A Christmas Memory


On December 6, 1917, two ships collided near the shore of Halifax, Nova Scotia. One, filled with munitions for the Western Front, caught fire. Most of the city’s inhabitants were unaware of their mortal danger.

Vince Coleman, a train dispatcher, saw that calamity was imminent, and delayed his own evacuation so that he could warn inbound trains to halt. He, along with almost two thousand others, perished in one of the largest explosions in history.



The city of Boston responded quickly. Abraham Ratshesky, a banker, public servant, and philanthropist, led the way:

Ratshesky mobilized that first “relief special,” getting the workers out of Boston on the night of December 6. The group was so determined to reach Halifax that its members climbed out of the train in the snowstorm to help shovel the tracks.

In gratitude for Boston’s help, every year the province of Nova Scotia sends the Hub its official Christmas tree.


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The Doctor, the Submariner, and the Cook


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In 1958, a Soviet virologist proposed that all countries work together to end smallpox.  As this tribute to Viktor Zhdanov notes, “At the time, no disease had ever been eradicated. No one knew if it could even be done.”

In 1977, the last case was found in Somalia.

Smallpox is the only human disease to have been eradicated. Thanks to what Zhdanov started, efforts to end polio, malaria, and several other diseases are now underway.


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During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a US warship began to fire warning shots at a Soviet submarine. Unfortunately, only the Americans knew it was a warning.

The submarine’s officers, out of radio contact with Moscow, assumed that war had begun and prepared to launch their nuclear weapon. It was only the second-in-command’s reasoned refusal that prevented “a cascade of destruction.”

Many years later, the director of the National Security Archive concluded: “The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”


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One of the lives saved was that of Ali Moaw Maalin, a cook in a Somali hospital. He also worked part-time as a smallpox vaccinator. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, he had declined to be vaccinated, for fear it would hurt (thus earning his place in history).

Upon being cured, he resolved to put his own experience to good use in polio eradication campaigns:

Now when I meet parents who refuse to give their children the polio vaccine, I tell them my story. I tell them how important these vaccines are. I tell them not to do something foolish like me.

In 2013, he succumbed to malaria while continuing Dr. Zhdanov’s magnificent endeavor.



Claudia Alexander


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In her spare time, Alexander wrote two books on science for children and mentored young people, especially African American girls. “She wanted children of color to see themselves as scientists,” her sister Suzanne said.


The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. Carved two thousand years before, its text was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, which had been a mystery.

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Claudia Alexander was NASA’s top scientist on the Rosetta project, which launched a spacecraft on a ten-year mission to a comet. Comets are small icy worlds created when the planets were formed, billions of years ago. By studying comets, we learn about our own origins.

As she said in a LA Times profile, published less than a year before her death from cancer, “For me, this is among the purposes of my life — to take us from states of ignorance to states of understanding with bold exploration that you can’t do every day.”




Ahmed Merabet & Xavier Jugelé


July 14 is Bastille Day. It commemorates a key event in the French Revolution, the storming of the king’s prison.

The French Revolution, like the American Revolution, advanced an idea that was then revolutionary: all people have basic rights.

Police officers Ahmed Merabet and Xavier Jugelé died protecting these rights.

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“He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Officer Merabet, a Muslim, was killed by terrorists who attacked a satirical newspaper known for mocking Islam.

Officer Jugelé, a gay man, was killed guarding the cultural bureau of Turkey, a Muslim country.


One of the fundamental documents in the cause of human rights comes from the French Revolution, and Officer Jugelé’s husband discusses it in his eulogy:

This profession of policing is the only one to which the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen refers. In Article 12, it states: “The guarantee of the rights of man and of the citizen requires a public force,” with useful precision in this politically important moment: “This force is instituted for the benefit of all, and not for the advantage of those to whom it is entrusted.”

Our human rights include writing what we believe, loving whom we choose, and worshiping according to our faiths. To do so, we depend on police officers like Ahmed Merabet and Xavier Jugelé.


Whitney Smith



Before Whitney Smith, the study of flags didn’t have a name. So he invented the word vexillology. He was 18 years old.

According to his New York Times obituary, this scholar not only increased our knowledge of flags; he added to them:

Mr. Smith came up with a prototype, a golden arrowlike triangle with an overlapping red triangle against a green ground. He then asked his mother to sew it and sent it in. It was adopted, with slight modifications. Mr. Smith did not find out for six years, when Guyana gained formal independence.

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Today is Flag Day, which makes the Stars and Stripes officially 24o years old. There have been over two dozen versions since independence.

Which was Mr. Smith’s favorite? The Betsy Ross flag, because “a ring of stars better symbolizes our harmony in diversity.”




Junko Tabei

Junko Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest, and the first woman to climb the tallest mountain on each continent.


Her obituary in the Christian Science Monitor observes:

The early climbing achievements of Tabei, a married mother of two, were especially noteworthy at a time when most women were expected to stay home and perform domestic duties.

They are all the more noteworthy considering she was once labeled a “weak child.”

She had the last laugh, though: even after a cancer diagnosis in her seventies, she continued to climb, working toward her goal of scaling the highest peak in every country in the world.


“Mount Fuji & Sakura,” Hideo


There is a poetic device in haiku called a kigo, a word or phrase associated with a season. Tabei’s favorite was “the mountain laughs,” which expresses spring.

With spring (more or less) upon us, get outside to laugh with the mountains, and Ms. Tabei.


Bob Kalsu

In 1968, Bob Kalsu was the Buffalo Bills’ rookie of the year. The next year he was an artillery officer in Vietnam.

Most other draftable pro athletes elected to serve in the reserves. Kalsu’s family and friends urged him to go that route. “I’m no better than anybody else… I gave ’em my word,” Kalsu said, referring to his promise, on joining ROTC, to serve on active duty. “I’m gonna do it.”

The Sports Illustrated profile of Kalsu is well worth reading any day, and especially on Super Bowl Sunday.

Word had gotten around the firebase that he had played for the Bills, but he would shrug off any mention of it. “Yeah, I play football,” he would say. What he talked about – incessantly – was his young family back home.


Grantland‘s “The Death of Bob Kalsu” describes the toll of his loss on that family.

For almost 30 years, Bob Jr. felt partially responsible for his father’s death. As the story went, Bob Kalsu was killed while running out to meet a helicopter that might be bringing the news of his son’s impending birth.

It took this NFL documentary to relieve Kalsu’s son of that burden.


If you’re watching today’s game with friends and family, take a moment to honor this devoted friend and family man, who wore both his professional uniforms with distinction.


Johnny Barnes


Mr. Barnes was known for his trademark “I love you” greetings which he bestowed on hundreds of commuters every morning from about 5am until 10am at the Crow Lane Roundabout.


There are a lot of rotaries in and around Boston. I drive through three each commute. Of the (many) interpersonal exchanges I’ve witnessed, the predominating theme is not love.

Johnny Barnes’s obituary in Bermuda’s Royal Gazette is a reminder that the unpleasantness we normally accept could be otherwise.

This short film shows Mr. Barnes in action:


The Economist also eulogizes Mr. Barnes with a parable, “Clothed with Happiness.”


PS Boston drivers: note how Mr. Barnes extended all digits when he waved.


Colin Snedeker

“He had that kind of mind that could just figure things out.”

Who’s the most brilliant scientist to have immigrated to America?


Is that your final answer?

Did you consider the inventor of washable crayons?

Colin Snedeker came to the United States as a youth. After inventing a non-staining shoe polish, he went to work for the maker of Crayola Crayons. As his obituary in the Wichita Eagle tells it:

[H]e had run out of ideas as to what to make next… He went into the company’s complaint department, where they had all kinds of mail from people complaining about what was wrong.

Thus inspiration struck.


Snedeker is just one of the brilliant minds America has been blessed with from abroad: since 2000, 40% of Americans who won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine, and physics have been immigrants.

Mr. Snedeker may not have been a Nobel Prize winner. He is, however, (yet) another immigrant who has improved our lives.


Pura Belpré


“Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in these books?” – Walter Dean Myers

Pura Belpré was the first Puerto Rican public librarian in New York City.

That’s not all: as this NPR tribute recounts, “Belpré could not find any books in Spanish – so she wrote them herself.”


Belpré travelled all over the city, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Nobody was doing that back then.

Today there is an award in her name, given each year by the American Library Association, to honor a Latino author.


The chances of winning this prize are, alas, not as slim as they should be: “the proportion of books for kids by Latino authors is so “shockingly low” that “it’s insane,” says the award official.

The problem is even larger. “Children’s and young adult literature… represent a stubbornly white world even as U.S. children are increasingly people of color,” Amy Rothchild concludes in FiveThirtyEight.


Walter Dean Myers, the esteemed young adult author, offers poignant perspective in his New York Times op-ed:

In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.

Ms. Belpré needs your – our – help.


Roald Dahl


“For many children Roald Dahl is synonymous with reading.”

Fighter ace, surgical device inventor, FDR’s drinking buddy… and then there’s his services to literature, and literacy.

For Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, the Oxford English Dictionary added several of his words – that’s how we’ve come to think of them – to their volumes.

He is rightfully known for his inventiveness with English. But as the Independent noted in Dahl’s obituary a quarter-century ago, “The quality of his writing is easily discernible by the fluency with which it can be read aloud.”


See for yourself by reading the passage below out loud. A lesser writer would have crammed it with detail or been oblivious to its rhythm:

Continue reading “Roald Dahl”

Tommy Kono


“Weight lifting is 50 percent mental and 30 percent technique. Power is only 20 percent, but everybody has it reversed.”

Grit is a popular topic in education these days,* and Tommy Kono’s life provides a case study: the man whose New York Times obituary twice includes the word “frail” was a world champion weightlifter.

His life offers instruction in irony, as well: Kono began lifting weights at the internment camp where his own country imprisoned him, then went on to serve his country’s military and represent it at the Olympics.

Kono’s obituary includes vocabulary like auspicious and lucrative, and ends with an evocative simile.

It also provides a notable example of cause and effect. Mr. Kono, recounting a conversation with an attendee at a competition in Austria, said: “He told me he was a 13-year-old boy in the audience that day and was so inspired he ran home and started working out.”


*What is grit? It’s passion and perseverance for long term goals, according to Angela Duckworth. Listen to “How to Get More Grit In Your Life,” the (fascinating) Freakonomics podcast in which she’s interviewed.


Jerry Parr


One of my favorite lessons is to put students in Jerry Parr’s shoes. He was the Secret Service agent who had to make a life or death decision for President Ronald Reagan.

We read “The Day Reagan Was Shot” from the Wall Street Journal, stopping at the last sentence below:

Parr spun quickly through his options, wondering whether they should return to the White House or head straight to the nearest hospital. But what if the assassination attempt was part of a coordinated attack? What if there were other assassins out there? In that case, the White House was the safest place on earth, and that was where he should go. Besides, if he decided to take the president to a hospital and he hadn’t been seriously injured, the visit might unnecessarily panic the country or trigger a financial crisis. Moreover, the hospital wouldn’t be guarded, so he would be putting the president at great risk, especially if co-conspirators were lurking there, waiting, if need be, to finish the job. 

Still, what if Reagan was badly injured? Going to the White House could be disastrous; they’d be much better off at the nearest trauma center, in this case the one at George Washington University Hospital.

Parr weighed the two options. Neither seemed particularly good.


A dilemma, I explain to kids, is when you have two bad choices. The trick is to decide which one is less bad. So before finishing the article, we complete this exercise: students list the pros and cons of each option, make their decisions, and write persuasive essays to Agent Parr.

Agent Parr didn’t have time for contemplation. His agile mind, however, made the right call, and his heroism provides a (gripping) case study in how to make decisions under intense stress.

His obituary can be found in the New York Timesthe Washington Postthe Los Angeles Times, and in several other newspapers via the Associated Press.


Leila Alaoui


“She was fighting to give life to those forgotten by society, to homeless people, to migrants, deploying one weapon: photography.”

I spent, years ago, many pleasant weeks in the capital of Burkina Faso, and have fond memories of the place. Last month’s terrorist attack there was all the more distressing because it took the life of a gifted photographer.

Leila Alaoui’s obituary gave us not only an excellent geography lesson, but the opportunity to discuss the role of photography in human rights. (It also – I’m sure she’ll forgive us – gave us some fun saying “Ouagadougou.”)

The obituary’s opening sentence describes Ms. Alaoui’s work as “hauntingly beautiful.” In her honor, I gave students a homework assignment with neither due date nor grade: to take a photograph whose beauty is haunting. I wish all homework was like this.


Vocabulary we learned from Ms. Alaoui’s obituary includes internal, migrant, affiliate, sentimentality, dispossessed, chronicle, and lyrical.


Challenger Crew


“They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.”

I’ll never forget gym class coming to a halt when a kid ran in and shouted: “The Space Shuttle exploded!” I was a 6th grader then; I’m a 6th grade teacher now. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the loss of the Challenger.

We read the transcript of Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation on the evening of the tragedy, as well as the poem it quotes, High Flight.

We also watched this lovely short film about one of the astronauts, Ronald McNair.


I teach the Challenger disaster each year in a two-part lesson about how small causes can have large effects. “The first story’s a bummer,” I warn the students, and we learn the unhappy consequences of low temperatures on faulty O-rings.


The second story, however, is cheerful. We read “The Doughnuts,” by Robert McCloskey, a tale of the multiple benefits resulting from a mechanical malfunction. Granted, it’s an odd juxtaposition, but I like to think the seven astronauts, teacher included, would appreciate the happy ending.


Kevin White


“Martin Luther King loved this city, and it’s up to our generation to prove his faith in us.”

Kevin White’s obituary provides a short course in local history. His tenure (1968-1984) saw the development of, for example, Quincy Market.


It also included one of Boston’s most painful episodes, the busing crisis.


His obituary taught us the vocabulary astuteinquisitiverigmarolebureaucraticrescind, and aspiration. (It also left me struggling to explain satisfactorily what a “Boston Brahmin” was.)

With the holiday Monday, we discussed Martin Luther King’s connection to Boston, as well as how, and why, our classroom would have looked differently before the city’s desegregation of schools.


And then we watched the beginning* of the concert below. Now known as “the night James Brown saved Boston,” it features a short speech by Mayor White, four months into the job.

*We only had time for the first two songs, alas. I don’t think any of the students had seen James Brown perform before; most didn’t recognize his name (although everyone knew “I Feel Good”). Teacher tip: if you want your kids to leave class in a better mood, end with a James Brown gig.


Eustace Caggiano

Eustace Caggiano

“Prayer is good, but going to someone who needs you is even better.”

Our students began the new year by reading the obituary of the “Saint of the South End.”

“She always was purposeful. She always knew what she was doing and why she was doing it. She sometimes lived among criminals and alcoholics and drug addicts and people who were mentally ill, and nothing rattled her cage. No one who knew her will ever say they saw her angry or frustrated.”

When Sister Eustace spoke out, it was to defend those attacked by others. She might wade into a fight between teenagers on a sidewalk to quell the violence, or raise her voice if anyone criticized the presence of immigrants. Pointing out that her mother was born in Italy, “I say: ‘Where did your grandmother come from?’  ” she told the Globe in 1992.

Sister Eustace’s obituary gave us the opportunity to write about how we could be purposeful in our lives.

We learned from it the following vocabulary: sanctuary, renowned, sensitivity, fanfare, quell, and aura.

(We also had some fun discussing what it means to “rattle one’s cage,” and shared what rattled ours. Judging by the responses, we’ve not – not yet, anyway – achieved Sister Eustace’s serene temperament.)


Kim Annette Shepherd-Garcia

Each year before winter break, my students and I read “The Gift of the Magi.”

This year we read it along with the recent obituary of Kim Annette Shepherd-Garcia, a Philadelphia hairdresser.

ornamental comb

Both texts share a tonsorial theme, but more importantly, both are heartwarming accounts of marital devotion. Jim and Della certainly would have understood the following:

When Kim was stricken with multiple sclerosis and years of slow decline followed, [her husband] Greg was there every day to care for her. He had a simple explanation for why he did it: “I loved her.”

Each text also includes examples of quid pro quo, a term we learned from the obituary:

Kim also taught [her huband] Greg how to work in her beauty salon… Greg taught Kim how to drive, and she got her driver’s license.

(One student pointed out that Ms. Shepherd-Garcia must have been a canny practitioner of quid pro quo, obtaining Greg’s help in exchange for his help!)

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Olene Walker


“That I was kind and caring and somewhat intelligent. That I was willing to listen. And that I was not only willing to talk, but I was willing to do. That I worked my best to improve conditions for everyone in the state.”

David Brooks talks of “eulogy virtues,” what’s talked about at your funeral, as opposed to “resume virtues,” what’s talked about in your job interview.

Olene Walker’s Salt Lake Tribune obituary gave us the opportunity to discuss what we’d like people to say about us 100 years from now.


Her obituary taught us excellent vocabulary like affablefortitudepersona, and discombobulation. We also learned from it why flags are flown at half-staff, and what it means to clean someone’s clock.

Brian Jacques

Brian Jacques

Three reasons we read three obituaries for children’s author Brian Jacques:

  1. To meet Common Core State Standard RI.6.9: “Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).”
  2. Mr. Jacques lived about three obits’ worth.
  3. I couldn’t decide which I liked best:

The Telegraph

Aged 10, he was told to write a story about animals and turned in a tale about a bird that cleaned a crocodile’s teeth. His teacher refused to believe that a boy so young could write so imaginatively and caned Brian when he insisted he had not copied it.

Washington Post

Mr. Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”), who grew up near the docks of Liverpool, left school at 15 and found work as a merchant mariner. He later worked as a railway fireman, long-haul trucker, bus driver, postmaster, longshoreman, police constable and stand-up comic.

New York Times

On his route was the Royal School for the Blind. Invited in for a nice cup of tea one day, he volunteered to read to the students. Over time, he grew dissatisfied with the books available — too much adolescent angst, he later said — and vowed to write his own.