I wrote to my teacher, which sounds ordinary until you learn I’m 75 years old and my teacher is 100. And we’re typical of today’s seniors: older but active. You may have a teacher or two of senior status you recall with fond memories. Call her. I did. Meet Miss Merz — as we knew her at my small Ohio high school in the 1950s. Helen Merz taught English and Spanish from the 1940s until her retirement in 1972. But it turns out that Helen’s not exactly the “retiring” type. Miss Merz has filled the four decades since retirement with lots of, well, lots of life. She got married. She moved to Orlando. She became a pilot. A pilot? And I thought she was the timid type. Yes, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around “our Miss Merz” racing down a runway in her airplane, zooming upward into the wild blue yonder, and then playing tag with rain clouds before coming back down to Earth. That’s a bit bolder than conjugating verbs and doing definitions.
After logging over 2,700 hours in the air, Helen finally parked her plane. But she’s still on the move — regularly driving to the grocery, her pharmacy and church. She knows when to avoid Orlando’s rush hour and shuns traffic from Disney World. A nap and a cane are her only concessions to age, so Miss Merz — now a widowed Mrs. Helen Kuhn — is a centurion as well as a centenarian in my book. My class of 1957 benefited from a long line of good teachers, from the kindergarten teacher who greeted us just three months after D-Day in 1944 to graduating with good preparation for work, college or whatever else life threw at us 13 years later. How good were our teachers? By their fruits, ye shall know them. Our small class of just 66 included inventors, scientists, academics, architects, journalists, the co-founder of a leading charitable foundation, craftsmen, a CEO or two, four starters on a basketball team that reeled off 28 straight conference wins, and lots of loving moms and dads who are now grandparents and great-grandparents. Yes, we had the advantages of living in a largely carefree world — a Twitter-free, drug-free time zone where sipping beer behind the barn was about as bad as you could get. Most of us grew up on church, flag, freedom and respect for our elders. It’s just that now we’re the elders and our surviving teachers are, well, superelders, such as Helen Merz Kuhn. With all the attention on immigration, please note there’s also an avalanche of senior citizens coming to a community near you — your town, your county, your community. Please welcome and work with us as we age into our 70s, 80s and beyond. We’re your future as well as your past. I’ve had two long phone conversations with Helen and exchanged two letters with her since she celebrated the century mark last fall. Helen taught English — the art of expressing one’s self — and retains a skill set that’s as impressive as her flying log and the articles she penned for an aviation journal. Her handwriting is firm and forthright — “It was such a pleasure to talk with you last Friday ... and such a heartwarming experience to know that someone whom you taught went on to (a professional career).” Perhaps you could provide a heartwarming moment for your favorite teacher. A call, a card, a contact that counts the memories and not the years. James F. Burns is a retired University of Florida faculty member.