In 1971, Patrice Harty, then a first-year teacher at Bishop Fenwick High School, was attending her first faculty meeting in the school’s home economics classroom.
The teachers, sitting around sewing machines, were asked to introduce themselves. Teacher Fran Bennett said she had taught English and she was beginning her seventh year at Fenwick.
Seven years, Harty thought while sitting there. My God who would ever stay at the same school for seven years? That’s, like, an eternity, thought Harty, then 23 years old and fresh out of college.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Harty now admits she didn’t know Middletown, Ohio, from Middletown, N.Y. Her plan was to teach at Fenwick for one year, then, like a standout college basketball player, leave for greener pastures.
Guess what, Patrice Harty is retiring at the end of this school year after 46 years at Fenwick, 41 as a Spanish teacher, the last five in Campus Ministry. Miss One and Done had the longevity of Lou Gehrig.
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Andy Barczak, in his fourth and final year as Fenwick principal, said it was reassuring having someone with Harty’s experience and work ethic in the building. Her legacy, he said, included “educating students not only in terms of material but in life and how to become better people.”
The first-year director of the Campus Ministry, Erin Johnson, 26, called Harty’s career “pretty incredible” because she dedicated her professional life to “bring the kingdom of God in the world through teenagers, which isn’t an easy thing.”
Then Johnson, a 2009 Fenwick graduate and former Harty student, added: “She has changed the world three times over.”
But now it’s time to retire, Harty said. She feels comfortable with Fenwick’s leadership, especially with Johnson overseeing the ministry program. She sounds like a proud mother at high school graduation.
“This office is in a really good place,” she said. “This is an OK time to go because everything is in a good place. I wanted to leave knowing what I was involved with and the projects I started here will continue.”
At a recent retirement reception, Harty was presented a scrapbook that included letters from Fenwick alumni as far back as 1973. One student, who took personal typing from Harty, wrote that what he remembered most had nothing to do with the keyboard, but what he learned during a mission trip. That’s the beauty of teaching. You never know how you may impact a student.
“Things that I didn’t know I had influenced them,” she admitted. “The more I got to know them, the more I grew with them. Kids have great energy and great insight.”
When she came to Middletown, she was young and alone. Along the way, she married her husband of 40 years, Larry, and they had three children: Abby, 38, Alex, 36, and Stephanie, 32, all whom took Spanish from their mother. Her children and the other 4,000 students she taught filled her heart with love, but there has been heartbreak.
That comes with 46 years.
While working at Fenwick, she has buried her parents and her brother and attended funerals for students and staff. She has lost and gained members of her family.
“Every emotion pretty much I shared with the people in this building,” she said quietly. “That’s kids as well as the adults. It’s hard to let go of that. I feel like the seniors: A little afraid of the future because I don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
The Fenwick Family will be missing part of its soul next August.
Harty, 68, isn’t afraid to spend the night in a cardboard box with students, march in Washington, D.C., or visit a tattoo parlor. She has four tattoos, three on her wrists and one close to her heart, a Mother’s Day present from her youngest daughter.
A tiny red heart on her wrist, she said, reminds her that “everyone needs loved, not just your family and friends.”
Next to the heart is the Star of Bethlehem, which “reminds me to let my light shine for others and to allow their light to shine on me,” she said.
On her left wrist is the word “Still,” a constant reminder of her favorite scripture from Psalms.
She said the tattoos “help me pray because they’re constant reminders.”
Now that she’s days from retirement, she was asked about her legacy, what others will remember years after she leaves.
Then was a long pause, then she admitted: “That’s a hard question.”
As you’d expect, the teacher came up with a simple, yet telling, answer: “That every day that I came here it mattered to me that the kids would know that I loved and cared for them. That they were important to me. Every single day. Even after 46 years.”
And to think, she was going to stay for one year.
That would have been a loss.
And the students.