Remembering Kathryn Blumhardt

Kathryn “Kay” Blumhardt — a highly demanding but extremely well respected Staples High School English teacher from 1967 to 1995 — died last week, of ovarian cancer. She was 83 years old.

Tributes poured in on Facebook. Erin Buff Madden Collins — who was inspired to become an English teacher by her Staples instructors — calls her “tough as nails, very challenging, (and) a gift to all her students.”

Ann Belser says she became an English major because of Blumhardt, and an English teacher because of her colleague Joy Walker. And Audrey Wauchope became a writer thanks to Blumhardt, and the rest of the Staples English department.

Steven Uydess became a teacher too. He says:

Her office was in the book surplus closet, and she met with every student to talk about the kinds of books they enjoyed. After a few minutes of thoughtful listening, she pulled from the myriad boxes a half dozen books that she thought we might enjoy and gave them to us. I got “The Maltese Falcon,” “Last of the Mohicans” and “Catch-22,” among others.

I recall finding her so odd in some ways: her dramatic affect, her love for Walt Whitman (true love!), the way she could cut you down to size with but a meaningful stare. But she also taught me that to be an effective teacher you need passion, and that being your authentic self is how you connect with your students. Rest In Peace, and say hi to Walt for us!

Michelangelo Sosnowitz notes, “She scared the hell out of me. She was a tough and strict teacher but she was great. She also loved Marlon Brando, so I have to give her extra credit there.”

Kay Blumhardt, in the 1977 Staples High School yearbook …

Ian Atlas says, “We butted heads, memorably over whether I could sell chocolates for band before class (I may have been sent to the office over that one), but I learned to love Shakespeare in her classroom.”

Scott Cussimano calls her “tough but passionate.” He remembers a favorite saying of hers: “I’ll do anything for my students.”

Beth Wilson Matteson echoes those thoughts. She writes: “I loved her. I did my junior research paper on JS Bach. When I told her my church choir would be singing a Bach anthem, she drove to my church to hear me sing.”

Ursa Heilbron Mooney says, “She was tough, but we bonded over a mutual love for Sherlock Holmes (both the stories and the BBC production with Jeremy Brett). I had her freshman year, and her in-depth coverage of ‘The Odyssey’ was spectacular. And the eyebrows – the legendary eyebrows. She was great.”

… and in 1989.

Peter Danbury writes, “her enthusiasm for her subject could be intense. I loved the TV schedules she passed out every week, noting all the interesting things we might avail ourselves of amidst all the trash. She was so keen on us honoring with our attention what was valuable in the culture at large, and not wasting our time on the insipid and it was kind of wonderful. I‘m glad I ran into her in the late ’90s and could tell her how much I loved her Myth & Bible class.”

Ted Howes adds, “She was instrumental in my care for words. She loved Melville. She was tough, but I appreciate her a lot more now.”

Susan Huppi praises, “She definitely prepared us for college. I respect the work she put in. She helped me understand that teaching students is a tough but wonderful job. She expected we would always do our best.”

Former teacher Tod Kalif writes, “Kay Blumhardt was the ultimate old school English teacher. She earned the respect of every one of her colleagues, and demanded excellence from every one of her students.”

Jason Tillotson remembers her “clear as day: tough in class, a mysteriously stern exterior which kept you on your toes. But one-on-one in her cozy office closet she was warm, connective, and inspired curiosity by asking just the right questions. She introduced me to George Bernard Shaw beyond his work as a playwright, and into his life as a whole. It was a learning experience I won’t forget. I even saved the paper!”

And — in honor of one of the habits her teacher imparted — Mary Palmieri Gai says she read the Facebook post twice.

15 responses to “Remembering Kathryn Blumhardt

  1. I agree with all these well-deserved accolades and have nothing more to add except to say that I, too, became an English teacher because of Kay Blumhardt. She exuded passion.

  2. Tom Duquette SHS '75

    Oh no, this is sad news. Staples had such great faculty back in the day and especially English teachers. The 11 Jun ’75 Senior Edition of Inklings my graduation year on the front page above the masthead they did a ‘man on the street’ thing with the question “What have you done for your school lately?” with photos. I was one of 5 respondents and said “I took Ms. Blumhardt out to dinner”. I should have been so lucky. RIP.

  3. Clark Thiemann

    I was in the final class she taught before retiring in 1995. Her passion for the subject and willingness to be herself was wonderful and memorable even for a mediocre English student. Teachers, like Ms. Blumhardt, who were willing to be different made me love my time in the Westport school system and are the reason I came back to town for my kids to go to school.

  4. Judy Luster

    Katya (as she recently liked to call herself) was a dear friend for over fifty years. As women who had relocated from the Midwest we had much in common so it didn’t take long to become “buddies”.

    She seized life. She went up in a hot air balloon and she learned how to fly a small plane. She traveled the world to hear her favorite opera singers and learn about the arts and the world. She did everything from her teacher focus and was proud to teach and oh so happy to be at Staples.

    As someone who has been in constant touch, I can tell you she embraced death as she did life. She felt loved, was full of gratitude and she was at peace. I will miss my dear friend everyday.

    • Sandie Cole

      So glad to read your words about the zestful life she had both in and out of the classroom—and the appreciation of Gerry and Werner as well.

  5. Zack Randel

    Awesome teacher – sweet lady.

  6. Werner Liepolt

    Oh gosh… Kathryn Blumhardt was simply the best. She exemplified what an English teacher should be: a lover and transmitter of great literature, an unstinting teacher, a strong and principled woman, a standard bearer for the best in academia…
    when she retired, something left that will never be reclaimed.
    With her passing an era closes.

  7. Joyce Bottone

    Beautiful tribute. I remember her well, and I never realized it until reading a former students comment … she was the one who helped me appreciate my words and how to best use them when exchanging a thought or idea. Have thought of her several times throughout the years. RIP Mrs Blumhardt 🎩

  8. Shannon Mann

    She was one of few teachers that I can remember how she made me “feel” in her class. I was intimidated but enthralled, and those expressive eyebrows conveyed her own emotions. Visions of her tiny office came flooding back to me when I saw Severus Snape’s work space in the Harry Potter films. They were both small but filled with so much mystery. I also remember the art posters that decorated her classroom walls, many of which I purchased later. Thank you, Ms. Blumhardt!

  9. Gerald E. Kuroghlian

    Katherine and I joined the Staples Faculty in 1967. She was an amazing intellectual and we shared a deep love of Shakespeare. Midwest women, I married one, are quite different from the women with whom I knew in CT. Those who came East ,like Gatsby, had huge dreams for their lives. Kate’s was to become a major researcher and she achieved her dream when she connected a copy of Morte d’Arthur to Mark Twain’s A CT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR”S COURT. One of Kate’s former students Shelley Fisher Fishkin became a noted Twain scholar and used Kate’s discovery as the base for a
    fascinating treatise. Kate continued her love of research despite her weakening health. She was a great educator and a heroic Wisconsin woman

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

      1st, how are you?
      2nd, I totally agree with your comment on M/W women – as I married one too.
      3. As re Ms Blumhardt. The talent of Staples English Department of my era was incredible. There were more great teachers than I can count on fingers and toes. For her to emerge as one of the greatest makes me regret not having met her.
      Be well Gerry
      Eric Buchroeder

  10. Chris McCormack

    There was no shortage of exceptional faculty at Staples in my era (’74), but Kay Blumhardt stood out in all the ways prior commenters have described. When I think of my high school years, like as not the classroom I picture is hers, and what I remember is the excitement – and not infrequently the discomfort – of being challenged constantly to go deeper, to see more, to feel more fully. But it was as a teacher of writing that she had the most enduring influence on me: strive for clarity and economy; abhor slackness in thought and expression; revise, and revise, and revise. Terrifying, of course, to get papers back with margins full of red ink. But hers were the notes of an attentive and engaged reader expressing respect for what you’d done and confidence that you could do better. A year of that taught you to be your own critic and editor, and I suspect that discipline has served others as well as it has me. So grateful to share memories of this unforgettable teacher and see the recollections of those who stayed in touch with her over the years. Thanks again, Ms. Blumhardt.

  11. Sandy Alexander

    I’ve been traveling since Kate died, but I wanted to add a few words of tribute. I first met Kate in 1961 when she came striding into my classroom in Wausau, Wisconsin on my first day of teaching. I realized that I was encountering a very dynamic and special woman. We were so proud of our Wisconsin roots, but eventually we both went to teach in Connecticut at about the same time.
    Kate was truly a Renaissance woman….. a lover of Shakespeare, art, and opera, she also loved Bob & Ray, SCTV, Seinfeld and Agatha Christie. She traveled the world, absorbing her destinations with the passion and eagerness to learn that she brought to all her endeavors. I’m so happy to see these wonderful tributes from her students. She was my mentor in my first years of teaching and I know what an exceptional teacher she was.
    She opened so many doors for me in the areas of art and music and literature…. and humor. Our phone conversations were always rich with ideas and laughter. How I shall miss them!
    Kate was my dear friend for nearly 60 years and her passing leaves a great void in my life. But I am so grateful to have known her, laughed with her, and learned from her.
    Godspeed, my dear old friend……

    • I am fascinated to know that Kay was from Wisconsin! I had her in 1980 and shall never forget her. In fact, I’ve saved this email from Dan and have read it many times. Everyone has encapsulated what she was – spirited, demanding, mysterious, scary, eccentric and amazing! And those eyebrows! I, too, am from Wisconsin – born in Neenah, lived in Wausau, grandparents in Janesville, and a cottage north of Rhinelander. Do you know what town she was from? No wonder I felt a bond immediately!

  12. Everyone here has perfectly encapsulated the essence of “Ms. Blumhardt”. I had her in 1980 and will never forget her. My brother had had her a few years earlier and promised me that as scared as I would initially be, that I would come to adore her. And he was exactly right. When my daughter signed up for Shakespeare (at our hometown high school), I told her that I could only hope that her teacher would be as eccentric and passionate and engaged as Ms Blumhardt. Turned out that my daughter’s teacher was cut from Kay Blumhardt’s cloth – and how lucky for my daughter. Rest in peace, Kay – you were THE BEST.