In 1979, Ray School art teacher, Marilyn “Willy Black”, was named National Teacher of the Year! The award was sponsored annually by the Council of Chief Staff of School Officers, the “Ladies Home Journal”, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The staff at the Ray School wanted to find a way to thank Willy for all her contributions to the school. She was a teacher of multifarious talents ranging from blacksmithing to being an accomplished trombonist. She was a carpenter, a seamstress, as well as an artist, a jack of all trades. Not knowing how to do something never stopped her from learning. Stefan Vogel, principal of the Ray School, said, “Mrs. Black has earned the reputation as a person who gets the job done and is a sought-after person for nearly every school project.” Though she would be the first to admit, she hadn’t done anything on her own, the entire staff at the school secretly nominated her for the award of Teacher of the Year in N.H., 1979.
It seemed to the staff that Willy put in hours thinking of ways to make learning more hands-on, more exciting and memorable. She had carried through the idea of building the Colonial House and most school wide events were sprouted from her ever-active idea box. “We didn’t really expect her to receive the award,” a colleague said, “we just wanted her to know how grateful we were to her for all she had done for the students and for us.” The staff wanted to recognize her for the kind of person who could help other people make their dreams materialize into realities.
Her ideas lead to funny and heartwarming adventures of people living, while learning. So, though the staff knew she might get some recognition from their somewhat of a “prank”, typical of what she might do to them, no one dreamed it would lead Willy to Teacher Of The Year in NH and then in the nation. However, when all stopped to think about it, where else would the trail lead but to the national spotlight, one truly shining on her outstanding qualities as a teacher and a leader.
Willy was sent to Washington, D.C. for a week of festivities to receive her award from the President. After Jimmy Carter sited all that Willy did, he said, “If I were to go back to school, I’d like to be in your class.”
While Willy was away in Washington the town mobilized. She returned home on a Sunday evening and was told she did not have to be at school until 9:00 AM. When she walked in she found everyone was gathered at an assembly in the Multi, including her parents, sister and two nieces. The children presented her with flowers and poems Some of the lines they read to her follow: “I remember how you told me what to do but would not do it for me.”
“I remember when you dyed our milk green on St. Patrick’s Day.”
“I remember when I made anything I wanted, and the rest of the class made cups.”
“I remember when you picked me to turn the apple cider press first because you said I looked so strong, like Jimmy Carter.”
“I remember when you gave out clay, you threw it at me, and it stuck to my shirt.”
At the end of the assembly the children presented her with a sugar maple tree to plant near the Colonial House. Deeply moved, Willy asked all the adults to stand and give the children a huge round of applause because they were the reason for her success. The friends of Norwich and Hanover Schools presented her with a blacksmith forge.
Then all the Ray School children were bussed downtown to join with the middle school and high school students in a parade in Willy’s honor…in the midst of a snow storm. Willy rode in a convertible driven by Peter B. Keene of Hanover.
Because the March storm continued there were thoughts of canceling the parade, but John Curtis, Hanover School Bard member said, “These are N.H. kids, and they’re use to it.” So “donned in slickers, rubber boots and rain hats, more than 1,000 students, teachers, School Board members and administrators gathered on schedule.” the April 10, 1979, Valley News reported. The students carried signs that read, “Willie Black taught me.” The Ray School teachers wore silk screened tee shirts that said, “It’s a Willie Black Day!”
When they returned to the school, Willy and her father pulled a red wagon full of apples to each classroom and presented each student with an apple, a symbol of the Steuben apple she had received from the President.
Robert L. Brunelle, NH education commissioner, said, “You might call Willie the Pied Piper of Hanover. She is a tireless leader in Hanover, involved in numerous community activities. People can count on Willie’s enthusiasm in getting town and school projects off the ground and completed. They depend on her to make good programs great.”
In June of 1980, Willy received an honorary degree from Dartmouth College. President John Kemeny read from her citation: “For her loving and tireless efforts on behalf of our children and our community,” he said, “since your arrival in Hanover neither the school system nor the town has been the same.”