A Life: Renee Manheimer; ‘Education was the key to improving her lot in life’

  • Renee Manheimer during a break while she was hiking in the Peruvian Andes, years before she moved to Norwich in 2000 while in her early 30s. Family Courtesy Photograph Family photograph

  • Manheimer with her daughter, Mia, who is now a nursing student at Norwich University. Family Courtesy Photograph Family photographs

  • Manheimer with her daughter, Mia, and son, Tomas, at his Navy commissioning ceremony at Norwich University in May 2008. Family Courtesy Photograph

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    Manheimer, a Spanish teacher in Plainfield and later Crossroads Academy, was at the "leading edge" when it came to digital teaching. Here she's at work in her home office in Norwich. Family Courtesy Photograph

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/31/2023 5:04:33 AM
Modified: 7/31/2023 5:04:29 AM

NORWICH — Renee Manheimer’s husband and two children were aware that she had overcome great adversity and perilous situations early in her life. How much hardship was unclear.

She spared them many of the details of what she endured growing up without a mother or a father in Peru during a time when the South American country was being ravaged by civil war.

Josh Manheimer said his wife of 23 years explained what Peru was like this way: “Your best friend was the person with the gun closest to your head.”

In essence, he said, “she was a survivor.”

And a success story as well.

After moving to Norwich and marrying Josh in 2000, Manheimer became a school teacher who didn’t stop learning — earning three degrees, including a doctorate. She taught Spanish at Plainfield’s K-8 school and later chaired the world language department at Crossroads Academy in Lyme.

“She was determined to improve her circumstances and change her trajectory,” Tomas Cavero said at the memorial service for his mother. “Poor kids in Peru don’t usually end up earning advanced degrees in the United States.”

In May, Manheimer’s life was cut short by a brain tumor she never knew she had. She was 55.

Manheimer was entering her teens in Lima, Peru’s capital city, when an armed conflict erupted in the early 1980s.

With guerrilla groups, drug traffickers and the country’s military fighting each other, civilians were often the casualties. A 2003 report sponsored by the Peruvian government estimated that more than 69,000 people died in the war, which stretched into the late 1990s.

Manheimer’s parents split up when she was young. She lost contact with her mother and was living with her father when he was killed under murky circumstances.

“Peru is dangerous, especially back then,” said Tomas, who was 14 when he and his mother moved to the U.S.

After her father’s death, one of Manheimer’s teachers took her in.

“From an early age, my mother realized education was the key to improving her lot in life,” Tomas said.

In high school, she worked as a housekeeper and attended classes at night. She had her son at 17.

As a teenage mother, Manheimer clung to her sense of adventure. She hiked in the Peruvian Andes, took up skydiving and drove a souped-up Toyota Corolla in late-night street drag races.

“Completely illegal,” Tomas said, with a certain amount of pride.

She earned a black belt in taekwondo. “When you’re a woman in Peru, you need some kind of self-defense training,” he said.

In January 2000, Renee and Josh met for the first time — via the internet. “It was just at the beginning of internet dating,” he said.

Josh, an advertising copywriter, didn’t know Spanish, and Renee didn’t speak English. They used a software program to translate their emails.

In spite of the language barrier, Josh said he could tell that Renee was a “warm, loving person. She was a kind soul.”

After obtaining a visa, she flew to the U.S., where Josh met her at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Once she was convinced that Josh wasn’t a “psychopath,” Tomas joked, she and her son started making plans to move to Vermont.

Josh and Renee’s relationship quickly blossomed. Five months after her move, they were married under a waterfall in South Strafford.

Two years later, their daughter, Mia, was born. While raising a teenager and a newborn, Manheimer continued on a new career path.

After starting out at Community College of Vermont, she earned her bachelor’s degree at what was then Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt.

“She was ambitious,” Josh said. “She took the approach, ‘What am I going do that I can feel good about, and earn a living, by using what I know, which is Spanish?’ ”

Cavero added: “She wanted to be a teacher so she could share her culture. Her Peruvian identity was important to her.”

Two of Samantha Davidson Green’s sons, Duncan and Reeve, had Manheimer as a teacher in Plainfield. Being a native Spanish speaker was one of Manheimer’s many strengths, Davidson Green said.

“She was very determined to try new technologies,” said Davidson Green, executive director of Junction Arts and Media, or JAM for short, in White River Junction. “She experimented with different learning platforms for Spanish, based on language and culture.”

Manheimer used a lot of websites and videos. “She tried to find different ways to reach kids,” Davidson Green said.

Steven Glazer, an English teacher at Crossroads, shared a homeroom with Dr. Manheimer, as her students knew her. (By this time, she had earned her doctorate at the International Catholic University.)

When it came to digital teaching, Manheimer was at the “leading edge,” Glazer said. For teachers who had technology questions, she was the go-to colleague. Her classroom’s storage closet resembled an Apple store, he said.

Early on at Crossroads, where she spent two years, Manheimer learned that Glazer taught a section to seventh graders that focused on the works of Robert Frost.

She asked if she could incorporate what he was teaching in her class. Before long, Crossroads’ seventh graders were translating Frost poems, including rhymes, into Spanish.

“She was a strong collaborator and team player,” Glazer said.

On a field trip to an outdoor classroom, Manheimer noticed a student who was reluctant to participate. She motioned the student to sit with her on the ground. Together they studied an ant, gently nudging it along with their fingers.

“She was always trying to connect with her students to find the spark,” said Dan Morrissey, Crossroads’ head of school.

Manheimer was a teacher who could have told real war stories, but she wasn’t interested. “She was a private person,” Morrissey said. “What mattered most to her was bringing Spanish alive in the classrooms and hallways. To talk about herself might have taken the emphasis away from that.”

At home, “she always had to be doing something,” her daughter, Mia, said. “She was either cooking, cleaning or doing prep work for school.”

Manheimer also made sure her children were doing the necessary work at Hanover High School to prepare them for college.

Tomas earned a scholarship that paid for much of his four years at Norwich University. Mia is starting her third year as a nursing student at Castleton University.

“Renee was passionate about giving her children opportunities that she didn’t have,” Josh Manheimer said.

Unbeknownst to Josh, his wife had been “socking away money” for years to pay for the kids’ college educations.

Tomas, who served in the Navy and has an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, served as her unofficial financial advisor.

“She was determined to be excellent in anything she did,” including investing money, Tomas, now a senior product manager at Amazon in Nashville, Tenn., said.

“She put her heart and soul into paying for my education,” Mia said. “She’d never spend money on herself.”

Manheimer, who suffered migraines from time to time, wasn’t feeling well when she came home from school on May 8.

The next morning, Josh Manheimer found his wife unconscious. He called 911.

At Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, tests revealed she had a brain tumor. Manheimer died three days later without regaining consciousness.

More than 120 people attended her memorial service, in which her son and daughter were among the speakers.

“As I contemplate her loss, I realize her biggest legacy is her fighting spirit and drive for self-improvement, as well as a much-needed reminder to stay in the present,” her son said in his remarks. “While it’s important to plan for the future, we really need to enjoy each day, for we do not know our fate.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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