing of a college degree. One learned to teach by being tossed into a schoolroom. So young Miss Relihan was assigned in fall 1891 to Grade Five in School No. 1, which occupied a portion of the same building on the corner of Walnut and Third that housed the high school. Thenceforward she would serve at one or another school of District No. 9 until her retirement, except for one year, 1905-1906, when she was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. True, she taught in 1894-1895 and 1896-1898 at the school attached to St. Mary's Catholic Church, a laywoman surrounded by Sisters of Mercy, but it was still as an employee of the public school district. In 1865 the parochial school had been aggregated to the public system by local agreement, so that all its teachers, both lay and religious, were salaried by public funds. St. Mary's thus became Corning's "School No. 2," and retained that status until 1898, when New York State put an end to such arrangements. The school house then reverted to parochial rank, and Miss Relihan was relocated to another public grammar school

I have not been able to discover whether Elizabeth ever won a college degree. It is quite likely that she did so eventually. Although she was never absent from Corning during a full schoolyear (apart from the sojourn in New Mexico, which may have been for health rather than for study), she spent eight of her summers between 1892 and 1921 at institutes of higher education: Geneseo Normal (now SUNY Geneseo); the Chautauqua Institute; the University of Colorado; and the Teachers' College of Columbia University. Thanks, therefore to broad teaching experiences, regular updating, and most of all a genuine educational charisma, she won a reputation as a quality figure in the Corning school system. The Board of Education recognized her competence on two particular occasions. When the new School No. 3 was opened in 1910 on the corner of Fifth and Pearl Streets, the Board chose her as its principal. In 1923, when Corning Free Academy acquired its handsome new home on Third Street, she was promoted to what would prove to be her terminal position: teacher of elementary English and vice-principal of the Junior High.

Another more "practical" aspect of Elizabeth's own education should not go unmentioned: her career as a proxy mother.

Neither she nor her older sister Katherine, a quiet little dressmaker, ever wed. One of their brothers, Timothy John Relihan, a conductor on the Erie Railroad, married Ellen Danaher, who bore him two sons, Robert Emmet (1911) and Richard T. (1914). Ellen died shortly after Richard's birth, leaving T. John's sons motherless. The Relihan trio agreed to live together at 37 West Fourth Street, with the two sisters, but Elizabeth in particular, as surrogate mothers for Ellen Relihan. Raising these bright, lively lads at home was a different task from educating their likes during the patterned school hours, and this may have been one reason for sending both to St. Mary's School rather than to a public elementary school. Still, the experience quite likely helped the otherwise bookish schoolmarm to gain some valuable insights into the psychology of boys, and to better appreciate the problems of parenting.

The Relihan Persona

Now I must describe to you the subject of my tribute, outwardly and inwardly.

I guess that Miss Relihan was of medium height, but being trim and straight as a ramrod, she seemed taller. In clothing she favored a tailored look, although not to the exclusion of a few gracious feminine touches. What caught the gaze at once was her remarkable face. Ivory in tone, it was remarkably sculptured, with a wide brow, high cheekbones, firm but expressive lips, and jet black eyes, discreet yet quick to sparkle with enthusiasm or humor. She wore her hair rather short, backswept and wavy, in a style that was unusual but appropriate. When therefore, she walked down the corridor at C. F. A., her every movement bespoke dignity and poise. "Queen Elizabeth," one of her students used to call her. The elements that made up this public personality were no doubt partly natural, partly acquired. In any case, they become a woman committed to educating youngsters by example as well as words.

So, at least, I recall her appearance and manner, and the favorable impression they made upon the student body. However, I wanted also to consult with some others who had been under her tutelage. I felt that they could not only confirm my fading mental portrait but perhaps provide me with anecdotes about her educational practices.

It is not easy, I discovered, to round up a passel of septuagenarians and octogenarians, or to trust fully their fifty-year-old high school recollections. Still, I collected a half-dozen or so witnesses, most of them now living far from Corning. My mini-survey gave me enough data to show how they regarded her and how they remembered her in action.

How did they regard her?

"She had class," one of the witnesses wrote. The others agreed completely: "Sweet and gentle and much loved." "One of the best and most admired of Corning educators." "Unforgettable!" "Not only a good teacher but a very fine lady." "They don't make them like Elizabeth Relihan any more."

Some declared her role in shaping their own character. "She influenced me," said one, "in spite of my preoccupation with showing off." "She had a tremendous impact on my life," said another.

But how about specifics? What teaching skills did Elizabeth have that won so grateful a consensus?

In the first place, one of her former pupils pointed out, "she made learning interesting and fun." That implies that her teaching techniques were acute yet unobtrusive.

Now, the primary duty of a teacher of elementary English is to communicate thoroughly the mechanics of our complicated tongue, its correct pronunciation and its grammar.

In pronunciation, Elizabeth set a standard of diction that later generations of Americans seem seldom to have attained. (She even pronounced with Anglo-Gaelic precision the clan name of a student named McMahon: "Mc MAA-hun.")

In grammar, again something poorly taught of late, she insisted that all know the rules of sentence structure backwards and forwards. Parsing was therefore a mandated task. Her former students recall (now with gratitude) this necessary torture. One of her "old boys" today, at the very mention of Miss Relihan, sees himself at the blackboard diagramming subjects, verbs, objects, adjectives and adverbs, prepositional phrases, clauses and other parts of speech. Only when you can compose a knowledgeable sentence, she insisted, can you proceed to create paragraphs that have "unity, coherence and emphasis."

To create a paragraph that says something intelligibly, you have to practice. Elizabeth naturally assigned compositions to her youngsters and reviewed and corrected them. Especially commendable was her follow-through. When she thought an individual student was catching on, she was prompt to say so, not only to the writer but to the parents. Once, for instance, she telephoned the mother of one of my "witnesses" to praise her daughter's latest essay. Most of her pupils, she said, begin every paragraph with the same words. Not your daughter. She started sentences in a variety of ways, making her composition more readable. To Helen, the author in question, this shared praise by her teacher remains a happy seventh-grade memory. The teacher probably contacted many parents to say good things about their children's work. It was an exercise of academic conscience, both shrewd and responsible.

Miss Relihan also acquainted her classes with the techniques of debating, another medium that gave them practice in research, thinking, and public discourse. She herself judged each debate, and explained the reasons for her decisions in a follow-up critique. Commenting on one such contest, she told the class that in her opinion Miss B. had won. She herself had agreed, she said, with the views of Miss A., but thought that the winner had presented more and better arguments.

Skill in thinking, writing and speaking English had to be nurtured, of course, by an acquaintance with the classics of English literature. Elizabeth R. was an able literary interpreter. The assigned readings were usually Victorian masterpieces calculated to elevate the minds and touch the hearts of ardent juveniles. (After all, an educator should educate, not merely instruct!)

One of her former students has indelible memories of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's minor epic Evangeline. Miss Relihan made this sad, romantic story of the Acadians' exile come alive with her well-informed running commentary.

There was, in other words, a "mothering" atmosphere in the Relihan classroom. One of the alumnae wrote me that she still often visualizes the English teacher "moving quietly and gracefully around her room from student to student." "I truly believe," she said, "that she loved and cared for each one of her students and that all of us were a part of her 'family'."

And what about discipline?

If we hear today many complaints about disorder and even violence in our junior and senior high schools, student discipline was only a minor problem in the period 1923-1941. Social tradition, faculty demeanor, and family expectations made serious misbehavior on campus an almost unthinkable scandal.

The same correspondent recalls only a single case of indiscipline in her elementary English classroom; and the teacher handled it with ease and despatch.

One of the boys had a bright, perhaps a brilliant mind, but a cocky attitude and underdeveloped civility. Once, when Miss Relihan was lecturing, this student (let's call him Jim) rose and began to argue with her.

"I have not finished yet," she said, quietly but firmly. But Jim continued to haggle.

"Jim," she replied, "I said I am not finished yet. You are interrupting me."

"But Miss Relihan…"

Not raising her voice a bit, she rejoined, "Jim, you are just plain rude. Sit down and let me finish. If there is more to discuss with me, you may see me after class."

"Needless to say," my informant added, "it wasn't Miss Relihan who lost stature that day."

The mini-survey, to my pleasure, confirmed my conclusion that Elizabeth Relihan was indeed a model teacher: one who truly loved her pupils and kept pressing them to live up to their potential. Few kids maintain contact with their former teachers once they have left school. The fact that many did call on Elizabeth after her retirement in 1941, shows, I think, that they always felt at ease with her and knew she would be interested in their careers. On May 23, 1945, Sgt. Richard T. Relihan was killed in the World War II Battle of Okinawa. Miss Relihan seems never quite to have recovered from the loss of her nephew and junior foster son. Her former students joined Dick's friends in expressing to her their deep sympathy.

Elizabeth continued to live at 37 West Fourth even after the death of her sister Katherine in 1953 and her brother T. John in 1956. Indeed, she moved to the nearby rest home, Pinecrest Manor, only three weeks before her death on August 15, 1959.

The Motivator

Those that I polled agreed, then, that their teacher was truly an educator. And what was my own experience with her?

Actually, I never had her in class. I attended all eight elementary grades in St. Mary's Parochial School; and although I passed my four years of senior high school at C. F. A., in my day she taught English only in the junior high school. But I had long since known her "extramurally" while in grammar school, and I continued that association "extracurricularly" while in high school. Have we not all learned a great deal from "pedagogues" outside the school walls?

I first met Elizabeth Relihan through her nephew Robert Relihan. He was my classmate and friendly rival in St. Mary's Class of 1924. It was Elizabeth's custom in the early 1920s to invite Bob's and Dick's contemporaries into their home from time to time for birthday parties and on other such occasions. Thus I came to know the low-lying little Relihan house in detail, from its off-side front door to its curious back gate. Inside, if I recall rightly, were the first Japanese prints I had ever seen, and I was fascinated by the "study"—the first "den" I had ever encountered.

I think we must have formed a young people's club under Elizabeth's tutelage. I know that she introduced us to the classic club manual, Robert's Rules of Procedure. We also chatted much with her about good literature. I remember well her account of Robert Louis Stevenson, referring to him by his Hawaiian nickname, "Tusitala, Teller of Tales." Her glowing descriptions of the American Southwest entranced us. But she gave us practical instruction as well: how, for instance, to pull molasses taffy. There was nothing patterned about her "home lectures." The information just spilled out in the course of conversation and we, relaxed and docile, simply absorbed it by osmosis.

Two aspects of Elizabeth Relihan's informal "tutoring" had a small but definitive impact on my own future.

The first learning episode was when she introduced me, when I was still in grammar school, to St. Nicholas: A Magazine for Boys and Girls. Few today will recognize this children's periodical, for it ceased publication in 1937. But from 1873 on, when the Century Co. of New York established it, the St. Nicholas served elementary school children well as an introduction to English literature, and it was a ready tool in the hands of English teachers like Elizabeth Relihan.

St. Nicholas Magazine not only featured new stories, articles and poems by professional writers; it also had a department that challenged young readers to try their own hand at prose and poetry. Publication was promised to the most able contestants.

One month, Miss R. suggested strongly that I enter the competition. Ever open to her recommendations, I said I would. This was probably in 1923. In the current issue, the Children's Editor had proposed a poem on the subject "The Inland Shore." Now, I still have no clear idea of what an "inland shore" might be. Nevertheless, I blithely dashed off a verse that at least rhymed and was, for better or worse, my own. How eagerly I waited for the following issue.

When it arrived, I flicked through at once to the end section. Was I published? Fortunately, no. But the Children's Editor did give me "honorable mention." "Honorable mention," then a pat on the back, was to me, I tell you, as sweet an encouragement as the Nobel Prize would have been. Those two heartening words launched me on an extensive side career as an historical essayist. Furthermore, Elizabeth Relihan had shown me by her example the fruitfulness of encouraging others to put to work their natural talents.

The second learning episode was Elizabeth's bird walk. This took place when I was in high school, probably in April 1925 or 1926.

One spring day before the trees on Spencer Hill had begun to leaf, Miss R., Renaissance person that she was, announced a voluntary Saturday bird walk open to all C.F.A. students. I signed up, along with a dozen or so boys and girls. We rendezvoused at 5:30 A.M.

Instead of taking the Spencer Hill Road that spiralled slowly up to the hilltop, we climbed vertically the steep wooded slope, led by our valiant preceptress-in-low-heels. Since the branches were still bare, we were treated during the ascent to clear glimpses of a host of less familiar birds, which she identified expertly by their plumage, songs, and flight. Chickadees, nuthatches, orioles, and indigo buntings were there, for example, and, most eye-catching, a gorgeous scarlet tanager: all praising in morning song, as the poet puts it, "God's re-creation of the new day."

Panting, despite our youth, at the end of a busy climb, we were led across the hilltop highway to a sunken meadow that cupped a deep little pool fringed with lush new grass.

"What is this?" we asked, mopping our brows. "A spring," she said. "Refresh yourselves. It's perfectly pure."

We plopped down on our bellies and greedily slurped up the cool clear water. Never had plain water tasted better. And never had I felt so akin to the natural world!

After a few minutes' rest we set out for home, this time by the roadway. As we walked down the residential streets after our strenuous two hours, it was almost a shock to see people only now bringing in the bottles of milk from their doorsteps.

Indoorsman that I am, I never went bird watching after that; yet I hold the Relihan expedition as a precious memory. What I remember most vividly is the spring. I went back some days later to revisit it but failed to find it. I did not try again. It was more pleasant to let it remain shrouded in mystery as a magnificent lost vision. A decade later novelist James Hilton would give me a name for the vision: a "Shangri-La" experience. That day Elizabeth Relihan had introduced me to the universe.

Few human beings are as powerful as the teacher. If he is so minded, he can utterly destroy his disciples. But if he is humble as well as knowing, he can play a major part in molding young people into responsible, creative adults. Miss Relihan played a positive role in helping me to discern my native gifts and in encouraging me to develop them.

I said that I intended to single her out as the recipient of the garland of praise that I owe to many more who helped me to round out my own personhood. Let me name some of them so that their spirits may know that the crown for "Queen Elizabeth" is also theirs.

In thanking Elizabeth, I thank you also, old friends and exemplars long since passed on. Dear Sister M. Gerard Carroll, my first grade teacher, and Sisters Carmelita Walker and Loretta Daly, of grammar school. Misses May Waterbury, Dorothy Veysey and Elsie Clute, and Superintendent Sherman L. Howe of high school. College professors Theodor Maynard and Francis Burke, S. J. University teachers Fred N. Robinson, George L. Kittredge, Jeremiah D. M. Ford, Louis J. A. Mercier, and poor Dr. Murray Borrish. Theological professors Arthur Vermeersch, S. J., Sebastian Tromp, S. J., and Ludwig von Hertling, S. J. And, outside the classroom, Fr. Leonard Feeney, S.J. and Msgr. John Tracy Ellis.

These, kind readers, whether you recognize their names or not, were my other Miss Relihans.

And who were your Miss Relihans? Think back on them, too, with a fond thought and prayer.

They are a part of the best of you.

© 1995, Robert F. McNamara
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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