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A Life: Albert Zielenski, 1946 — 2013; ‘The Common Theme Was, “Mr. Z Never Gave Up On Me” ’

  • Albert Zielenski, a Thetford Academy math teacher and former engineering mathematics instructor at River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt. Zielenski died March 20, 2013. (Courtesy photograph)

    Albert Zielenski, a Thetford Academy math teacher and former engineering mathematics instructor at River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt. Zielenski died March 20, 2013. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Albert Zielenski and his wife, Jill Michaels, at their wedding in Rockhingham, Vt., in 1991. (Courtesy photograph)

    Albert Zielenski and his wife, Jill Michaels, at their wedding in Rockhingham, Vt., in 1991. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Albert Zielenski, a Thetford Academy math teacher and former engineering mathematics instructor at River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt. Zielenski died March 20, 2013. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Albert Zielenski and his wife, Jill Michaels, at their wedding in Rockhingham, Vt., in 1991. (Courtesy photograph)

Strafford — In the weeks since Thetford Academy math teacher Albert Zielenski died last month, the condolence cards from friends and family — and from former students, school parents and teaching colleagues — have been accumulating on a sunny table in his South Strafford home, a stone’s throw from Coburn’s General Store.

The condolences are piling up online, too, in a guestbook hosted by a funeral home:

“May his memory be a blessing,” reads one, from a parent. “He was an outstanding teacher, challenging and inspiring my son.”

“I loved being in his class so much,” wrote a student, “that I even came to class with a fever of 104 just to have perfect attendance so I didn’t miss a beat.”

“I have great memories of his ability to connect with kids,” added a colleague, “and to inject humor into life (when he often seemed so serious). He was one of the smartest people I ever knew. ...”

Another, particularly poignant: “One of two of the best teachers I ever had.”

This is not what Zielenski — remembered often as modest and reserved — would have expected.

“He used to think that he wasn’t a particularly effective teacher and that he hadn’t really made much in the way of connections here in Vermont,” said his wife, Jill Michaels, sitting in the couple’s home recently. “And every day there is a pile of cards, and there’s probably a dozen comments on the website. ... I just wish he could have seen that.”

But to those who knew him as “Mr. Z” at Thetford Academy and his former school of 14 years, River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt., the outpouring of remembrances comes as little surprise.

“The thing that I heard consistently from students ... the common theme was, ‘Mr. Z never gave up on me,’ ” said Gary Engler, a science teacher at Thetford and a friend of Zielenski’s. “It didn’t matter if you were one of the kids who got it quickly or one of the kids who needed it to be explained; he just continued to work with you.”

“He had extremely high standards for his own work, and he had high standards for his students’ work,” said Jan Schultz, a retired River Bend teacher whose grant-writing allowed Zielenski to launch a mathematical engineering program to prepare students for technical colleges. “He didn’t dumb things down for anybody.

“On the other hand, he did not beat them over the head with it. He struck me as being an urbane and cosmopolitan person, kind of in a rural area, and I think that he served as an example to students ... a very good example of that.”

Jackie Jamieson, a senior at Thetford Academy who had Zielenski as a math teacher during her sophomore year, said “Mr. Z” was known around campus as a “really cool, laid-back kind of math teacher,” recognized as much for his ability to make mathematics understandable as for his understanding nature and willingness to incorporate fun into the classroom.

During his “homeroom” class, where Thetford teachers act as students’ advisers, he was known for bringing in sweets and other treats for his students.

“He was there whenever you really needed help, and gave you your space, though, if you wanted to be individuals and wanted to do whatever you wanted to do. He was the only reason I passed math comps,” she said, referring to the school’s mandatory test that students must complete en route to graduation. “He really knew how to work with students on their high points and their low points. ... He was just really good at getting to know students.”

Zielenski died March 20 following a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed last July and had been on medical leave from Thetford since the start of the school year last fall.

Zielenski had a profound respect for his doctor, Dr. J. Marc Pipas at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and there was “some reason for hope” as recently as December, Michaels said. But long chemotherapy sessions were taxing, and Zielenski began a serious downturn around the end of last year. (Michaels is asking that memorial donations in his name be sent to the MHMH G.I. Cancer Research at DHMC .)

For those that knew him in the Thetford Academy community, Jamieson said, the news came as a shock, and Engler said there were “more than a few tears” when teachers broke the news to students.

“Everybody thought he would come back,” Jamieson said. “You could tell everyone was hurting.”

As he worked to connect with his students during his time at Thetford and River Bend, he worked just as tirelessly fighting for his colleagues. Described by Engler as a liberal Democrat “with a capital L and a capital D,” Zielenski was an active member of VTNEA, the Vermont teachers’ union, Michaels said, and he and Engler made up two-thirds of Thetford’s teacher negotiating team.

He also was active in the American Civil Liberties Union and cared passionately about social progress, his friends and colleagues said.

“I guess the way I would characterize it (is) as knowledgeable as he was, he was never strident in his beliefs. He understood the importance of compromise,” Engler said. “While I would say he worked tirelessly for the advancement of the profession, he also understood the economic constraints of the times.”

Zielenski did “a lot of the very best union work for teachers and paraprofessionals work in our schools that has been done,” Schultz added.

“He had a world outlook,” Schultz said. “He was very progressive in all respects. He was the best, he really was. Still is.”

Zielenski was born on Independence Day in 1946, to parents of Polish and Italian descent. He spent his childhood years in the Poughkeepsie, N.Y. area, before graduating from Cornell with a degree in electrical engineering in 1968 that he would apply during his early career as an engineer. Years later, he earned his Master’s in mathematics teaching at Temple University.

He met Michaels in Philadelphia, and she remembers their first camping trip together, on May 4, 1980, off Maryland’s coast on the beaches of Assateague Island. The island came to hold special significance for the couple, who would return there yearly while living in Philadelphia and once more since moving to Vermont in the early ’90s.

They each brought children into the marriage: Zielenski’s daughter Willow, and Michaels’s children, Melissa and Noah, who Zielenski came to love as his own. He had a deep affection for his three grandsons, Eric, Ezra and Zachary .

“It’s hard to blend a family and it took us years and years and years, but we worked at it,” Michaels said. “And it’s been very clear through all this that it worked.”

The couple was married in Rockingham, Vt. in 1991. Michaels’s new position with the town of Rockingham drew them to the area, and after a few teaching jobs, Zielenski found gratifying work at River Bend (known at that time as Oxbow Vocational Center), where he launched the program that attempted to give students an engineering background that would sufficiently prepare them for schools like Vermont Technical College, where the math is rigorous.

His hope was to reach a wide array of students with a broad spectrum of skills, Michaels said.

“He really did love it when he had a really sharp student, but he also enjoyed working with the kids who really needed him ... ,” Michaels said. “(T)he intention was to give kids the start to be able to take the jobs that are still going unfilled in this neck of the woods, not necessarily the high-end engineering jobs where somebody’s got the master’s in electrical engineering or something like that, but the tech jobs that pay really well that are looking for kids coming out of VTC and places like that.”

Schultz, who wrote the grant that allowed Zielenski to launch the program, said Zielenski wanted to give students “very strong math skills” so they could go to technical colleges “and not get killed by the math.” The program focused on engineering-oriented mathematics, physics, and how to “use a computer as a tool,” Schultz said.

River Bend closed the course in the mid-2000s because of low enrollment, prompting Zielenski to find a new home at Thetford Academy.

But Schultz said the program “did not deserve to close” and that the number of students enrolled was a misleading way to look at its effectiveness.

“ I would say probably the majority of teachers in that building would say that Al’s program was easily at the very top of the pile as far as the quality of the program and the actual result of the program,” he said. “I knew what he was doing in there, and I knew what his industry was asking for, and I knew how his students made out when they got out of there. By those standards, it was a very effective program.”

Beyond the world of education, friends and family remembered Zielenski for his fondness for music, cooking and gardening. If somebody were visiting their South Strafford home for the first time, Michaels would direct them to look for the house with the gardens out front. The box currently holding his ashes will be used as a planter, she said.

But first, those ashes will be spread off the coast of Assateague Island on May 4, the 33rd anniversary of the couple’s first camping trip there. A memorial celebration will follow on May 11 at 1 p.m. at the church in Strafford’s upper village.

Michaels described herself as a cultural Jew and her husband as a “seriously lapsed Catholic” — but he nonetheless had always liked the Jewish custom of placing stones on graves.

“At first I thought, ‘Well, where are we going to put the stones?’ But then it occurred to me,” Michaels said. “Anybody anywhere along the Atlantic Ocean can throw a stone in the ocean.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.