By Amy Chapman
When West Paris native Rodney Abbott retired from teaching high school English and history in 2001, his career as an educator was far from over.
In fact, he took just one semester off before he was back in the classroom. For the past 13 years, he has taught a survey course in U.S. history to students at the University of Maine’s centers in Mexico and South Paris.
It all adds up to more than a half-century of classroom experience, but a great deal of Abbott’s teaching also takes place outside of the traditional classroom.
He leads a discussion of poetry on Wednesday evenings at the West Paris Library, sharing his knowledge and lifelong love of poetry with a dedicated and enthusiastic group.
For several years, while still teaching full-time at Telstar, he also taught Elderhostel courses at the Sunday River Inn. So many of the participants returned time after time that he had to come up with new course offerings each year.
“I taught a class on New England poets, one on Teddy Roosevelt, and one on the Civil War,” he said, adding that he was often humbled by the educational and professional backgrounds of many of his Elderhostel students, and learned as much from them as he taught them.
He serves as moderator of the West Paris United Church of Christ, and served a term as moderator for the Oxford Union Association. He has also been a guest speaker several times at the West Paris First Universalist Church.
He was the chair of the board of trustees of the West Paris Library during its recent major expansion and renovation project.
“His leadership, enthusiasm, and ability to organize and communicate clearly were instrumental in the renovation and addition to the West Paris Library,” said longtime friend Jim Burke.
Abbott is active on social media, engaging daily in courteous but spirited debates about education and politics, and offering an inspirational bit of wisdom each evening before signing off, like this recent quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
At a time when public education in the U.S. has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism, with competing mandates and proposals aimed at rectifying inequality and improving academic performance, Abbott doesn’t hesitate to defend it, and to explain his views in person and on Facebook.
“I am a staunch believer that the public school system has been the bedrock of our nation,” he said.
“He believed in us”
Among his nearly 1,000 Facebook friends are scores of his former high school students, eager to stay in touch with the teacher they remember as “positive,” “tough but fair,” and “passionate about education.”
“He’s the only teacher I ever contacted after graduation,” said Jeffrey Dunham, a Greenwood native who graduated from Telstar in the 1980s and now lives in Florida.
He remembered the way Abbott was able to make history and literature come alive in the classroom, and said his teaching “was similar to a time released pill, with layers of what I had absorbed soaking into my consciousness slowly over the years.”
“I learned much more from him than he ever could have known he taught me,” Dunham said.
“The biggest influence he had on me, though, came from his confidence, his kindness, and his respect for others. He believed in himself and he believed in us, his students.”
“He gets so much joy out of whatever subject he’s teaching that he makes you feel like he’s imparting some special secrets,” remembered Sandy Kendall Dennis, who was Abbott’s student during his early years at Telstar in the 1970s.
She said she took an elective she didn’t need during her senior year “simply because he taught it and I knew it would be my last opportunity to take a class with him as my teacher.”
For many years, Abbott joined forces with Telstar English teacher Helen Berry to teach as a team, creating some memorable moments in the classroom.
“Those two had the most beautiful working relationship,” said their former student Loretta Long. “They were like a vaudeville act, the two of them together, working off of each other, playing and having fun, but also, at the same time, being serious.”
“I remember more laughter in their joint classes than any other,” said Dunham. “They would pretend to be famous historical figures, stuff like that, with cheap, easy props—simple stuff that was really fun.”
“My years of team teaching with Helen Berry were absolutely great,” Abbott said. The two taught American and English literature to sophomores, juniors, and seniors at various times.
“We also did Black Studies together, which was a combination of African-American history and English. That is a course I created, and it is the one I am most proud of.”
After Berry passed away, the Telstar auditorium was named in her honor. Abbott spoke at the 1990 dedication, recalling a time when Berry shouted to him through the divider between their classrooms to come over and help her with the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.”
“She was standing on her desk and handed me a copy of the play. Just then, kids arrived from home ec class with samples of their Chinese chop suey and chopsticks. We did that scene from Shakespeare with chopsticks, and I bet ‘old Bill’ would have loved it. I know the kids did.”
“A very strong sense of place”
Abbott grew up on Abbott Hill in West Paris and now lives next door to the house he grew up in, on his grandfather’s farm, where he stays active by cutting wood and tending a vegetable garden.
“I have a very strong sense of place,” he said. “I’ve been here all my life, and I don’t regret that at all. In fact, I’m very pleased about it.”
He attended the two-room school in his North Paris neighborhood, graduated from high school in West Paris in a class of 11 students, then joined a freshman class of 1,100 at the University of Maine.
“That was something of a culture shock,” he said.
After graduating from college in 1963 with a major in history, he set out with a friend from Queens, New York to see some of the United States before settling into his first teaching job that September at Buckfield High School.
“I took a couple thousand dollars that my grandmother, God bless her, had left me when she died. We left New York City on the Fourth of July, and we were gone until the day before I had to start teaching,” he said. “We really made quite a trip out of it.”
The journey took them across the middle of the country, and throughout the South and the Southwest. Along the way, they visited historical sites Abbott had learned about in school but had never seen.
“In retrospect,” he said, “it was one of the best things I could ever have done. I can’t believe how many times that trip has helped me in my teaching. I saw the South, for example, before the civil rights laws were passed, so I saw it while segregation was still in effect.”
Abbott and his wife Lois, who have been married for nearly 50 years, have four grown children, including twin daughters who do not share a birthday.
“One was born before midnight and one after,” Lois said.
They also have five grandchildren, with whom they enjoy close relationships. Three live close by and visit often; one granddaughter waits for the bus each morning at their house.
Oldest daughter Laurie and her family, who live in Florida, recently spent a week visiting in Maine. While here, the Abbotts’ granddaughter Olivia shared some of her poetry with the weekly West Paris Library group, and she and grandson Nico had plenty of opportunities to play in the snow around the Abbott homestead.
“There’s something very gratifying about seeing your own kids, and your grandchildren, play in the same places you did,” Abbott said. “It brings back a lot of wonderful memories. It’s very satisfying to see them re-experiencing the same kinds of things I did.”
“The ultimate good citizen”
“Rodney is one of my favorite people,” said Jim Burke, who calls Abbott “the ultimate good citizen.”
“[He] is a caring and intelligent man who treats people of all stations of life with respect and dignity,” he said. “I’ve always been impressed with his ability to share his views and at the same time be very respectful to those with whom he disagrees.”
Former student Dunham said that as a teacher, Abbott “exuded individuality, dressing and looking how he wanted, and he never passed judgment over our appearance or even our behavior.”
“He had a way of making you think he really liked you, whether you were a bit of a delinquent or a teacher’s pet,” Dunham said.
“Perhaps he really did like all of us, and that’s how he was able to teach with such diversity. I know I probably wasn’t one of his favorite students, but I felt like I was, so maybe that’s why he was my favorite teacher.”