Sunday, April 19, 2009

For Ursula

I attended a memorial service for a colleague today who died suddenly. When I got home, I told my husband that I wished he had come with me because it is exactly the kind of service I want for myself.

Here's why. Let's start with the fact that my colleague was a member of a beautiful, non-denominational church where, according to one of the pastors, "room is made for all beliefs." The service referenced Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. The choir sang two rousing numbers, "rocking the house" just as Ursula would have wanted. A trumpet solo was played by the same friend who played at Ursula's wedding three years ago. And the speakers (except for brief remarks by two pastors) were Ursula's family and friends. Everyone (including the pastors) spoke genuinely about their memories, sense of loss, regrets and appreciation. Two of her brothers sang and played a traditional Puerto Rican Bomba at the end of the service.

I knew Ursula as one of the caring, dedicated social workers at the high school where I taught. I learned a lot more about her at the memorial service. She was exactly ten days older than I am. She has three lovely daughters and is herself one of six brothers and sisters. She has three grandchildren and many nieces and nephews. Her first career was "banker" but she changed to social work. I'm not sure how much of a change it was though, because her family and friends had always sought her advice, help and honest criticism, which she gave generously.

She developed projects to deal with problems she became aware of from her work...especially reducing violence in the lives of NYC teenagers. I wish I had become involved in some of those. She loved dance and music and was a talented painter (several of her paintings were displayed at the service). She was a great cook. She was known to paint and redecorate entire rooms in a single afternoon. She had inexhaustible energy. I remember that energy! She always followed through on promises she made to faculty and students and was a stickler for details. She was never discouraged by the bureaucracy within the NYC school system, she just figured out ways to speed it up or get around it.

Her family asked us to share stories about Ursula among ourselves. Please feel free to do that here.


Anonymous said...

When 9/11 happened I went to Ursula about running a program for our members who had endured a stressful day. She jumped right on it, including a faculty event the next day back and counseling sessions for our members in small groups. Ursula knew that there would be some members who who be deeply impacted. She was right. She also later shared with me that she felt that George Bush was emotionally unstable and this frightened her given his military power.
I agree with you Suzanne. I know that if this had happened during a regular school week there would have been many more faculty members there. As is, there were easily 40 current members and another 30 friends of Washington Irving present. It is indisputable. Ursula cared a great deal about our kids. This is a focus that I have found is not only the recipe for social change but to happiness in our profession. Ursula was honest and that was not always easy to handle. But her level of maturity and professionalism meant that our students respected her and her colleagues as well. We will miss her.

- Gregg Lundahl, Chapter leader, Washington Irving High School

Anonymous said...

I first got to know Ursula as a young teacher in my first or second year at Irving. We attended a conference together in Albany on technology in the classroom. Though I didn't learn much from the conference itself, I learned much from the people I attended with, particularly Ursula, about how empathy could inform my teaching. She was the first person of many I have met since who seemed to carry a sense of Compassion to school that was genuine, contagious and lovely. She was a model of attitude and rubbed off on many of us.

Over my years at Irving I have referred many students who needed help to Ursula and have been inspired again by that Compassion many times. The cases that many of us have no idea what to do about, the ones that were frightening, she took care of these students and helped them to adjust, deal and succeed.

I last saw Ursula shortly before vacation and she told me that she would be moving on to another school. What a loss for Irving I thought, but I was happy for her that she would have room to grow and that students would continue to benefit from her counsel. Hearing this news was devastating, what a loss for the world.

Sean DeSilva