Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Still ahead of the class

Former students honor teacher on her 100th birthday

By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

WILMINGTON - They still call her Mrs. McDermott.

Even though it's been 70 years since they had her for a teacher at Montgomery Elementary, her former students still can't bring themselves to call her by her first name. They respect her that much.

So when they sing "Happy Birthday" to her today as she turns 100 at Cape May Retirement Village, they won't dare call her Jane.

Mae Alice Langhorst kisses the forehead of Mrs. McDermott while thanking her for her gift of teaching.
(Enquirer photo/MICHAEL E. KEATING)
"I called her Jane just now for the first time. And it felt very strange," John Murdough said Monday afternoon as he patted the hand of his former third- through-eighth-grade teacher.

Mrs. McDermott shook her head and smiled.

That Johnny Murdough, the look on her face said, what a rascal. Hasn't changed a bit from the days when she taught him and swatted his backside.

When Murdough first met Mrs. McDermott, America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Montgomery was rural. Kids learned reading, writing and arithmetic in a three-room schoolhouse.

"Montgomery was just 500 people," said 82-year-old Clarence Hammel, a retired insurance executive and another former student visiting Cape May to deliver birthday greetings. "Everyone knew everybody in town."

Everyone knew Mrs. McDermott. Her dedication to her students is the stuff of legends.

When school funds ran low in the Depression, she paid for the uniform of the basketball team's seventh member. That was Murdough. He went on to a 55-year career running the business end of the Cincinnati Reds and later, the Bengals.

She volunteered to tutor pupils to help them pass the high-school entrance exam.

Before every tutoring session, she issued this warning: "I haven't had a student fail yet. And I'm not about to start."

Mrs. McDermott spent 33 years at the school. Many times, she did triple duty as teacher, coach (baseball and basketball) and principal. Often earning $100 a month.

"You weren't worth your salt," she said, "if you didn't make $100."

She made more than money. She made a difference in countless lives.

"She was revered," said Hammel's 81-year-old sister, Mae Alice Langhorst.

She was also feared.

"She was stronger," Murdough said, "than any Mother Superior."

And just as handy with the paddle.

"One day this kid sitting next to me, Tarzan Forste, misbehaved," Murdough recalled.

Out came the board of education, Mrs. McDermott's trusty paddle.

Whack! Tarzan got his seat warmed.

"Whack him again," Murdough suggested.

Swinging over the row of desks, ala Tarzan of the Jungle, she gave a whack to Murdough instead.

"That meant I was going to get a swat when I got home," he added.

Mrs. McDermott didn't tell his parents. No need. News traveled fast then.

"Talk about the speedy Internet," Hammel said. "We beat that."

His sister remembered the day just before lunch, when her brother was mesmerized by a dogfight outside the classroom window.

When Hammel didn't sit down as soon as Mrs. McDermott ordered, he got a swift pat on the back.

And his sister beat him out the door and ran all the way home to tell their mother.

Everyone laughed at this story.

Barely suppressing a grin, Mrs. McDermott still wanted to be the teacher in charge of her students. So, she tried to hush the laughter with a wave of her hand.

"They come out here and tell the awfulest tales you ever heard," she said. "Most of them don't have a word of truth to them."

Students have been visiting her since 1933, when her first class graduated from Montgomery Elementary.

"If you were having troubles in high school or later," Murdough said, "her door was always open."

That sentiment is expressed repeatedly in two scrapbooks. Former students have filled them with reminiscences, yellowing class photos and brand-new birthday cards in honor of her becoming a centenarian.

Jack Fogle wrote from Duluth, Ga., about how she let him fix the classroom windows when he was 14. That opportunity led to a career as a carpenter building landmark roller coasters at Kings Island.

"I owe you many thanks for everything you taught me," he wrote. "P.S. I don't chew tobacco anymore."

Mrs. McDermott also holds her former students in high esteem. When she moved from Deer Park to Cape May in May, she expressed some misgiving to her great-niece, Sharon Dome.

She was unsure about staying at the retirement home. "It's too far," she protested, "from my family."

Dome reminded her that her immediate family was gone. Her husband, Leo, died in 1986. Their son, Tommy, died in 1989.

Mrs. McDermott set her straight. She wasn't talking about her husband and son.

She meant her students.


E-mail cradel@enquirer.com

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