Fairfield High School students interested in a career in science will be eligible for a new scholarship this year.
The Vera Young Science Scholarship will be awarded to an FHS graduate who plans to major in science at a college or university. Preference will be given to those planning a career in science education.
The scholarship is named after well-known anatomy teacher Vera Young, who taught at Parsons College from 1947 until the college closed in 1973. Luckily, Young was able to find a teaching job across town at the high school, where she taught biology and anatomy for another 15 years until her retirement in 1988.
The scholarship was established by two fellow educators who know Young well, former FHS principal Ralph Messerli and Young’s daughter Linda Mitcheltree, who taught choir at the high school from 1983 until she retired in 2009.
“They told me they were going to do the scholarship in my name, which is quite an honor for me,” Young said. “I was really surprised. I know it takes money to send kids to college. I sent three of them.”
Messerli first suggested the idea of the scholarship after his experience with another scholarship honoring the influence of educator Druzilla Clark.
“As principal, I had the opportunity to witness Vera’s influence on her students first-hand,” he said. “She brought a more collegiate style of teaching to the anatomy class, and challenged all levels of students in the required biology classes.”
The anatomy class grew from a one-semester class without a book to a year-long class to one of the top college preparatory courses at FHS. Messerli said Young had an impact on his family personally. His oldest son, David, who had Young as a teacher, majored in science at the University of Northern Iowa. When Young retired, he replaced her as the school’s anatomy teacher.
“David was a very good student,” Young recalled. “Not all of the students liked to work. I remember one student, who was going to be a doctor, told me, ‘There’s no reason for us to work so hard.’ When he went to college, he was glad he had taken my class.”
Mother and daughter as co-workers
Mitcheltree taught alongside her mother for five years. She savored their time together, which was usually over lunch.
“She is the most organized person I have ever met,” Mitcheltree said. “She was well-respected, and had been teaching there 10 years when I started.”
Young mentioned that the two didn’t see each other much apart from lunch because she was on the third floor while Mitcheltree was “underground.”
“I didn’t hear too many complaints about Mom except how hard the students were working for a test,” Mitcheltree said. “I heard that studying for their fetal pig test was the hugest thing they’d ever done. There was both a dissection part and an identification part.”
Young said she felt so lucky to get the job at FHS the very year Parsons College closed. The college closed abruptly in June 1973. Its faculty were left in a tough spot because most schools and colleges had already filled their vacancies for the upcoming academic year.
However, it just so happened that FHS’s anatomy teacher waited until June to resign instead of doing it in February when such resignations are normally announced. This meant the district had to scramble to find a replacement. But fortunately for both the school and for Young, It didn’t have to look far.
“When Parsons closed, we got some really good teachers at the high school,” Messerli said, referring to Young and other Parsons faculty who joined FHS such as history teacher Bob Tree and math teacher Vick Rail.
Though not a required course, Young’s anatomy class was seen as a necessary stepping stone for students who wanted to go onto higher education, no matter their field.
“Anatomy is all about your body, and everybody needs to know about their body,” Messerli said. “The course taught you how to study, because it was a high-level course. It wasn’t easy.”
Young joked that her students “thought I made them work too hard.”
Mitcheltree said she loved Messerli’s idea to create a scholarship honoring her mother because she knows it’s well deserved.
“When I am with Mom in the community and especially at Jefferson County Health Center, we seem to encounter someone in every department who says, ‘She was my favorite teacher,’ or ‘I am so glad I had her anatomy class before I got to college,’” Mitcheltree said. “She has always presented a marvelous example with her superb organization, careful planning and enthusiastic delivery.”
Young’s other two children are Joni and Phyllis. Joni went to Iowa State University and became an equine veterinarian. She went back to school to get a master’s degree in physical therapy.
“She could have taught biology,” Young said. “She did something related to science throughout her career.”
Phyllis was the only one of the three kids to have Mom as a teacher. By the time Young was hired, Joni had already graduated.
“Phyllis was a good student, but why she wanted to take Anatomy, I don’t know. She wasn’t interested in science,” Young said. “But she studied hard. I certainly didn’t favor her in the classroom.”
Mitcheltree said her mother and father, Philip or “Tib” as he was commonly called, made every moment a “teachable moment.”
“I always got to hear the teacher’s perspective on a disagreement,” she laughed. “Not a lot of sympathy was coming my way.”
“My kids felt that way, too,” Messerli chimed in.
Mitcheltree said she had occasion to flip through her mother’s retirement book recently, and read page after page of accolades from her colleagues.
“Several of her peers at the high school said she’d been such a great example, that she was so prepared, and that she had such a passion for her subject matter,” Mitcheltree said. “I saw that from teaching at the high school. She really worked with the students in biology who thought they were hardly going to pass.”
Young, who celebrated her 94th birthday in November, is a modest person who said, “Students didn’t take anatomy if they couldn’t handle it. They were the best students.” She remarked that her class was recommended to all college-bound students because “it would teach them how to study.”
Young brought to FHS her expertise, her obvious love for her subject matter, and her philosophy that “students rise only to the level of your expectations of them.” She encouraged all students and expected the utmost of them.
Young graduated from Udell Iowa High School in Appanoose County as valedictorian, and spent one year at Centerville Junior College. She transferred to Parsons College in Fairfield, where she graduated Cum Laude in 1946.
During her inaugural year of teaching history and physical education at Sigourney High School, the dean at Parsons asked her to return to the school and join the faculty. That’s what Young did in 1947, teaching physical education skills classes, health classes and coaching girls’ basketball.
She obtained her master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and during her 26 years at Parsons, she began teaching physical education methods classes as well as anatomy and kinesiology.
During her tenure at FHS, Young instituted the INS (I’ll Never Smoke) club, which served to educate students throughout the district on the dangers of smoking and tobacco use. In 1983, she and the club received an award from the American Lung Association proclaiming them to be the Outstanding INS Club in the state of Iowa.
Upon her retirement in 1988, Young and her husband decided they would see the world, starting with a visit to China that fall.
Students interested in the scholarship can apply for it through the FHS guidance office. Donations are being sought to fund this first year, with hopes of awarding $1,000. Those who wish to make a donation to the scholarship fund should make their check payable to Linda Mitcheltree (704 Franklin St., Keosauqua, IA 52565) or Ralph Messerli (2191 Key Blvd., Fairfield, IA 52556) and include “Vera Young Science Scholarship” in the memo line. The scholarship fund is being held at First National Bank in Fairfield.
The scholarship will be awarded when the chosen student proves their enrollment. The scholarship will go toward defraying the cost of their first year of college.
“The first year is troubling for a lot of kids because of the cost of college now,” Messerli said. “We’d like to think that, as this goes, we’ll be able to award more money.”