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Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Friday, May 13, 2011

And one of the awards goes to ...

If a high school senior carefully studies all the college scholarship opportunities that are available, he or she stands a good chance of getting financial help, with tuition and other expenses.

But when the Adele Knight Fund was started to honor the beloved former Latin teacher at the former Willoughby Union High School, the committee was well aware it would be difficult to raise enough money to provide attractive scholarships.

So we decided to take the somewhat meager funds that were available and move in a different direction — one that would surely appeal to the best instincts of the classy classroom maven who devoted the best years of her life to instructing pupils in the intricacies — should I say mysteries? — of a most challenging subject in the vast Willoughby-Eastlake School District.

We decided it would be a great idea to honor a top teacher each year at North and South high. (Yes, it took two schools to replace the former Union High. But that’s another story.)

Thus was born the Adele Knight Excellence in Teaching Award, with the winner selected each year not by us committee members, but by the teachers’ own peers at the two high schools.

They surely know better than anyone else who the great teachers are. And since 2000 they have been doing a terrific job of selecting award winners. Every one chosen has been an outstanding example of precisely the kind of people it takes to bring out the best in our young citizens.

Each winner received a plaque and a check for $500 at a school awards assembly.

For the first five years, we honored only one teacher each year — alternately from North and South.

Beginning in 2005, we became a little more flush, financially speaking, and we honored an outstanding teacher from each school.

I would like to introduce you to this year’s winner of the Adele Knight Award from North High. Because of space limitations, I will tell you about the South High winner next week.

Mary Slak, the North High recipient of the award this year, has been a teacher for 35 years. Throughout that time, her abilities and dedication have earned her the admiration and respect of her fellow teachers. the North High recipient of the award this year, has been a teacher for 35 years. Throughout that time, her abilities and dedication have earned her the admiration and respect of her fellow teachers.

During those 35 years she has taught children of all ages, from grade four through 12.

Most of her career was spent in Catholic schools in Cleveland, and all of it was spent teaching English Language Arts. She also spent two years teaching English as a foreign language in Slovenia.

The last 10 years of her career have been spent at North High, where she has taught English at all four levels.

(I would have loved being in her classes. Teachers who were kindest to me in high school, grading-wise, were Maggie Meyers, Florine Fels Carroll and Cleo Sawyer — all English teachers. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Adele Knight too. But for two years, Latin was a complete mystery to me. But I digress.)

Mary Slak also directed plays for the Drama Club and coached Academic Decathlon. And if you have followed the news reports for the last several years, you know how well the Willoughby-Eastlake kids have done in this grueling competition with other schools.

Here is what one of her North High colleagues, Bill Kennelly, had to say about Mary:

"She comes in every day and quietly does an outstanding job. She keeps to herself, and when I find her alone she is always reading, grading or working with a student. She was my teacher and she still is my teacher.

"She is a teacher who inspired me to become a reader of the classics: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Kerouac, Twain, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, to name a few. Before Mary, I thought a classic was a ’57 Chevy.

"She not only taught me how to love the classics, but she also taught me how to say "I Love You" in Croatian so that I may say "I Love You" to my wife in her native language.

"Thank you for being my mentor and for your sage advice. In a day and age when it is fashionable to blame educators for our social ills and government debt, you make me proud that I chose this vocation."

Those are touching words, Bill. I will forgive you for leaving out my version of classic authors: Thurber, Benchley, Perelman, Cuppy and Shulman (the first person to say "But I digress").

Next week I will introduce you to the South High award winner, Alison Grant.

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