Editorial: Two educators leave huge legacies

  • Gordon Fletcher-Howell, a Vietnam War veteran and longtime educator with the Veterans Education Project, seen here in 1978.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Two educators who died this month, Judy Brooks and Gordon Fletcher-Howell, had an impact on hundreds of people in their classrooms and beyond, and they will long be remembered for their contributions to the community.

Brooks, who died July 3 at age 74 in her Amherst home, taught for 31 years at the Pelham Elementary School, where she is remembered for valuing inclusiveness and civic engagement. Rebecca Casagrande, of Pelham, recalls two of her children benefiting from their time in Brooks’ classroom.

“Judy did her best to help her students learn about perspectives of different cultures,” Casagrande says. “It was amazing for both of my children to have a strong-minded, no-nonsense African-American role model in a school that had such little diversity among students and staff.”

Brooks’ reputation as a problem-solver and advocate for multiculturalism extended far beyond her classroom. Carolyn Holstein served with Brooks on the Amherst Select Board in the late 1980s, and recalls her ability to confront racial incidents at that time in a positive manner. “She was excellent in helping the board and the town to deal with it,” Holstein says. “She did it in such a loving and caring way.”

Brooks also was involved for many years in planning the Amherst Black History Month celebration. One of her co-planners, Deborah Radway, the town’s human resources director, says of Brooks, “She’s a gentle and persistent giant in this community.”

Brooks believed in making joyful noise to celebrate Black History Month, and also urged participants to ” ‘Say hello to your neighbor’,” according to Radway. “Connectivity was so important to her.”

Brooks grew up in Washington, D.C., where she was active in the civil rights movement and at age 19 was on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963, to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Years later, Brooks was active in the voter services initiative of the League of Women Voters of Amherst, going to places like backyard barbecues and the Amherst Survival Center to find people who did not regularly participate in elections.

Brooks’ goal was to advocate for justice, freedom and unity, says Onawumi Jean Moss, emeritus dean of students at Amherst College. “Her practice of friendship permeated all her other roles. She saw friendship as a means to overcome barriers and obstacles to build a better version of ourselves in terms of our institutions so they could become more humane and more compassionate,” Moss says. “She really is a legend.

A celebration of Brooks’ life will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium at Amherst Regional High School.

Fletcher-Howell, who for years was among the most visible members of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst, died Monday at age 70 at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2014 and moved there last year.

After returning home in 1969 from the Vietnam War, where he served two tours as a radio operator in the U.S. Marines, he struggled for years with the trauma resulting from his war experiences and what he called the “mental armor” he constructed to shield him from the pain.

Later, Fletcher-Howell told his story to dozens of young people across the Valley, in settings ranging from schools to jails, through his work with the Veterans Education Project. The nonprofit trains veterans to share their personal stories of war.

“He was just telling it like it was, and giving kids an insight and understanding that they don’t get out of textbooks, or when they see advertisements for the military on TV or talk to recruiters. it was really reality-based,” says Rob Wilson, a former executive director of the organization. “He really evolved as a speaker, and he figured it out, and he developed a style of communicating to kids that really encouraged them to understand and ask questions.”

Besides veterans returning from war, Fletcher-Howell made strong connections with ostracized students, incarcerated young people and victims of street violence.

Paul Lyons, another member of the Veterans Education Project, describes Fletcher-Howell as a deeply principled man who “was really out with his struggles, and it meant so much for the kids we worked with to hear from him … he was the real deal.”

Brooks and Fletcher-Howell leave significant legacies as their lessons will long resonate with the people they touched.