Former teacher memorialized with scholarship, Dickinson visit
By Eric Scicchitano
The impact Jean Louise Stellfox had on her former students continues to prove a lasting one.
So highly regarded, the former Shamokin Area literature teacher has become a folk hero of sorts - stories of her passionate, cultured and disciplined approach to education passed along to those who never studied in her classroom.
"I never met Miss Stellfox, but I knew who she was all my life," said Amy Shadle, an English teacher at Shamokin Area. "I grew up listening to my dad talk about her. My dad, a man who appears to have no real interest in classic literature, would talk about what he learned in her class. He would even talk about Shakespeare.
"In fact, whenever I bring up her name to former students of hers, I get the same reaction," she continued. "They tell me about what they learned in her class 15, 30 and 40 years ago."
Stellfox's legend has also inspired action in her own name.
One group of former students is working to finalize the Jean Stellfox Memorial Award, an annual scholarship to be presented to a Shamokin Area graduate.
Another former student helped make reality an official visit to Stellfox's alma mater, Dickinson College, made by current Shamokin Area students and one that could become a yearly trip.
"We just loved her. I knew even in seventh grade she was going to be the best teacher I'd ever have," said Debbie (Johnson) Noonan, Shamokin Area Class of 1970, who along with classmates Cindy (Sarge) Poboy, John Taby and others, helped in the creation of the memorial award.
"Every year when I'd get my schedule I hoped it would be her, but it never was after the seventh grade."
Taby said it was Stellfox who taught him to read beyond the printed word, to interpret the meaning an author was trying to convey, when he took her literature course, Religious Literature of the Western World, as an elective his senior year.
"She affected my life forever," he said.
Stellfox was killed more than eight years ago by a hit-and-run driver while crossing West Third Street in Mount Carmel. It's a case that remains unsolved.
In the wake of her death, many were stunned to learn she had amassed a savings of $1.5 million, probably less so that she left the majority of it to her beloved Dickinson.
Her donation established the college's Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program, allowing the tiny Cumberland County school to bring in some of literature's most acclaimed writers for residency, during which they hold seminars, host readings, sit in on classes and even have lunch with students.
The award was inspired by Stellfox's own brush with American literature royalty when, in 1959, famed poet Robert Frost came to the Dickinson campus, a visit that moved Stellfox to become a literature teacher.
British author Ian McEwan, author of "Atonement" and winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1998 for "Amsterdam," was the inaugural recipient of the Stellfox Award in 2005. Other winners include Edward Albee, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, including for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and Richard Russo, who won a Pulitzer for "Empire Falls."
All of the recipients pose for a photo on the steps of Old West at Dickinson, the writers surrounded by staff and students mimicking a photo from Frost's visit.
In that photo, to Frost's right, sits Stellfox.
This year's recipient was Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker Prize in 2000 for "The Blind Assassin."
It was Taby's daughter, Sarah, a 1997 graduate of Shamokin Area, who helped set up the visit to Dickinson made by Shamokin Area students during Atwood's visit in November.
A Dickinson senior, Mary Kate Skehan, an English major researching the Stellfox Award, was put in touch with Sarah Taby by her friend and Dickinson's associate director of admissions, Molly Boegel.
"'She's life changing. She's amazing. She was one of the first people to really help me see myself as a learner, to give me that kind of acknowledgement,'" Boegel recalled Sarah Taby's impression of Stellfox.
In speaking to Skehan about Stellfox, Sarah Taby said she wished students of Shamokin Area could benefit from the Stellfox Award project. Skehan and Boegel then brainstormed to pitch the idea to Dickinson brass, who gave the November visit the go-ahead.
Shadle, her colleague, Patty Rhoads, and five Shamokin Area juniors - all girls with high interest in literature - made the trip.
"It was very exciting to learn about Miss Stellfox and the influence she had on other people," said student Courtney McGrath. "It was also pretty cool that because of her generosity, Dickinson has a famous author come to the school each year."
"I think this is exactly what she'd want to see happen," Boegel said of Stellfox, adding she thought the visits would carry on. "She gave her life to Shamokin, to the students, and then her life savings to Dickinson.
"To see those two things come together in this event ... I think this is exactly what she would have hoped to happen."
Final details on the annual scholarship in Stellfox's name have yet to be hashed out, and important ones at that: to whom it will be awarded and just how much. That said, the group behind the project seems determined to make the scholarship reality.
"We want to make sure her name's not forgotten. Her death was so untimely and there's no justice to that yet. It's an open-ended thing and we don't want anybody to forget about her," said John Taby.
For information on the Stellfox scholarship project, email Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org or Poboy at email@example.com, or search Jean Stellfox Memorial Award on Facebook.
For more on the Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program, visit http://bit.ly/wN1GkT.