Celebrating Mary Kegelman

My friend Dan Kegelman’s mom Mary passed away recently and this loving tribute he posted on Facebook is worth sharing more broadly. Dan and I grew up together with a lot in common – both the youngest of big families, tennis fanatics, Catholic school classmates — and we had parents who shared the Midas touch when it came to making parenting (adulting?) look easy. Mr. and Mrs. Kegelman were kind, super bright, creative and intellectually curious people and they raised ten genius children with immense talents – athletic, musical, academic and on. Mrs. Kegelman was a natural and beloved teacher and for those who were fortunate enough to receive her instruction I’m sure they will smile in reading this.
When people first find out that I’m the youngest of ten kids, the reaction is almost always the same: a look of surprise – almost disbelief – and then, far more often than not, followed by the statement, “Wow. Your mom must be a saint.” Well, that was pretty much the truth. Now more so than ever. Mom passed away Sunday evening, finally giving in to her congestive heart failure. For the last twenty years or so, she dealt with the struggles of a heart that didn’t work nearly as well as it should, especially for someone who took such good care of herself. After my father died just about seven weeks ago, most of us kids hoped that she might rebound and be able to enjoy her life a little more. Of course she was terribly, terribly sad at Dad’s passing, but I had hoped that without the stress of my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s weighing on her, she might rebound and gain some physical health. Deep down though, I knew it wasn’t very likely. Sure enough, her last day was spent in her own bed, with some of the family close by all day until she eventually let out her last breath.

There’s a saying that goes something like, “A mother’s heart is her children’s classroom.” This, more than any other sentiment, sums up what I’d like to say about her. Although she had a Master’s in Physical Chemistry, her first job after getting married was to raise her children. She had five children under 5 years old. Let that sink in for a second. A 4 year old… a 3 year old… a 2 year old… a 1 year old. And just for fun, a newborn. And oh yeah, they were all boys. She liked to tell the story that once a neighbor called to let her know, “Mary, your boys are out on the roof of the house. Just thought you oughtta know.” I think the oldest might have been about 6 or 7 at the time. If you can picture today’s worst helicopter parent, and then picture the polar opposite, that was my mom. She was cool with letting us be us.

She was a wonderful teacher. She had lots of interests, but two of the biggest were tennis and math. She met my dad on a blind date at the tennis courts at Fordham, and they played together all the time throughout their marriage. In the summer evenings when I was about 5 or 6, they’d often walk over to the courts at Brandywine High School and hit until it got dark. Jim and I usually tagged along and played on the playground at St. Paul’s next door. But lots of times, we would just sit outside the fence and watch them play. We thought they were pretty good, ya know, for “old” people.

My mom waited until I went to first grade before she started working full time. She taught math at Ursuline for a couple years, and then moved over to IHM when I and some of my siblings were still students there. She started an advanced math class, and both Jim and I were lucky enough to be in our respective grade’s class. It wasn’t even a little bit weird to have my mom be my math teacher. She was just plain good at it. The rest of the kids liked her style, so I never took any grief for it.

So now, as I sit here as an adult (yes, I know that’s debatable) I have had a great career in tennis, and am now loving my career as a math teacher. Hmm… I wonder where those two things came from? Jeez, I remember the first time I beat my mom in a set. I was 11. She was patient enough to hit with me even when I wasn’t very good, so she would naturally take it easy on me. Eventually, she got to the point where she was playing “all out,” and I won 6-4. We stopped playing sets then, but I will never forget the look of pride she had when she said, “Wait, that’s the set, right? 6–4? I guess the student has become the master.” Well, I was far from being a master, but it was still pretty cool. Even though I knew she was proud of my tennis career, she beamed when I moved over to the classroom to teach math. I should have probably given her a percentage of my paycheck, as most of what I taught my students I actually stole straight from her. I’ve been told I’m a pretty patient teacher, but she was the real deal. Any student. Any learning style. Any type of math. She was a master at making the student first feel comfortable, and then feel successful. Anyone who has ever struggled with math can imagine how valuable that is.

I guess the best thing I can do to honor her is to be the best version of myself that I can be. I’m going to keep on trying to be as good a math teacher and tutor as she was, and I think that’ll keep me busy for a while. Until then, I ask that you say a little prayer or send up a kind thought that she and my dad are at peace, resting comfortably after a summer evening on the courts.

Dan Kegelman is chair of the math department at Salesianum School.

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