A teacher honors educator who inspired him, Ellen Partridge

Among the speakers this Saturday at the memorial service for longtime Georgia educator Ellen Partridge will be four students from the fourth grade class she taught 57 years ago in LaGrange. That is testimony to her lasting influence on the children she taught.

One of the four will be Joseph Jarrell, who grew up to become an acclaimed teacher himself at McIntosh High School in Fayette County. Jarrell wrote this tribute to his beloved teacher and mentor. You can read her official obituary here.

By Joseph Jarrell

A mighty oak has fallen.

When I entered Ellen Partridge’s fourth grade classroom more than a half century ago, I could not foresee the enormous impact she would have on my life. That school year, 1965-66, there were 23 of us in her room at Dawson Street Elementary School in LaGrange, Georgia.

This Saturday, four of us from that group will speak at her memorial service.

Three weeks ago, her son called to tell me she had been moved to hospice. I made the four-hour trip from South Carolina and reached her bedside a few hours before she passed. Standing by her unconscious body, I thought about the words of the famous scientist, Isaac Newton. “If I have seen further,” he reflected, “it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” I was grateful to see this extraordinary woman for a final time. She was truly a giant in my life.

After completing fourth grade, I assisted Mrs. Partridge during the next few years after school on dozens of occasions. For several years, I also helped her the week before the school year began and the week after it ended.

As a senior in high school, I drove across town daily to spend one hour in her classroom (part of a special program at our school). For three months, she allowed me to teach the social studies lessons. During that time, I learned much by watching and listening to a master at work. That year, I chose my life’s vocation: I would teach.

A frequent prayer during my 36 years in the classroom was that I would influence some of my students in the same manner that Mrs. Partridge had inspired me. Any success I had in working with my 4,500 students was due in large part to her example.

Though I did not live in my hometown after graduating from college, I kept in touch with Mrs. Partridge. During trips to the area, I regularly visited her.

In the summer of 2011, at age 77, she traveled with my family and some of my students when I hosted a nine-day trip to China. Early in the tour, she took me aside and instructed me to write the name (and a brief description) of each of the 39 people on the trip. She never displayed the list, but I saw her use its contents as she made a special effort to converse, individually, with everyone on the tour. Though she knew she would never see most of these people after the trip, they were a priority to her. More than four decades after sitting in her class, I was still learning from her. People matter. Show that you genuinely care.

She lived for a few years in California when her son worked there. I stayed connected by phone. My wife, daughter, and I spent a half-day with her when we had a family trip to the Los Angeles area in December 2017.

By 2019, she had returned to LaGrange and I was able to see her more frequently. During the past year, as her health declined, I made the long drive and visited her four times.

Three of us who will speak at her memorial service have worked in the field of education for a combined total of more than 110 years. Mrs. Partridge’s influence was a factor in each of us becoming a teacher.

We joke that the fourth student has met with much less success in life. He became a CPA more than 40 years ago and is now CFO of the historic Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta. The four of us visited her together in August 2020 and spent several hours with her in January of this year. We will represent the thousands she impacted during her 21 years as a teacher and 12 years as a principal.

A few years ago, when a colleague passed, I was touched by a quote that a former student included in his tribute to his exemplary English teacher. He mentioned the words of author Pat Conroy. They are appropriate here. Conroy said, “One can learn anything, anything at all, I think, if provided by a gifted and passionate teacher.”

On Saturday, I will bid farewell to a remarkable lady. Her lessons, both in the classroom and without, were powerful and poignant. I am most fortunate. I am truly blessed. I have enjoyed a richer and fuller life because I have been a lifelong pupil of Ellen Jean Partridge. May God bless the memories of this amazing teacher.