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Lynn Wilson: Everyone deserves to learn

By Staff | Jul 17, 2009

Lynn Wilson

The profession of teaching offers two certitudes about which there can be no debate. One: A good teacher is a treasure. And certitude two: No one goes into teaching for the money. As John F. Kennedy said “Modern cynics and skeptics… see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”

I’ve often wondered what it is that lures a person into the teaching profession. From where does that passion for nurturing a young mind come? What gives some people the desire and ability to make a positive and lasting difference in a child’s life? And what makes a teacher a magnet for children? A pint-sized philosopher known for her cut-to-the-chase observation of truths, Lily Tomlin’s six-year old alter-ego, Edith Ann explained simply. “I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.”

Lynn Wilson is a good teacher. Most know her as the Shepherdstown Day Care Center Board Chairman, but that’s not who she is. That’s what she does right now and right here.

Lynn Vogel was born and raised on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Her parents, Edith and Lester, had both graduated from Cornell during the Depression when jobs, worthy of prestigious degrees, were hard to come by. Lynn remembers her childhood as colorful and intense. “It was the ’40s and I took the subway everywhere. You wouldn’t dream of sending an 8 year-old out alone to do that today. But we all did it then and it was safe. We were independent and safe.” Eventually Lester Vogel bought a store on the Upper West Side. His store was located between Central and Riverside Parks and he moved his family “uptown.” Lynn and her sister, Louisa, graduated from Julia Richmond High School.

Lynn was a voracious reader and decided on English as a major at the State University of New York in Buffalo. That’s SUNY to you and me. There she met and befriended Buffalonian, Peter Wilson. The boy possessed a wicked sense of humor, had a great smile and was very sharp. So what’s not to like? At the same time Lynn, admittedly an unfocused English Major, needed a job and found one as a teacher at Head Start. It was the beginning of the Head Start movement and the concept of giving really young children from less than privileged families a leg up on Kindergarten was almost unheard of. A spark was lit. Lynn, remembering this experience said, “I found myself at Head Start.”

Research has proven that early childhood education matters.

“Everyone was energetic and well-meaning and full of innovative ways to engage the mind of a young child.” Lynn soon found her major interest was the mind of the atypical child, the one that for many reasons – shyness, slow learning capacity, ADD & ADHD (before they named it), lack of verbal skills – “just didn’t fit in.” “School is a tough place to be,” said Lynn “It requires fitting into a social box and for some children it’s especially difficult. It’s important for teachers and parents to make allowances and accept the differences. We have to teach the children who aren’t having as difficult a time to accept the differences of those who are.”

Lynn and Peter did fall in love but that wasn’t until Peter was in the doctoral program at Duke. So they married in ’66 and settled into the educational world of Durham where “We also raised pigs and chickens and tomatoes,” Lynn recalled. Maybe it was an alternate career path, I don’t know, but it wasn’t necessary. They both graduated from Duke, he with PhD in Philosophy and she with a masters in Educational Psychology. During the two years there, Lynn was the head teacher in the Psychology Department Preschool.

Upon graduation Lynn became the educational director, child psychiatry department therapeutic nursery school at the University of North Carolina. Then, while Peter was picking up a management degree at the University of Michigan, Lynn became an Instructor at Milliken University in Decatur, Ill. From there it was to the Decatur Public School system as a special education consultant developing and implementing a program for emotionally disturbed children.

In 1981 Lynn got her PhD in education at the University of Michigan.

That was the beginning of a long career focused on one goal: Making the lives of little children better, richer, more fulfilling. All children were in her sights but especially those with a learning disability. Eventually her major interest became the cause and effect of autism and the autistic child. Her work was multi-faceted.

She worked as a teacher in psychiatric hospital schools, as educational coordinator in children’s psychiatric hospital schools, as college instructor of education, director of educational child care centers. Meanwhile the Wilson family was growing. Daniel came along first and then lovely Leah was born.

Last year the world stopped for the Wilsons. Leah was riding her bike in Brooklyn, N.Y., when she hit by a car (the driver didn’t stop) and spent months in the hospital with some pretty terrible injuries. When her mother talks about Leah it’s with a sense of overwhelming gratitude. “The accident was very bad, but it could have been so much worse.” Today Leah is not without some reminders of the accident but she’s working on a Master’s in Behavioral Ecology at William & Mary, living in Williamsburg and doing fine. Daniel graduated from John Hopkins and is working on his dissertation for a PhD in English from Cornell. He’s writing from Montreal, where he lives with the fair Heidi Arsenault.

Peter Wilson’s career in education and heath care has been varied and impressive. His work has included the University of Michigan and Millikin University faculties, and as SVP of the Michigan Hospital Association. In the early 90s Peter became the VP for Policy at the American Hospital Association. There, as an expert on the cost of hospital care, he played an active role in the last run at health care reform.

They settled in Bethesda and Lynn spent her days with Fried & Sher, Inc in Washington, DC where she served as team leader for the development, management and evaluation of child care centers. There, she also provided multi-week educational consultation and training to child care center, school-age and family child care teachers and administrators at Air Force bases all over the world, the CIA, US courts and FAA countrywide. The list of presentations and workshops Lynn’s held cover everything from positive behavior management techniques to anti-bias multicultural programming to choosing a quality early childhood program. Her activities and certifications include a wide range of education organizations in several states. Among them is her work as an adjunct professor at George Mason University.

In 2002, the Wilson’s retired from the daily grind but continued to consult in health care, education and finance; and they moved to Shepherdstown. “We selected Shepherdstown for its charm, its proximity to DC, and for the Tow Path,” said Lynn. “But mostly because it was a small town that offered the possibility of being an active part of a community. We had lived in cities and rural areas but never in a small town.” And a part of the community they did become.

In 2004 Peter ran for mayor of Shepherdstown and won. According to Lynn “He ran because he wanted to be an active and useful member of our new community; and felt that given his training and experience, he could be.”

Meanwhile, Lynn had found the Shepherdstown Day Care Center. Today she is the long-time president of the board. “Our goal is to provide affordable, quality care for any child who needs it.” She said. “Shepherdstown is very supportive and our board is phenomenal.” Passionate about the little center on East German Street, she also terms the board “dedicated, committed and generous.” Not wanting to single out individuals, she found she had to.

“Keith Boyd has been the chef at the center for 20 years. He went to school there. He’s full of soul and heart and is a wonderful singer. Former students come back just to hear Keith.” Melissa Holman is another name I heard. “Melissa was a classroom teacher for many years before the board picked her to become assistant director.” said Lynn. “In a seamless transition she was voted director two years ago.” Lynn said “Melissa has a “kids come first” administration.”

And finally a really nice story went like this. The late, and much loved, Keith Knost was deeply involved in the look of the interior of the Center’s new wing project, completed in 2006. Eric Sundback stepped up and said he wanted to do for the outside of the Center what Keith had done for the inside. As the Center had gotten a grant for a new parking lot and playground renovation, Eric, true to his word, went to work raising additional funds, landscaping the project and donating his time and trees. Keith would approve. The continual support this community gives its Day Care Center, from a major landscaping adventure to the hotdog cart at Street Fest, is remarkable and appreciated. FYI Those hotdogs were great.

The Wilson’s love to travel and to learn as they go. New Zealand, Latin America, Spain, Granada, are a few of the places in which they’ve stayed to explore and learn the language. They have homes in Arizona and Nova Scotia and downtown Shepherdstown. Just up from the library on S. King Street, which I must say is the address of some of the nicest people I’ve met, is chez Wilson. It’s one of those homes where you know instinctively its okay to get comfortable. It’s warm, full of books and art and has a southwest pallet. The backyard, “Peter’s project,” is my favorite. Like the house it supports, this is a private yet welcoming, flower-filled expanse of flagstone and natural beauty – with a swing.

Though Lynn’s “retirement” is taken up grant-writing and fundraising to fill the gaps in the budget, she finds lots of time for reading and friends. Lynn and Peter love the Press Room, the Tow Path, the Meck and concerts at Shepherd. And they both love the fact that no matter how far they travel there’s this wonderful feeling of community when they return.

Lynn’s cerebral interests are wide and varied but her heart belongs to her family and teaching. As she said “School is tough and the best teachers accept the differences in children. And they teach the other children how to make allowances for those who don’t quite fit in.” How many of you wish your children had a teacher like that? Me too. Lynn Wilson is a wise teacher, and as Kahlil Gibran wrote: The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.

– Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award winning screenplay writer