Tributes flow for beloved Amherst teacher Martha Faison

  • Longtime Fort River kindergarten teacher Martha Faison was civically active as well. She dies last month at 83 of COVID-19 complications. CONTRIBUTED

Staff Writer
Monday, March 08, 2021

AMHERST — Martha Faison’s passion for multiculturalism gave a generation of kindergartners at Fort River School an immersion in cultural diversity as their education in Amherst schools began.

But for her closest friends and colleagues, as well as her daughters, Faison, who died at 83 of COVID-19 related complications Feb. 13, she also lived the experience of promoting social justice and civil rights, helping to oversee Amherst’s annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast and hosting scholars from the Amherst A Better Chance program.

“Martha was a role model for how to make a difference in the community at large, and she made a huge difference among the African-American community in Amherst,” says Shelley Whisler, who first met Faison as a student intern in 1972, and then became a staff colleague at Fort River after graduating from the University of Massachusetts.

Even though Whisler now lives near Phoenix, she considers Faison not only a mentor but her best friend who was there for all her children’s weddings.

“She wanted children to know there was a whole world out there, and that cultural differences were not to be feared but to be celebrated,” said daughter Yvonne Faison, observing that her mother turned down an opportunity from retired Principal John Dalton to become an administrator because of the importance she placed on being in the classroom.

“She had a way about her to make children feel at ease, give them strength and lift them up to make them feel special,” Faison said.

Those who knew Faison describe her as a beloved educator, and some of her students years later would turn to her, as a justice of the peace, to officiate at their weddings.

One of those students was Elizabeth Theilman Shortreed, who wrote in an email that Faison followed each student’s progress through the elementary school and was caring and sensitive to every child’s needs.

“It was an honor to have her marry us and a very special memory for me,” Shortreed said of her 2008 wedding. “We all had a wonderful time.”

“She was just a wonderful person,” said Sandy McNiven, a longtime colleague at the school who recalled that his wife, Becky, was hired as a paraprofessional at the school after interviewing with Faison. “Everybody loved Martha.”

Beyond the classroom, Faison co-chaired the Amherst Civil Rights Review Commission in the 1970s and reviewed applications for new police officers as efforts were underway to diversify the force.

She served on the MLK Breakfast Committee since its inception, helping make it one of the town’s most anticipated events.

Jacqueline Faison, who lives in Pelham, said her mother’s responsibilities included lining up the vendors and making sure plenty of food was served, but also that enough money was left in the budget to provide scholarships to high school seniors.

The Faisons came to Amherst in the early 1970s. Martha’s husband, James Faison, had been in the U.S. Army and took the family to Germany, Alabama, Michigan and Utah. He then became director of the ROTC program at UMass, as Martha Faison was earning her degree in childhood education with a focus on multiculturalism.

James Faison died in 1997 while employed as an assistant clerk magistrate at the Northampton District Court, and the service brought hundreds of mourners to pay their respects at Grace Episcopal Church.

“They were a young African-American couple, very focused and passionate about education,” Yvonne Faison said. “They were a very dynamic couple.”

At home, Jacqueline Fasion remembers her mother making a roster of who would make the meals each night while pursuing her master’s degree, with only Sunday dinners set aside for the fine china.

“Dinner was every night as a family, no exceptions,” Faison said.

Throughout the years Martha Faison remained a fixture in the community, with some recognizing her for donning one of the many fancy big-brimmed hats in her collection.

“She was jokingly known as the Oprah of Amherst,” Yvonne Faison said, knowing her mother had a way of being endearing toward others. “She had a true aura about her that drew people to her.”

The family is creating a scholarship fund in her name that will provide financial assistance to student teachers, a fitting way to honor her memory as someone always giving back to the community. A private funeral service is planned for next Tuesday.

“We were so rich in love in our childhood,” Yvonne Faison said. “One of the things that I’ve always been proud of my mom is she had a very loving and giving spirit.”

“She was my best friend,” Jacqueline Faison said.

“People were fortunate to know her,” Whisler said. “She found good things in everybody, and this is a loss for the world.”