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Maroon & Gray Society’s First Class Led by Unforgettable Teachers

by on May 18, 2018 5:00 AM

Carol Gentry will never forget her first week at State College Area High School in 1969. Especially her encounter with a venerable biology teacher.

“I’m walking down the hallway during class time,” recalls Carol, “and Hugh Hodge said with his big voice, ‘Where are you going, young lady?’  

“So I turned to him and said, ‘I’m going to my class.’

“And he said, ‘Oh no, you’re not! You’re coming in here.’ And he put me in in-school detention — sat me in his classroom — and I had to wait until the bell rang to get out.”

There was just one problem with Mr. Hodge’s “discipline.” Carol Gentry was a fellow teacher, a brand new faculty member with a youthful face, long blonde hair and a petite 5-foot-2-inch frame.  She tried to tell Hodge that she was going to teach a class, but he wouldn’t listen. “He later came to me and said he knew I was a teacher, but I don’t think he did.”

Whether Hodge was mistaken or purposely pulling the leg of a new faculty member, one thing is certain. Neither he nor anyone else at State High fully understood that an educational powerhouse was lurking beneath the teenage appearance of Carol Gentry.  And she left a remarkable impression on students from 1969 — when I met her — until her retirement in 1999.

That’s why Mrs. Gentry, as I still sometimes call her, is a stellar choice for the first class of honorees in the Maroon & Gray Society. Carol and her husband, Steve, will be recognized at the society’s first annual banquet on Saturday evening, and they will be joined by another unforgettable teacher, Marion Bressler, who will be honored posthumously. In all, seven individuals and one athletic team (the state champion baseball team of 1979) will be celebrated for their contributions to the State College Area School District.

Saturday’s dinner is certain to warm the hearts of all who attend. Although it is sold out, anyone can make a contribution to the society’s sponsoring organization, the State College Area School District Education Foundation. (See information at the end of this column.) Funds raised from this year’s banquet will go toward the purchase of new uniforms for the State High Marching Band.  

By the way, some of the band uniforms currently being worn are 12 years old; others are 24 years old. Time for some new threads?

* * *

I was stunned by my first conversation with Carol Gentry nearly 48 years ago. She, a teacher, was asking me, a student, to give her some help. And she wasn’t just requesting a little help in washing her blackboard or carrying her attendance slips to the administrative office. She wanted me and another member of the Class of 1970, Andrew Bergstein, to help teach her journalism class. Was she really serious?

I’m sure Andy was more mature than me, but I suspect both of us were sufficiently adolescent to come up with some wacky comments. Did this new teacher really want to put us in front of her 10th- graders as semi-official instructors?

Well, as they say, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and the recent education graduate from Penn State needed some help. She was prepared to teach four English classes, but she was a bit fearful of her journalism class, having never studied the subject herself. Meanwhile, Andy and I had plunged headfirst into all things journalistic — working for the Centre Daily Times’ weekly school section and editing State High’s school paper, then called The Piper.

 

First-year teacher Carol Gentry could pass for a student—whether she wanted to or not.

 

LEARNING FROM THE KIDS

“I tried to learn as much from you guys as I could,” says Mrs. Gentry. “Because you were way ahead of what I knew technically. I didn’t know from Shinola anything about journalism.”

That spirit of teachability proved to be one of Carol’s key weapons throughout her 30-year career. “Carol would listen to kids,” says Steve, her husband since 1969 and her fellow teacher during the same 30 years. “She wouldn’t portray the idea that ‘I have all the answers,’ but she would ask, ‘What do you think?’“  

Our journalism class worked out well. I think the students enjoyed the novelty of having student instructors, and when one of us started to say something that was out of bounds, Mrs. Gentry knew how to dial us back with a simple phrase like, “Now, Bill…”

“She was very sophisticated, trusting and honest,” says Bergstein, who later taught marketing in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. “She genuinely understood how you could treat students well without pandering to them.”

But it took a few years for Carol Gentry’s talents to fully flower. She still remembers sitting in the “Receiving Room,” a glorified warehouse where teachers ate lunch, and marveling over the high-level conversation.

“There were all these giants on the faculty,” she notes. “Callie Kingsbury, Hugh Hodge, Dave Clemson, Shirley Derr, Marion Bressler — all these amazingly large personalities. I would be sitting there eating my sandwich, and I realized I needed to know where the bar was and how to reach it.”

Principal Paul Bingaman no doubt saw the potential of this young faculty member, and in the fall of 1970, he placed her on a teaching team with Kingsbury, Richard Pye and Mary York. By her third year at State High, Carol sensed that her ideas were fully embraced by her senior colleagues.  

“I got stronger in being able to argue my points,” she says. “So at that point, I started feeling like I was a real teacher, and this is where I belonged.”

LEGEND RETURNS TO ALMA MATER

Unlike his new bride, Steve Gentry needed no introductions when he reported for teaching duty in September of 1969. Just a few years earlier as a State High student, Gentry had established his credentials as an amazing distance runner.

Gentry was blessed with a runner’s body — a lean frame and good lungs. But according to classmate and fellow runner Jack Walmer, Steve was also among the hardest workers ever coached by the legendary Jackson Horner.

“We were all doing Jackson Horner workouts — good tough workouts,” says Walmer. “But Steve ran every morning on his own, every morning. And Steve had a running mentality that was solid as a rock.”   

In cross country, Gentry captured PIAA state titles in his junior and senior years. But it was at the PIAA track and field championships during his senior year where he reached his zenith.  

First, he anchored the 2-mile relay team — also including Jim Dixon, Jerry Miller and Walmer — that set a national record of 7:48.8. Next, he finished second in the half-mile. Finally, when he could have felt exhausted from his earlier races, Gentry won the mile championship with a time of 4:12.4 that smashed the state record by eight seconds.   

RUNNING ECLIPSED BY COACHING

Gentry continued his running at Penn State where he did well, dropping his mile time to 4:08. But other priorities began to capture his heart. Not only did he begin to date Carol, but he focused on his future career in teaching and coaching.

“One of the things I wanted to do in life was to be a teacher, to help out people,” says the former running star. “And I thought, ‘When I’m coaching, I’m helping a whole team of people. When I’m running, I’m running for myself. What has more value in society?’“

So, after his Penn State graduation, Gentry began to “give back” to his hometown school district, not only as an outstanding junior high world cultures teacher, but also as a running coach. First, he spent three years as an assistant with the boys’ programs, and then he began coaching the girls —as an assistant for six years and as head coach for 21.

Steve soon realized he needed Carol’s help to understand the female perspective of his runners. Recalls Carol, “He came home the first week of coaching girls and said, ‘Carol, they cried!’ And I said, ‘Steve, boys kick hurdles, and girls cry.  Get over it.”

Today, Gentry looks back on his career and says, “I was a better coach than I was an athlete.” Indeed, he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Track and Field Hall of Fame as a coach, not as a runner. His girls captured five state championships in cross country and one state title (1982) in track and field. And his 1980 cross country girls achieved a level of success that can only be described as amazing. At the PIAA state championships, his squad placed seven runners in the state’s top 20, the threshold used to determine “All-State” status.


Steve Gentry during his running days at Penn State. Photo courtesy Penn State University Archives.

THE HEART BEHIND IT ALL   

Whether they were working with students in the classroom, Little Lion athletes or participants in Carol’s “Knowledge Masters” club (now called “Quiz Bowl”), the Gentrys offered an extra level of care.

“Steve and I never had children,” says Carol. “So these were our children. We probably had more love and admiration for the kids than other teachers who were great teachers but had their own kids at home.”

Among the legions of State High students who intersected in various ways with the Gentrys, Kira Walmer is one notable example. She studied world cultures with Steve, studied English with Carol, was a runner on Steve’s teams — and she is the daughter of Steve’s old teammate, Jack Walmer, and his wife, Lynn.   

At one point in our conversation, Steve is talking about Kira (“a super, super girl”) and her senior year performance at the District 6 track and field championships. Kira had qualified for the finals in both 100 yards and 220 yards, but in the 100, she pulled a hamstring and began limping dramatically. Everyone assumed she would not compete in the 220.

But Kira had another thought. She knew she could earn a point for her team by simply finishing last. And so she asked Steve if he would object to her hobbling her way through the race, so she could earn a point for her team in her senior year.

At this point in the story, Gentry pauses — not for effect, but because he can’t talk.  And he’s not the only one who’s gripped by the story of Kira. Carol has also begun to tear up as she recalls the sweet memory of a young lady who gave her very best effort in the classroom and on the track.

And so I asked the Gentrys this question. “How many of your students had a story like that, something that still makes you cry?

“Hundreds,” says Steve.  

“Easily,” adds Carol.   

* * *

Meanwhile, what do the Gentrys remember of Mrs. Marion Bressler, my Advanced Placement history instructor and one of their fellow Maroon & Gray honorees?

“As a new teacher,” says Carol, “she was one of my heroes. I’m looking at this woman and she’s teaching history like she was there… like she’s on the Gettysburg battlefield. It was incredible. I was mesmerized while watching her teach.”

On a less serious note, Steve mentioned that Mrs. Bressler often lectured with her foot resting on the metal trash can at the front of her classroom. “One day,” he remembers, “the class before her had a demonstration of food from another country, and when they were done, they just threw the leftovers in the trash. So as she spoke, her foot slipped and went into the trash can, smashing into the food. She picked up her foot and walked around the room—squash, squash, squash as she lectured.”   

Yes, Mrs. Bressler often focused so intently on her material that she ignored various classroom practicalities. But, says Steve Gentry, she certainly did not ignore the needs of other people.  

“She was one of those people who if you were to look her in the eye, she would really listen to what you were saying.”  

TEACHING WITH FLAIR

Woodrow Dietrich was one of my classmates in the 1968-69 AP history class, and he nominated Mrs. Bressler for recognition by the Maroon & Gray Society.

“She loved history, she loved teaching, and she was an excellent teacher,” says Dietrich. “She had this dramatic flair in the way she would lecture and sprinkle in her anecdotes. And she had some funny characteristics, too. For example, she had a fear of audio-visual equipment. She would get very flustered if any little thing would go wrong, and one of the students would have to take over.”

Marion Bressler was born in Nanticoke, Pa., in 1921, married her husband Leo in 1948 and moved to the State College area in 1951 when Leo was hired by Penn State as an English professor. From 1951 to 1959, she also taught at Penn State and provided history tutoring for future pro football stars Lenny Moore and Milt Plum.

But it was at State High, where she taught from 1959 to 1983, that Marion Bressler became a legendary figure and where she created her legacy. And I have to say that a good portion of that legacy just happened to be found in our AP class.

STUDENTS AS PART OF HER LEGACY  

Francis Fukuyama is certainly part of that legacy. He was a major contributor in Mrs. Bressler’s classroom, and he did pretty well for himself after leaving State High. Fukuyama earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell in classics and his PhD from Harvard in political science. He is the author of various books including The End of History and the Last Man, and he has worked at think tanks associated with Johns Hopkins and Stanford.

Francis used to produce a monthly column for our aforementioned school newspaper — something akin to Shakespeare writing skits for “Saturday Night Live.” I was theoretically responsible for editing Fukuyama’s work, but you can’t edit what you don’t understand. Let’s just say that Fukuyama was flying a few galaxies above my ken, and a bit of that brilliance must have come from our own Marion Bressler.

Mrs. Bressler’s second child and only daughter, Ann Lee, was another member of that AP history class. Ann Lee is now an American historian in her own right, having taught at Davidson College, and her husband Robin Barnes, taught European history at the same institution. They have two children. Meanwhile, Ann Lee’s brother, William, is a retired physician in Huntingdon; he and his wife Linda, have three children.

When asked to summarize her mom’s life, Ann Lee said that Marion was a “wonderful mother” and noted that “she was such a tower of strength that I knew I could always count on her.”  

Marion Bressler became a legendary figure as a devoted and caring State High history teacher.

HER LIFE’S BLOOD

“When I think of my mother,” says Ann Lee, “I picture her as a teacher. Long after she retired, she would wistfully say how much she missed teaching and how she would gladly return to the classroom. Teaching really was her life's blood, something that she believed could connect her to students of all backgrounds.”

And, adds Mrs. Bressler’s daughter, “She really was a character. Her hair was hardly a coiffure (usually a pen or pencil stuck in there), her clothes at times wrinkled, and she once came to school with two different-colored shoes. She was the female version of the disheveled, absent-minded professor. Although she would ‘dress up’ for social occasions, vanity didn't enter the picture when it came to her teaching. She had an important job to do. When I actually did have to face my classmates in AP history, I was relieved to see that they actually respected her, and in many cases, even had a lot of affection for her.”

* * *

The Gentrys say they were “shocked” and “very, very honored” to be selected as Maroon & Gray Society honorees. Ann Lee Bressler says that her mother, who passed away in 2013, “would have been delighted but humbled by this honor.”

As for me, I consider myself blessed to have known the Gentrys and Mrs. Bressler through my experience at State High. Having been away from Happy Valley from 1974 to 2013, I missed out on the contributions to our community and schools by the Society’s other honorees — Matthew Berrena, Joe Boris, Bob Drafall and Rich Victor. But something tells me that they are equally deserving of our appreciation, just as the Society is deserving of our financial support.  

For those who wish to donate funds toward the replacement of those aging band uniforms, checks can be sent to: SCASD Education Foundation, 240 Villa Crest Drive, State College PA 16801. Or donations can be made online at scasdfoundation.org.



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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