Although the sky was gray, the rain held off Friday morning so faculty, staff, students and friends of Aldrich Junior High could gather outside for a memorial ceremony for Martha Whitaker.
Whitaker was a physical education teacher at Aldrich for 20 years, beginning in 1993, known for her love of life and dedication to her job. She was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer in March 2013 and lost her battle with the disease last September.
On Friday morning, Whitaker’s name was added to the Aldrich Memorial Flagpole Garden, created in 2006 to recognize members of the Aldrich family who have passed.
“We’ve had three different ceremonies now for people we consider part of the Aldrich family,” explained Susan Perkins Brillat, Aldrich physical education teacher and Whitaker’s teaching partner for 10 years. “It felt important to remember them that way.”
During the brief ceremony, organized by Perkins Brillat and phys. ed. teacher Jason Almeida, eighth graders Andrew Fredericks of Boy Scout Troop 4 Gaspee Plateau and Luke Ferguson of Boy Scout Troop 1 Gaspee Plateau performed the flag ceremony, lowering the American Flag and raising it to half-mast in honor of Whitaker. Eighth grader Katherine Richardson also sang the national anthem.
All of the teachers and many of the students wore “Martha Strong” T-shirts made for a Relay For Life event last June to raise money for the American Cancer Society. The shirts mirror the “Boston Strong” logo, and are the same red, white and blue of one of Whitaker’s favorite teams, the Boston Red Sox.
Diane Chaplin, Aldrich special education teacher and a close friend of Whitaker’s, spoke during the ceremony, sharing fond memories of Whitaker’s life both in and out of the classroom.
“Martha loved her job, the people she worked with, and she looked forward to teaching students every day,” said Chaplin, remembering Whitaker as a confidence builder for her students. She enjoyed rooting for the athletic stars and the underdogs alike.
“She didn’t expect anyone to be the best; she just wanted everyone to do their best,” she said.
Chaplin reminded students and faculty about Whitaker’s creativity when it came to gym class, featuring units like Survivor or Minute to Win It, which she often had fellow faculty members try out first. Whitaker was also a supporter of the arts at Aldrich, directing and choreographing school productions of “Annie,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Chaplin also spoke about how proud Whitaker would be when they went to Planet Fitness and saw former Aldrich students there.
“She was thrilled to see them exercising,” she said.
One of the things Whitaker proudly brought to the school was the American Heart Association’s Hoops For Heart basketball fundraiser. Over the years, she, Perkins Brillat and Almeida organized the activities, leading the school to raise almost $29,000 for the American Heart Association since 2002. This past February, the event was held in honor of Whitaker, and between the students raising money to participate and a faculty raffle with Gorton Junior High, the school raised $3,700.
While Whitaker clearly loved her job and teaching her students, she was also dedicated to living her life to the fullest outside of the classroom. She and her husband Don traveled the world, including Alaska, Turkey, the Czech Republic and more. The two even took a bike trip from Vienna to Prague. She and her family also enjoyed trips to the beach and camping.
Her diagnosis couldn’t stop her either.
“Even when she was given two weeks to live, she defied the odds and she lived two months through sheer will and determination,” said Chaplin, remembering Whitaker taking walks through the hospital to stay active and even catching her doing squats in her hospital room.
Chaplin recalled Whitaker being more concerned about others than herself, and being shocked by the amount of support and love from the Aldrich community.
“Martha was loved and even with her life cut way too short, her presence is still all around us,” said Chaplin.
With her name now featured in the school’s memorial garden, Whitaker will forever be a part of the Aldrich community.
“That gives me peace, I guess,” said Chaplin after her speech. “I miss her.”
Superintendent Richard D’Agostino and School Committee member Eugene Nadeau also attended the ceremony. Although he did not know Whitaker as well as others, D’Agostino said the ceremony was a great way to honor the example she clearly set for her students.
“From my understanding, she was an excellent teacher and a wonderful role model,” said D’Agostino.
Whitaker’s husband Don, mother Margaret “Bunny” Enos and sister Carol Zufelt also attended the ceremony, and had an opportunity to share fond memories of Whitaker during a small reception for guests after the ceremony.
“She led a full life. She probably did more in her 43 years than other people do in their lifetimes,” said Don, an employee with Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and a Johnston resident.
Her family remembers Whitaker as the planner, creating itineraries for trips that were often multiple pages with alternate plans depending on weather.
Zufelt knows that her sister loved her job and enjoyed exposing students to different types of physical activity and fitness. Her sister was always encouraging students to find the path to lifetime fitness.
“She left a good legacy, I would say,” said Zufelt.
Don remembered Whitaker coming up with unique ways to engage her students, such as a scavenger hunt where she gave students a GPS and coordinates to find different objects around the school.
“She was good at being able to get kids to enjoy physical activity, but incorporating technology,” he said.
Whitaker is now featured on the memorial in front of the school with Aldrich faculty and staff who have passed, including: Susanne Benoit, Catherine Murray, Richard “Lou” Lovett, Joan Lynch Shatkin, Diana Macaluso, Carolyn Stewart and F. Stephen Zubyk Jr.