Remembering retired educator Bill Ruth on September 11

927-ruth-largeIt has been fourteen years since our nation was rocked to the core by the September 11th terrorist attacks. Like most teachers who went to school that day, I distinctly remember how difficult it was to ease the fears and distress of my students while trying to keep my own alarm and emotions under control. And now, so many years later, when I reflect upon the events of that day, I wonder if any educators lost their lives in the attacks.

In conducting some research, I discovered the story of one heroic educator: William (Bill) R. Ruth, a retired middle school social studies teacher from Maryland. After his career as an educator, Bill was working at the Pentagon as a Chief Warrant Officer for the US Army. He was in his office there when the building was struck by American Airlines Flight 77. He was one of 30 individuals on the ground who lost their lives in the tragedy. On the day of his death, Bill Ruth was 57 years old.

Bill had a long record of service to his country. He served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, where he was a helicopter pilot. He would later tell friends of the missions he flew, evacuating the wounded and the dead. As a Maryland National Guard reservist, Bill also served in the Persian Gulf War. When the conflict erupted, Bill was pulled out of the classroom and sent to the Middle East.

After his tour of duty in Vietnam, Bill earned his master’s degree and became a social studies teacher, a career that spanned three decades. Right before he retired, Bill worked at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus, Maryland.

“Mr. Ruth was my seventh grade social studies and history teacher at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus, Maryland, way back in 1995,” remembers educator Barbara Boyd Overmier. “He was the best teacher, and he made learning fun. He would bring in pictures and slideshows of helicopters he flew, and always had a fantastic story to tell. I remember being more interested in going to his class than any other. I remember him as a kind man, wanting to make sure we achieved our potential and enjoyed doing it.”

Bill Ruth is remembered fondly by many, including scores of former students. And he has left a lasting legacy to his profession. “We lost not only a great man that day,” expresses Overmier, “but our country lost a hero. He was such an inspiration to me that I recently completed my education to become a teacher so that I could touch lives the way that he did,” she discloses. “We’ll miss you Mr. Ruth, you were the best of the best!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Rebecca Pawel: High school English teacher and acclaimed novelist

I love to tell stories about amazing teachers, and one that certainly fills the bill is Rebecca Pawel, a New York City high school teacher who has published four widely-acclaimed mystery novels.

PawelRebecca Pawel  was born in 1977 in New York City and raised in the Upper West Side. She once revealed that her love affair with all things Iberian began in junior high school, when she studied flamenco and classical Spanish dance. While a teenager at Stuyvesant High School, Rebecca spent a summer abroad in Madrid. Once she graduated from high school, she enrolled at Columbia University, where she majored in Spanish Language and Literature. She then attended Teachers College to earn her teaching credentials.

Rebecca began her professional career as a teacher of English, Journalism, and Spanish at the High School for Enterprise, Business, and Technology in Brooklyn. She was employed there from 2000 to 2011. Between 2011 and 2013, she served as a college advisor for High School for Services and Learning at Erasmus Hall in Flatbush. In 2013, Rebecca returned to the Graduate School of Arts and Science at Columbia University, where she is currently working on a PhD in English and Comparative Literature.

Rebecca’s detective novels are set in a time period immediately after the Spanish Civil War. Her first book, Death of a Nationalist (2005), earned an Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author. She followed this triumph with Law of Return (2004), The Watcher in the Pine (2005), and The Summer Snow (2006), which was named one of Publisher’s Weekly Best Mysteries.

“I’ve always told stories,” Rebecca once confessed. “I dictated stories to my parents before I knew how to write them down. When I was in third grade, my dad taught me to touch-type on a Brother electronic typewriter.” The rest is history.

Teacher, explorer, cartographer, and cultural anthropologist Prentice Downes



Many fine educators have distinguished themselves in areas outside the field of education. One such individual was high school teacher Prentice G. Downes, known to his friends by the nickname “Spike.” In addition to his career as an educator, Prentice made a name for himself as an explorer, cartographer, cultural anthropologist, and writer.

Prentice was born 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of an Episcopal clergyman. After his 1928 graduation from Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, Prentice enrolled at Harvard University. Once he was ready to begin his career as a teacher, he accepted a position at Belmont Hill School, a prestigious New England prep school for boys located in Belmont, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.

Prentice was well-known for hurrying back to class in unkempt condition each fall. Between 1936 and 1947, the native of Concord, Massachusetts, made several summer-long expeditions into the sprawling uncharted wilderness of subarctic Canada. Working on a shoestring budget, Prentice would round up a canoe, gear, food, and a local traveling associate. Then he would set out for the great unknown. He was notorious for cutting trips close to the wire, rushing back to Boston bearded, tanned, and garbed in threadbare bush clothes just in time for the beginning of school.

This intrepid teacher traveled by canoe to explore subarctic areas in the Great Barren Lands and learn about the lifestyles of the Native American tribes. During his travels, Prentice kept extensive journals recording a disappearing people and a landscape unknown to all but the Canadian natives at that time. He recorded not only daily events, but also the stories and traditions of the peoples he encountered, particularly people of the Cree and Dene tribes.

In 1939, Prentice traveled from the Brabant Lake area to the Cochrane River, starting at the town of Brochet on Reindeer Lake. Without the aid of maps, the intrepid teacher relied completely on local legend to find his way to the Thlewiaza River and his final destination, the Hudson Bay outpost on Nueltin Lake. Based on this trip, Prentice wrote the travelogue Sleeping Island: The Story of One Man’s Travels in the Great Barren Lands of the Canadian North. First published in 1943, this classic adventure story received a stellar review from the New York Times for its engaging descriptions of the expedition across a rugged landscape of lakes and rivers in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and present-day Nunavut. Besides the polished and captivating writing style, Sleeping Island stands out because it documented ways of life that no longer exist.

In his later years, Prentice delivered lectures about his travels for Harvard’s Institute of Geographical Exploration. Additionally, he was commissioned by the US government to map portions of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He also became a member of the prestigious Royal Geographical society.

This chalkboard champion passed away in 1959 at the young age of 50.

High school Spanish teacher Margaret Domka doubles as international soccer referee

1683023_full-lndThere are many examples of talented teachers who also distinguish themselves in arenas outside the field of education. One such educator is Margaret Domka, a high school Spanish teacher who is also a well-respected international soccer referee.

Margaret was born August 13, 1979. Originally from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Margaret graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. For the past twelve years, she has worked as a Spanish teacher at Union Grove Union High in Union Grove, Wisconsin.

Margaret began her lifelong love affair with soccer when she was only four years old. She continued to play the sport throughout her childhood. “When I was 13, I started refereeing just as a summer job that I could have while I was in high school—a way to play soccer but have a flexible job with some money on the side,” Margaret once explained. “I never dreamed for a moment that it would take me to where it has.” During college, this exceptional athlete served as a defender on her school’s women’s soccer team. In 2000, Margaret’s senior year, the team advanced into the women’s NCAA Division III Final Four. That year, the intrepid player was named a Division III first team All-American.

After graduating from college, Margaret became the first female to officiate a game for the Milwaukee Wave. In 2007-2008, Margaret worked as a FIFA international assistant referee, and in 2010 and 2014, she worked the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cups. She also worked the 2012 Portugal-based Algarve Cup championship. In 2015, Margaret was selected as a match official for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Margaret says she feels lucky to be able to referee and still work full-time in the classroom. “I’ve been fortunate. I think that refereeing is always a very good job to have with the teaching,” she declares. “I’m very fortunate to have administrators who have allowed me to continue on this journey.”

Teacher Dolores Huerta: The Champion of the Migrant Farmworker

thLike many people who have heard of farm labor leader and civil rights advocate Cesar Chavez, I have also heard of his right-hand woman, Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers Union. But did you know that she was also an elementary school teacher?

Raised in Stockton, California, Dolores graduated in 1955 with an AA and her teaching credentials from the College of the Pacific. After graduation, she accepted a teaching position in a rural Stockton elementary school. She had been teaching for only a short time when she realized she wanted to devote her talent and energy to migrant farm workers and their families. “I couldn’t stand seeing farm worker children come to class hungry and in need of shoes,” she once explained. “I thought I could do more by organizing their parents than by trying to teach their hungry children.” After one year, she resigned from her teaching position, determined to launch a campaign that would fight the numerous economic injustices faced by migrant agricultural workers.

Joining forces with the legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez, Dolores organized a large-scale strike against the commercial grape growers of the San Joaquin Valley, an effort which raised national awareness of the abysmal treatment of America’s agricultural workers, and she negotiated the contracts which led to their improved working conditions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although there are several fairly good juvenile biographies of this extraordinary woman, there is no definitive adult biography about her. The closest thing to it is A Dolores Huerta Reader edited by Mario T. Garcia. This book includes an informative biographical introduction by the editor, articles and book excerpts written about Dolores, her own writings and transcripts of her speeches, and a recent interview with Mario Garcia. You can find A Dolores Huerta Reader on I have also included a chapter about this remarkable teacher in my second book, Chalkboard Heroes: Twelve courageous Teachers and their Deeds of Valor.