Well-known PE teacher set to write a new chapter

MIDDLEBURY — Jacque McNamara’s life is unfolding in a pattern similar to the contours of the Green Mountains she loves to climb.
A lot of peaks and some valleys.
And while she retired last week from a lengthy teaching career at Mary Hogan Elementary School, she’s not done climbing.
McNamara, 68, has decided to move on after more than four decades as a health and physical education teacher, with 27 of those years spent at the Mary Hogan School. She’s known for speaking her mind, and did so generously during a recent interview with the Independent, sharing stories about a rich life that has thus far included love, lessons taught, lessons learned and the will to overcome when death knocks on your front door.
Mary Hogan Elementary actually lost two veteran physical education teachers to retirement at the close of the school year last week. Mike Quinn (see related story here) also called it quits after 44 years, 37 of them at Mary Hogan.
“To me, Mike is like a brother,” McNamara said. “We are only about three weeks apart (in age).”
McNamara was the oldest of nine children growing up in Ewing Township, located just outside of Trenton, N.J. She attended Ewing public schools, where her junior high physical education teacher, “Mrs. Tattler,” encouraged her to pursue a career in the same field.
“I wasn’t doing well in academics,” McNamara recalled, “but I was really good at track and running and gymnastics. I was a very good athlete. I think my resiliency came from her positive reinforcement of me as an athlete. She became my mentor and my role model.”
McNamara became the first in her family to go beyond high school when she enrolled at Trenton State College. She waitressed five or six nights per week to pay her own way through college. She also gave her parents $35 each week for room and board.
“I have a sister 22 years younger than myself,” she said. “They really needed the money.”
Her life got a lot more complicated in 1969. At age 21, she became pregnant with her first son, Christopher. Then her mom died in her arms on Christmas Day following a battle with cancer.
McNamara would try to make a go of it with the father of her child, but it was clear the union would not last. He was abusive, according to McNamara.
Overwhelmed, she took stock in her life and decided she was not going to give up her child or her career plans. So she resisted the advice that she put her son up for adoption, got an apartment and continued waitressing while earning her health and physical education teaching credentials.
“I developed a nice network of support,” McNamara recalled. “I kept my son, finished my education.”
After graduating in 1971, McNamara started out as a substitute PE teacher in Trenton public schools before landing her first full-time gig in 1972 at her alma mater in Ewing. Suddenly, her former teachers were her colleagues.
“That was the job that really broke me in,” McNamara recalled. “They had me doing soccer, speedball and hockey, then I’d have to do first aid, sex education and drivers’ education. I had a really good opportunity to learn a lot during my first year.”
She was prepared for a lengthy teaching stint at Ewing, but her life came to a fork in the road when she met Robert McNamara — a former, longtime biology teacher at Vergennes Union High School. McNamara at the time was visiting New Jersey.
“I guess he was interested in me,” she recalled with a smile.
Robert McNamara would make frequent weekend trips from Addison County to New Jersey to visit Jacque. Six months after they met, he asked her to marry him. She accepted, and switched her address to Vermont in 1973.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait long to land a job.
“I interviewed at VUHS and they hired me on the spot,” McNamara said.
A short while into her teaching engagement, McNamara was pregnant — this time, with identical twin boys; Jonathan and Dylan McNamara were born in 1974. She temporarily checked out of full-time teaching in order to care for then, but led some part-time physical education classes at the Otter Creek Child Center to offset her children’s tuition there.
McNamara returned to full-time teaching in 1979, taking a job in health/physical education at Northlands Job Corps in Vergennes. She found the work very fulfilling, building positive relationships with ethnically and racially diverse students from throughout New England.
“It was a high-risk, high-needs, diverse population, and I learned a great deal from them,” she recalled.
She strived to get the Job Corps students familiar with the Green Mountain State. McNamara led occasional hikes up Snake Mountain and other beautiful locations that students from urban settings might otherwise not have experienced.
“I wanted them to enjoy the culture, what Vermont had to offer,” McNamara said. “They really touched my heart.”
McNamara left Job Corps in 1988 to teach part time at Vergennes Union Elementary School.
“I was trying to get back into the public school system, because I was invested in retirement,” McNamara said.
After a year at VUES, McNamara successfully interviewed for a hybrid position at Mary Hogan Elementary in 1989.
“It was a combination of music and physical education,” McNamara recalled. “It was a model they were investigating, but it didn’t pan out the way they wanted it to”
Fortunately, Mary Hogan’s population had by then swelled to a point where another health/gym teacher was needed. And McNamara served — along with Quinn — as the key members of that staff until their respective retirements last week.
Her life has always been about kids, both in and out of school.
She recalled how her twin boys, then 14 and stellar students at VUHS, helped her run some physical education activities for what was a massive, 125-student kindergarten class at the Mary Hogan School. All three of her boys were accomplished wrestlers and got along well with each other.
McNamara recalled how Jonathan and Dylan would hide their A-laden report cards from Christopher — who went on to be a U.S. Marine and Gulf War veteran — because they didn’t want their less academically inclined sibling to feel bad by comparison.
All three boys also had a great work ethic, their mother said.
“They not only milked cows at all the big farms in the area, they were life guards, they were swim instructors and tennis instructors,” McNamara said.
Jonathan and Dylan McNamara both graduated from VUHS at 17. Jonathan went to UVM, and Dylan attended Syracuse.
Just two days before his 18th birthday in 1992, Jonathan died in a hazing incident at UVM. He fell from a cliff after losing his balance while under the influence of alcohol during a pledge outing with the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity that he hoped to join, according to McNamara.
“He was going to be a pediatrician, and he would have,” she said, working hard to keep her composure.
They say time heals all wounds, but try telling that to a mom who suffers every parent’s worst nightmare: Outliving their own child.
She recalled her last phone conversation with her son, just a few days before his death. He was feeling a little intimidated by the pedigrees of his prospective fraternity brothers.
“He said, ‘Mom, they all come from doctors and lawyers,’” McNamara recalled. “What I said to him was, ‘You are only the second from our family to go to (college). You come from coal miners, carpenters and machinists, the best woodworkers on the planet. Don’t ever apologize for your roots … and always make safe choices. Always.”
He was gone a few days later.
The McNamaras were decimated by the news. Jacque McNamara got the strength to carry on by continuing her work with children — something her son had planned to do.
“In the loss of my son, I was teaching in his memory and doing what he couldn’t do,” McNamara said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Every smile, every hug just felt like having my son around me. I feel Jonathan around me every day. His spirit is there.”
Dylan came to his mom’s retirement party earlier this month. He is now a doctor of clinical and school psychology and is currently director of student support services in Essex.
Dylan and his wife have two children. They named their firstborn Jonathan, after Dylan’s twin brother.
“Can I ask for a better life?” McNamara said. “Two beautiful grandchildren and a wonderful daughter-in-law.”
Jacque and Robert McNamara are no longer married, but remain good friends. She has a small cottage on Lake Champlain in Panton that she is renovating in tribute to her son Jonathan. Her twins had loved swimming since they were nine months old. And Jonathan suffered his fatal accident at the lake, she noted.
“The tie to the lake is pretty profound,” McNamara said.
It should be noted that McNamara helped put Mary Hogan School’s swimming program on the map several years ago. Seeing a young child learn how to swim is still one of her biggest thrills.
She is a firm believer that physical education helps children get better results in the classroom.
“I believe in that critical relationship between movement and academic performance,” she said. “I believe in taking care of your body as long as you can so you can do what you want as long as you can. Without your health … it’s not going to matter how well you do math. Your health, fitness and safety choices are fundamental to life.”
McNamara feels lucky to have been able to help steer children to exercise and healthy habits early in their lives.
“I think at this level, you can really help form good habits,” McNamara said of K-6 students. “They are impressionable, they are still developing those healthy lifestyle habits. You are really teaching to hopefully prevent some of those (poor lifestyle choices).”
She continues to teach part-time at Addison Central School, a stint that helped her maintain a full workweek when her position at the Mary Hogan School was reduced to 60 percent several years ago to reflect lower student enrollment. The Addison school received a major grant that allows McNamara to teach expanded sports programming to children. She takes the kids through skiing, snowshoeing and climbing walls, among other activities.
“For me, it’s a philosophy for how you live in the world,” she said. “It’s about camaraderie, respect, trust, problem solving, conflict resolution and reflection.”
McNamara is retiring because she wants some time for herself. She’s been working at one job or another since she was 14. She’s made a miraculous recovery from a major, recent spinal cord injury, and wants to make the most of her reclaimed mobility.
“I’m not sure what it’s like to take care of me,” she said, adding, “I don’t quite have the stamina and strength that I used to.”
She’ll be based at her lakeside cottage, but still wants to keep a toe in the teaching waters — in Addison, perhaps another part-time gig, along with volunteering at the Special Olympics.
McNamara compares her life to a book, and thanked her friends and colleagues at her retirement party for helping her write quite a few chapters.
“Regardless of what chapter I am going through, on every page and every chapter, you have all been there for me every step of the way,” she told them. “I have been able to ride on the wings of the love of the Mary Hogan community. I absolutely love teaching and I love our students.
“I’m really going to miss this job.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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