Remembering Mary Duckert

01-18-2010 by

Geoff Ashmun
The annual gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) at the end of January is an occasion for the McCormick community to remember the life, work and spirit of Mary Duckert (Class of 1953), 1995 APCE Educator of the Year, who gave tirelessly to the spiritual development of generations of Presbyterian families. She died last October 25 in Portland, Oregon.

Recently, we spoke with Carol Wehrheim, herself a past APCE Educator of the Year and now President of McCormick’s Alumni/ae Council, about what made her friend, Mary, so memorable.

“I have a feeling Mary was a strong ‘J’ on the Myers-Briggs,” Carol mused. “There were many who thought she was quite prickly – and not without reason. She expressed her convictions freely and could explain to you in no short order why you were wrong. But the other side of those rough edges was someone really fun and quick-witted and who cared deeply about how you treat and educate young people.”

A native of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, Duckert studied at McCormick under Professor Hulda Niebuhr in the 1950s before going on to serve as Christian educator and children’s ministry leader for congregations in Hammond, Indiana, Libertyville, Illinois, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

While Carol never spoke at length with Mary about those years with Hulda Niebuhr, she suspects they were formative. “After I read [McCormick Professor] Lib Caldwell’s biography of Hulda Niebuhr, I could imagine Mary learning from and feeling a sense of kinship with her. Mary believed very strongly in the integrity of young people, that they were to be taken seriously and not to be pandered to.”

“[Hulda Niebuhr] espoused inductive teaching, discovery learning, original teaching plans and materials, and teacher/learner cooperative planning at a time when these ideas were understood and appreciated by a precious few and practiced by even fewer,” Mary observes in one of Caldwell’s biographical introductions to Niebuhr.

Mary had a heart not only for young people but also for small congregations, having grown up in the rural Midwest. She knew firsthand the challenge of running a Sunday School program with limited resources and training for teachers. With this audience in mind, she published the popular resource, Help! I’m A Sunday School Teacher, which offered volunteers the kind of on-the-job insights designed to give them a fighting chance. The book remained in print for 25 years.

Mary dedicated most of her professional life to curriculum development on the denomination’s Board of Christian Education, where she and Carol first crossed paths and continued to for many years. In meetings, Mary always seemed to be busy with an embroidery project or crossword puzzle, Carol remembers, chiming in when she felt compelled to express an opinion without missing a beat. At conferences, they were often leading workshops at the same time and seldom if ever had the opportunity to witness each other in action.

“In my files some place, I have a list of potential church school units that Mary and I came up with at one of those conferences,” Carol said. “But we knew that they were just beyond the pale and wouldn’t happen until we didn’t have any other jobs.”

Retirement for Mary meant what it does for many lifelong ministers and educators – a more flexible schedule, perhaps, but no less activity. One of her more interesting pursuits was a two- to three-month residency at a friend’s Protestant parish in Manchester, England, where Mary would work with the church school and direct the Christmas pageant.

Few people, it seems, were as convicted of the importance of early Christian formation as Mary Duckert was, but she was very clear about the boundary between nurture and indoctrination.

“There is one aspect of church school teaching that is peculiar to church education,” Duckert writes in Help! I’m A Sunday School Teacher. “We are not expected to make Christians of the children we teach. The Bible is clear about that. Whenever teachers put that burden on themselves, they fail. Our work is to open the Scriptures, excite curiosity, support thoughtful inquiry, and be around when important decisions are being made.”