A wave of sadness swept through the region a few weeks ago when it was learned that famed Westminster West teacher Claire Ogelsby had died at her home in Brattleboro. She was 77 and lost a battle with cancer.
Claire was born Claire Marion Hildebrandt on February 5, 1932 in Montclair, NJ. She first taught in the Brooklyn Community Woodward School in Brooklyn, NY, and married Albert "Mac" Ogelsby in New York City in January 1956.
In 1959, she and her husband bought land on Windmill Hill in Westminster West, after spending a summer assisting friends in the construction of a boys' camp.
As her daughter Alice wrote, "basically, my parents fell in love with Vermont, found an old farmstead to buy and joined the 'back-to-the-land' movement.
"Their move was made possible as both were offered jobs at the Grammar School in Putney. They were part of the initial staff and started work there in 1960 the same year they moved to Vermont.
"They lived in a tar paper shack for about a year while my father built a log cabin from trees cut on the land. The cabin was completed in 1961."
She would soon begin teaching in a one room school house in Westminster West, where she would teach for over 30 years, not retiring until 2002. She would remain the sole teacher in this small school, famously transforming it into whatever the focus of study was for the year, whether a rainforest or China.
I had known Claire only casually, but her reputation as an outstanding educator was something I heard about constantly. At one time I had close friends who had their son, Tobin Demos, go to the Westminster West school due to Claire's reputation as an outstanding educator. He would be one of hundreds of students on whom Claire had a profound, positive impact.
"We all remember Clair's interest in every student she had," Tobin recalled. "It had a lasting effect. In fact students would often come back years later and thank her personally. Her students went in many directions. Some became athletes, others went into politics and business, many became positive role models. All because a kind woman felt it was important to know us all."
As one person told me, "She is remembered by her students, too, for her interest in nature, including her insistence that they spend recess outdoors, sometimes in the woods, no matter how hard it was snowing."
Her skills and passion as an educator became so well known that she was the subject of a documentary by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater, The World in Claire's Classroom, which was shown last Wednesday night in Westminster West. She was named Vermont's Teacher of the Year in 1970 and awarded an honorary degree by Marlboro College in 1996.
She never stopped teaching. Her daughter said she was part of a teacher's center that provided mentoring for new teachers, she traveled all over the country sharing her ideas on teaching and worked with Windham County reads and other area organizations devoted to a love of books and learning.
Alice also shared with me some other comments that were shared with her when her mother passed away.
"As you know, she was extraordinarily beloved in Westminster West, Brattleboro, Vermont and beyond."
"She taught kids, and then their kids, never losing her spark, humor, creativity or way-beyond-anything-you-could-expect dedication."
"The impressive thing about Claire was that she passionately valued every child. She managed always to find something a child responded to and build on that.
"Also impressive was her skill at dragooning parents, miscellaneous citizens and anyone who happened by into coming to the school and sharing their lives and skills with her students."
"She was an inspiration to countless teachers and to many young people who might never have though about becoming teachers."
One of those teachers was Amy Young Harlow, a student who would become Claire's friend and fellow teacher. Amy sent me the following note about her relationship and memories of Claire.
Claire was my teacher, my mentor, my friend. She believed in me and taught me so much about being a teacher who believes in the goodness of each child.
Memories of Claire go back to my earliest days when I went as a 4 year old to day camp at her little log cabin up on the hill. I remember the long hike through the mown fields to the lollipop tree where we truly believed in magic. I went to Claire's one room school house in 1966 for just a couple of months before my family moved to Brazil for a year. I still have the letters all the students wrote to me from Claire's classroom. I remember sitting at the Stookey's pond with Claire entertaining us with commentary about our swimming techniques!
Claire encouraged me to become a teacher, I spent every college vacation in her classroom volunteering and observing her as a teacher. Claire's recommendations helped me to get my first job as a teacher and I would turn to her often for advice and a shoulder to cry on.
Claire loved to gossip! I knew all I needed to know from her when it came to the struggles with administration, opportunities for new jobs, who was getting a divorce, and who had moved into town.
My sons, Ryan, Seth, and Tyler all had the fortune to spend the beginning years of their education in Claire's classroom. She told them she was 109 and they believed her . . . she also figured out how to get them to rub her shoulders while she was reading to them! Claire came to the boys birthday parties, she came to dinner when it was time for a parent-student conference.
I'll never forget her smiling face at my concerts and her love and her genuine caring about my family. When my father died, Claire attended a small memorial I had for him on Lowell Lake where you had to hike in to find the spot! Of course she was there . . . she was always there.
The last words she said to me were at the Westminster West School concert in May . . . "How is Tyler?" she asked, knowing that he had ridden his bike across the country. I knew at that time she did not have long in this world, but I knew also her love for life and learning would be with me forever. I will miss her terribly, but will know each and every day that she will be there, in my classroom, in my little village of Westminster West, in the lives of all who knew her.
Amy Young Harlow
Photos Courtesy of Claire Ogelsby's Family