Community Mourns Bettie Stegall
Members of the TJ community — including retired faculty, current faculty and staff, and alumni of all ages — gathered in TJ’s new Auditorium to celebrate the life of long-time English teacher, Yearbook Advisor, and cross-country/track coach Bettie Stegall. Stegall, who retired in 2008 after 30 years of teaching at TJ and nearly 50 with FCPS, shared her creative approach to learning with generations of students and touched the lives of many with her capacity to empathize and inspire.
One after another, speakers came to the podium to share what Stegall meant to them and to others:
Retired TJ Humanities teacher Carolyn Gecan was a senior at Fairfax HS when Stegall, fresh out of Longwood College — “a blond spright, peppy, happy, funny, slim, and athletic” — came to teach sophomore English. In 1990, Gecan was on the TJ faculty when Stegall, who had taught at Jefferson before it became TJHSST, returned to the school. “She charmed kids into doing their best,” and “imbued a love of expression and poetry and creativity,” Gecan said.
Dr. Jiana Menendez, TJ ’06, arrived at TJ just as Stegall was taking over as Yearbook Advisor. Menendez became the Yearbook’s Freshman Editor. Under Stegall’s guidance, TJ’s yearbook went from a typical high-school publication to the 300 page, full-color keepsake that under successor Advisor Erinn Harris has continued to feature exceptional photos and writing and win national recognition. Menendez, who also had Stegall for her senior literature class, remembers Stegall taking the class downtown to see Waiting for Godot. “She was so enthusiastic and passionate about what she was doing.”
Retired TJ Physics teacher Judy Grumbacher recalled an interdisciplinary project that the two teachers launched to connect physics and creative writing (she also mentioned that Stegall often held up Menendez, a primary care physician who also holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health, as “the poster person for what a humanities background could do for a physician.”) After talking about their friendship, she quoted Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web: “It’s rare to find someone who is a good friend and a good writer,” and said,”Bettie, like Charlotte, was both.”
Dr. Glazer told the story of how when he came to TJ as Principal in 2006, Stegall was teaching in a 400 sq. ft. room that most teachers would find inadequate. Stegall gathered students in the center and made the room a cozy, special place. He also recalled her many “intentional acts of kindness,” saying that she “knew when people were struggling and took care of kids who needed it. She saw gems that others didn’t. She found ways of uplifting us. She was such a really neat lady.”
Every time the room fell silent for a moment, another speaker came forward. Many had not planned to speak. From the work Stegall did — even after her retirement and always under the radar — helping unrepresented minority students prepare for the TJ exam to her generosity in allowing faculty to use her Rehoboth Beach house at no charge, from the dozens of delicious cakes she baked for birthdays and special occasions to the way she put up with a van full of kazoo-playing track athletes as she drove them for hours to a distant meet, speakers told the story of a dedicated woman who changed those around her for the better. From Coach Stegall, “a bunch of misfits” learned that they could run much faster than they thought possible. Her English students learned that “everyone is a writer.”
At the beginning of the service, after thanking Judy Grumbacher and retired long-time TJ staff member Pat Groves for putting together the program, Dr. Glazer played a clip from a video made a few years ago in which Stegall states plainly what she feels sets TJ apart: “excitement — for learning, for just being there.” She explains why she spent years archiving TJ’s history and preparing to present it to the public: When you have “something as wonderful as Jefferson, we need to record how it evolved. It’s a story of success.” Her efforts will be on display when TJ ‘s Archives Room opens at the completion of the renovation.
A video of the service may be viewed at this link.