Remembering V. Louise Higgins

Anyone who attended Staples in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s knew V. Louise Higgins. The Radcliffe graduate influenced thousands of lives, as a revered English teacher and department chair.

That influence included fellow teachers and administrators, as well as students. Former colleague Karl Decker remembers V. Louise Higgins, who died last Friday at 92.

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I came to the Staples English Department in September 1960, along with many other new young teachers. “V. Louise” — “Miss Higgins” of course to us unproven neophytes — had come to my classroom for my first observation.

V. Louise Higgins, in the 1956 Staples yearbook...

V. Louise Higgins, in the 1956 Staples yearbook…

I was ready with a  great lesson, the students were ready with pencils  poised for note-taking, and I did all the right things. Miss Higgins sat in back taking notes on a yellow legal pad. Class ended, students left, Miss Higgins rose with her yellow legal pad and approached me.

“Dear boy,” she said using her frequent form of address. “A fascinating class. Tell me, for I am curious — just where did you get your material?”

“My fine college notes, Miss Higgins,” I replied. “You see, I saved them in case–”

“I thought so,” she said and paused. Then: “Tell me, have you considered burning them?” And with that she left the room.

As she passed by the wastebasket, she tore off the top sheet of her yellow legal pad, crumpled it up and backboarded it off the wall into the garbage.

If VL had a supervisory, mentoring objective, it surely was to get us to develop our own expertise, to work towards our own mastery of content and teaching skills. As she put it once to me, “I want you to be able to teach that class with your hands tied behind your back and without the crutch of a lesson plan — of specious value anyway — before you.”

...and in 1969.

…and in 1969.

Three years later I held a minor administrative position at Staples and had my teaching schedule halved. VL was clearly not pleased. One day she came to my new office and asked, “Are you going to be an administrator or a teacher?” I leaned back in the arrogance of my swivel chair and said I’d give it some serious thought.

“I want that serious thought done and over with tonight and your answer on my desk tomorrow morning,” she replied. I chose teaching. “The correct choice,” she said later. “Now, about the Shakespeare selections for the sophomore classes…”

So the years at Staples passed and eventually we went our separate ways. VL retired and devoted her later years to study of the ships and seafaring days of Southport. In 1999 I quit after 43 years of teaching to become a photographer and writer for 6 years at Vermont Magazine.  Then by chance we re-met when she was in residence at the famed 3030 in Bridgeport. I had begun work on a novel.

“A novel? Dear boy, do let me read your drafts,” she said. And for the next 2 years, I’d send her the chapters as they came. Her critical skills were undiminished–sharp, perceptive, acerbic and yet supportive.

“On page 145 you have a paragraph that make no sense at all…Oh, yes, and here on page 166, you have a terrible mixed metaphor…ah, there is a nice turn of phrase somewhere here…just can’t seem to find it right now…”

In December 2014 -- as she read his manuscript -- Karl Decker took this photo of V. Louise Higgins. "Note the color in her world," he says.

In December 2014 — as she read his manuscript — Karl Decker took this photo of V. Louise Higgins. “Note the color in her world,” he says.

In one of my later calls she asked, “Where are Chapters 21 and 22?” I sent them, but no reply, no critique came. In my last call a few weeks ago, I had asked how she was doing. Prefaced with unguarded and easy laughter, she finally said, “Dear boy, I am 92 years old. At 92 you simply, don’t start getting better.”

As an ex-English teacher I suppose I should be able to end this encomium (she loved big, precise words) with some brilliant quote from the great literature. But nothing seems to come just now. All I can say is I feel as if the chain to one of my several anchors in the world has been severed and for a while, I may be somewhat adrift.

Well. I do hope she likes the metaphor.

26 responses to “Remembering V. Louise Higgins

  1. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    The world has lost a great educator, a brilliant mind and one who inspired generations. A little bit of the world’s color has drained away. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Great photo. I never had Miss Higgins — but I loved Karl Decker’s & Joy Walker’s classes. Can’t remember who taught me in 11th Grade – which means they didn’t leave much of an impression.

  3. Charlie Taylor

    Sweet

  4. Vivianne Pommier

    Ms Higgins was amazing, and brilliant and will be missed.
    Thank you . ….

  5. Tom Turnbull

    Wow, great tribute. His initial interaction with Ms. Higgins reminds me of several of my own with some professors at Brown!

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  6. Jane Schaefer Johngren, Staples 1961

    I had Miss Higgins in both sophomore English and AP English when I was a senior – a glutton for punishment surely! I learned so much, though I don’t think I realized it until years later when I started writing press releases and eventually newspaper columns. I had saved “the syllabus,” and consulted it several times in those days. I still have it, in fact. I even summoned up my nerve and sent her a few of my articles. She wrote me back some kind words, though I’m not sure I believed them. Would she have achieved the same results if she had been a little less terrifying? I’d like to think so, but she wouldn’t have been Miss Higgins, I suppose….
    PS to Ms. Kellogg: She may have retired before your time (she taught my mother in the 1930’s!), but I had Miss Mansir in 11th grade. She was a character in a completely different way, but I liked her and enjoyed her class, as I recall. I was certainly a lot more comfortable!

  7. Susan Hopkins

    It’s a beautiful metaphor, Karl.

  8. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    My ’76 yearbook faculty write-up reads “Ms. Higgins is a world traveler and loves it. She is also a very discriminating movie and T.V. viewer. Her favorite saying is “Quinn, you’re a sweetheart”” (wondering what that means?!)

    Her penmanship above is lovely… the “E” is more like an elegant ampersand!

    • Nancy Hunter Wilson

      Now I see an English teacher, Mr. Quinn, listed in my yearbook. Perhaps the same “Quinn”.

  9. Didn’t you have Mrs. Higgins?

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  10. Linda Gramatky Smith

    Oh, I loved “Miss Higgins” (AKA “V. Louise” later when she told me to call her that as an adult) so much back in high school. What she taught me about English really STUCK. Close to our 50th reunion in 2010 I got back in touch with her. Judi Hand Demarest and I visited her in her lovely apartment up at the Watermark at 3030 Park in Bridgeport. What a great evening of memories. Heard all about her long life and her beloved sister and the things she’d done over the fifty years. It pleased us to discover that when she retired early from Staples around age 45 (she said the parents were so intrusive and demanding for their “little darlings” — early helicopter parents — that it no longer made teaching fun) she began a second career appraising old homes in Southport. Our guess is that it paid well enough for her to afford the Watermark for some 15-20 years. Bravo, V. Louise, and I treasure the other times I saw you. The last time about four months ago, she was seated in bed (she had dealt with leukemia for quite a while) but as gracious and welcoming and colorful as ever. I will miss her! Thanks to Karl for writing this wonderful article.

  11. A wonderful tribute to a wonderful woman.

  12. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    I remember being among the crew for the annual play put on in the spring of 1953 (Anybody remember which play it was?) It was such a trip be regarded by VL not so much as a teenager but as an adult-in-progress. She demanded a lot of the actors in the show, of course, and the same sense of professionalism among those of us backstage. A couple of nights before opening, we were all working late — past midnight — and we and she all repaired to the Westnor Diner. She was still “going like 60” into the early hours of the morning on the theatre, on creativity, on motivation.
    I guess everyone knows she was the sister of Marguerite Higgins, the renowned photographer for LIFE magazine.

  13. Barbara Sherburne '67

    Well written encomium, Mr. Decker. And yes, I had to look up that word. I did not have Ms. Higgins as an English teacher. I had you and Ms. English, and can’t remember who else. I loved your metaphor at the end, and I think Ms. Higgins would love it also. And how is your novel coming along?

  14. A. David Wunsch

    I met Miss Higgins in the fall of 1953 in my first (sophomore ) year at Staples . I had never met a teacher like her and after many years of schooling (high school, college, grad school ) still haven’t . She was brilliant, had a pure Boston Brahman accent, and seemed to have read everything worth reading. Everyone paid attention in her class– day dreaming would have been dull compared to what was going on in the front of the room. She was tall, slender, and beautifully turned out. She knew how to dress and still dressed well when I was again seeing her in her 90’s . She could deal with any smart- ass student . Once when she asked her class “And what would you do in Eustacia Vye’s situation ?” my younger brother Jim, always handy with a wisecrack, offered , “I’d change my name, that’s what I’d do.” A moment later V. Louise had him : “Change it to what ? Eustacia Wunsch .”

    I can still recite parts of Henry 5 V Louise had us memorize in her class . I resented the assignment at the time but if I say the words aloud now they are a comfort — I can bring back that classroom, teacher, and Westport of the early 50’s.

    In 2006, at my 50th high school reunion, my classmate Charles Khoury kindly gave me V. Louise’s e mail address. Well into her 80’s, she had no trouble with 21st century technology. We wrote back and forth and I visited her at least once a year at 3030 Park Avenue. At our first meeting she opined that she was too young to be living there. We played pool and she beat me. She was still driving, and heading to work at the Southport Library. I last saw her at 3030 this fall. I’m glad my wife Mary met her.

    I learned a lot about her . She grew up in Andover, MA. Her father was a supervisor in a JP Stevens mill in North Andover. He had studied at the Lowell Textile school, in the early 20th century; it later became the university where I was teaching. As a child, V. Louise was brought to see Calvin Coolidge as he made a stop at the Andover railroad station. She did her bachelors degree at Tufts (Jackson ) College and her MA at Harvard where she had Arthur Schlesinger Sr ( not the son) as a teacher . In Westport she was a scandal : smoked in public and once traumatized another English teacher, Gladys Mansir, by revealing that she and her sister had gone, unchaperoned, to a hotel for a weekend with some boys. I did not press for details.

    One of her charms was her unrepentant snobbery. Despite her Irish name and origin she described herself as a WASP and delighted in telling me how when a Roman priest had visited her family in Andover, to complain that VL and her sister were attending ( the horror!) dances at the Episcopal Church, her mother asked him to leave.

    I used to think that V. Louise was Jean Brodie in the Muriel Spark novella. But now I’ve found a better fit which I’ll put below as my final tribute.

    Cousin Nancy
    BY T. S. ELIOT
    Miss Nancy Ellicott
    Strode across the hills and broke them,
    Rode across the hills and broke them —
    The barren New England hills —
    Riding to hounds
    Over the cow-pasture.

    Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
    And danced all the modern dances;
    And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
    But they knew that it was modern.

    Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
    Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
    The army of unalterable law.

  15. Sally Campbell Palmer

    V. Louise was the best teacher I ever had. She taught us to read and write critically and with pleasure and it has worked for me ever since. In the mid 1950’s she was a woman outside the norm, single, professional, independent, vivacious, creative, energetic…and very chic! She was tough and demanded our best (and had eyes in the back of her head) and we adored her. She definitely made us aware of unconventional beauty in a very conventional era. A few years ago a group of classmates invited her to the town’s autumn awards ceremony to Westporters for outstanding artistic achievements to see our classmate, Jane Yolen, receive an award for literature. We waited for her like a rock star and she didn’t disappoint! And after 50 years, and a few minutes, she remembered most of us. What an incredible lady!.

  16. Sue Baskin Dickler

    I was fortunate to benefit from Miss Higgins teaching my sophomore year. As difficult as her course was, she encouraged me to think, analyze and not regurgitate. At the time, I neglected to appreciate how talented a teacher she was. However, of all the faculty I had through high school, college and grad school, she stood taller than them all! My class celebrates our 55th reunion in July. We will remember V. Louise.

  17. Patsy Cummings LoGiudice

    She was the best teacher I’ve ever had. I adored her, she was brilliant and had a great sense of humor. I think of her often, she was kind of goddess of the english language . It makes me smile how we all of loved her so much and feared her too, w
    e just wanted to please her and that was not an easy job. She made us think.

  18. Deborah Lake Fortson

    Well V. Louise was one of a kind and I’m glad she was my teacher. Probably the only teacher I had ever to really grapple with trying to teach us to write — by giving us D’s until we began to make sense. Sarcastic and with a glint in her eye. Half of that glint was critical but the other half was affectionate. An approximate quote: “Hamlet would have been a great lover, but Horatio was the kind of guy you could take home.” I think maybe she really WAS Eustacia Vye.

  19. Deborah Lake Fortson

    Thanks for posting the article! It’s great to see the pictures of her.

  20. Chris Murray

    What a wonderful tribute, Karl. And a beautiful metaphor. So apropos. Thank you so much for posting. Since returning to Westport after 43 years I had always been wondering the whereabouts of the most wonderful teacher I ever had at Staples. Miss Higgins. She changed my life.
    Concentrating more on sports at SHS, I had never participated in The Staples Players. Miss Higgins had us recite Shakespeare in front of the class. I somehow got into “To Be or Not To Be”. A tear rolled down my face. After I finished she told me after class. “Mr. Murray…” “Yes, Miss Higgins?” (she was an imposing figure) “You should be an Actor.” “Oh, Miss Higgins, me?” I kind of laughed. “Yes. An Actor.” I walked out of the room in a fog.
    But 4 years later I went back to Staples and found her. “You know Miss Higgins when you told me in class I should become an Actor?” “I do indeed,” she replied lowering her glasses. “Well, guess what? I went to college to become a professional golfer but became a Theatre major! And I won the Fred Stone Award for highest achievement in theatre, acting “Mark Twain!” She smiled. “Doesn’t surprise me in the least.”. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting like old souls. I will never forget her. Rest in Peace, Miss Higgins. God Bless.

  21. Paul Voorhis

    The class with Miss Higgins that I recall best was one where she was trying to get us to omit the phrase “in my opinion” from statements of our opinion. She insisted that in our own writing or in speaking, an opinion was ours unless identified as someone else’s, so “in my opinion” was redundant. One student couldn’t get it. He kept compulsively inserting the forbidden phrase before saying what he thought. Apparently exasperated, Miss Higgins tried to make him understand with yet another example: “Tell me, what do you think of college?” she asked. “Oh, it’s all right,” he answered. “Now whose opinion is that?” she asked triumphantly. He replied, “My mother’s.”

  22. Nancy Haxby Lordan Class of '65

    V. Louis Higgins was one of very few really memorable teachers I ever had and probably the one whose skills I’ve used the most. My own children as well as many, many of my students benefited from the skills she taught me. For instance, you don’t write ‘on’ or talk ‘on’ a subject, you write ‘about’ it. After all, you’re not actually standing ‘on’ it. Then there was spelling..and grammar..and , oh God!, the senior Author Paper. Still a Jane Austen fan after all these years. How many times did I sit down in her classroom not having finished the reading assignment – or the book? Dread and fear! She did have eyes in the back of her head; she did have an air about her; she did adjust her glasses and look over them at you. I wrote a few years ago to let her know what a difference she had made in my life and in the lives of my children and now their children. Her influence was more mighty and long lasting than she probably knew.

  23. Carmen Thomas-Wakeman

    I had Miss Higgins for English at Staples in the early 70’s. She used to say Carmen, pick up that pencil and write. I know there is a book inside you. Carmen Thomas Class of 1974