Generations honor their teacher

Ann Fullerton's students reunite: 'She made ... every one of us feel special'

      By BETH MILLER / The News Journal


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Special to The News Journal/SUCHAT PEDERSON
Ann Fullerton enjoys a laugh Tuesday with ex-students Grace McNeal (left) and Cathy Anderson (right) on the Wilmington & Western Railroad.

Ann E. Fullerton's biology students - "cherubs," she used to call them - converged on Delaware on Tuesday to celebrate her 80th birthday.

One student for each of her 80 years, they came from Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

They brought the fruit of her labors: their lives as doctors, veterinarians, nurses, researchers, teachers. Their work on the faculty of medical schools, on the Hubble Space Telescope, in the laboratory.

They brought tributes, stories from her classroom, and examples of how she helped them live better, more fruitful lives.

They were a fraction of the 5,000 students who spent time in her classes during her 31-year career. But it was an event you'd wish for every teacher who makes it his or her business to nurture their students well - even when it is inconvenient, difficult or costly.

"It takes a rare person to touch and influence so many people in the world," wrote Dr. Allan J. Fisher, a Fullerton student, who now lives in New Jersey. "Ann Fullerton took one student at a time; not one classroom or one year but one individual under her wing and made each and every one of us feel special."

Tuesday was Ann Fullerton's day to feel special. Cathy Page Raphael of Newark, who was in Fullerton's class in Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Md.) High School, saw to that, organizing a reception at the Wilmington & Western Railroad, followed by Fullerton's arrival in a 1930 Model A Ford driven by Jim Riggleman (a DuPont Co. biologist and Fullerton student who lives in Montchanin), a train ride to the Hunter's Den restaurant, and an evening of tributes.

The teacher from Elsmere, who turns 80 today, turned nearly speechless Tuesday.

She walked down the aisles of two railcars, tears flowing, embracing one student after another - remembering times past that had very real connections to the present. Conductor Keith Anzilotti announced the "Miss Fullerton Birthday Special" and the train chugged off.

"I'm speechless and overwhelmed," she said.

Fullerton didn't want to be a teacher at first. She graduated from Alexis I. du Pont High School in 1943 with a longing to study medicine and be a doctor.

Her father - Albert Fullerton, comptroller at Atlas Powder Co. - was seriously ill, though, and an adviser at Western Maryland University urged her to have a backup income and study education. She took every science class she could, but also took his advice.

She taught for 10 years at Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Md.) High School, then got her master's degree at Syracuse. From there, she went to North Shore High School on Long Island, N.Y., and taught there for 21 years, earning state awards, helping to write the Regents exam and biology curricula.

She retired in 1980, returned to Wilmington and remains active with Delta Kappa Gamma, which supports prospective educators and provides scholarships to college students.

A typical school day for Fullerton started at 6 a.m. and ended with an evening of grading papers until 11 p.m.

Around all that, she found time to lead biology clubs, chaperone dances and take kids on field trips to explore aspects of biology in natural habitats.

She taught students how to dissect earthworms and frogs and cats. Dr. Bob Stephens, a retired surgeon from Phoenix, said he and his buddy carried a dead cat around for six months, learning all its parts for Fullerton's class.

They memorized the definition of osmosis, a feat many still can repeat word-for-word decades later. They kept precise notebooks with class notes that had to be recopied each night as homework, lab drawings, and clippings on current affairs.

"There are rare weeks that go by that a quote from her doesn't come up in my head," said Dr. Brenda Butler, director of student mental health at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "It's sort of a force that follows you through."

The ripple effects of one life lived well continue to spread, as Reed Choate, son of one of Fullerton's students - Candy Choate of New York City - wrote. His mother taught him to copy his class notes over each night and make outlines, and she refused to jaywalk because of the "straight arrow" example of Fullerton. She passed on so much of what she had learned that the family sometimes called her "Miss Fullerton."

"I believe the most incredible thing about you is the trickle-down-effect to the next generation," he wrote. Hundreds more would have attended if they could, Joseph "Bucky" Ward wrote from Oregon. When she sees all the students gathered, he hoped she would think of that.

"There are an unseen hundred more behind each one you see," he wrote. "We all remember, love, and respect Ann E. Fullerton ... teacher."

Contact Beth Miller at 324-2784 or