By Catherine Pratt and Tim Pratt
On the memorable occasion of her 90th birthday, Lorraine Hall Santangelo received a citation of appreciation from the Connecticut General Assembly, presented by then–State Representative Elissa Wright, in recognition of, among many other achievements, her “distinguished 40-year career as one of Fitch High School’s finest teachers.”
Indeed, Lorraine’s tenth-grade English class made such an impact that, decades later, we remember much of her reading list, which spanned the major genres of poetry, prose, and drama: The Stranger, by Albert Camus, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, Silas Marner, by George Eliot, Julius Caesar, by Shakespeare, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, The Pearl, by John Steinbeck, the poetry of Robert Frost, and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Absurdist philosophy, Shakespeare, and Greek tragedy might have posed a challenging curriculum for students ages 15 and 16, but Lorraine’s gift for teaching was undeniable. Together we analyzed and interpreted complex literary works, and her love of her subject brought it alive.
Many former students will attest that her weekly vocabulary lessons, on which there were frequent, unannounced quizzes, while the cause of some grumbling at the time, provided a grasp of the English language that has stayed with them throughout their lives.
As faculty advisor to the Fitch literary magazine, Amphora, Lorraine spent long hours after school guiding its production, making sure the young staff stayed focused. Thanks to her characteristic insistence on excellence, Amphora was regularly awarded top honors in the state.
Lorraine’s contributions to her community extended into many fields. When the circa-1783 Jabez Smith farmhouse was acquired by the Town of Groton, she was one of a small group of citizens who immediately recognized the historical importance of the house and its potential as a museum of colonial life in our region. For over 30 years, first as chair of the Historic Properties Advisory Committee, and then as chair of the Jabez Smith House Committee, she advocated tirelessly for the preservation and improvement of the house, and steered it to become an educational and cultural asset for the town.
Her enthusiasm for the house and her sense of its mission were infectious. For years, along with its resident curators, Lorraine presided over lectures, book readings, concerts, and dramatic performances. People enjoyed the glimpse into an earlier time, as well as the homemade chocolate-chip cookies she always provided. Lorraine’s vision and persistence on behalf of the Jabez Smith House have helped ensure that it will continue to serve as a living symbol of our town’s fascinating past.
In Lorraine’s English class we studied Robert Frost’s famous poem “Birches.” It was one that she liked. The speaker imagines that birch trees, bowed over after an ice storm, are actually bent because a boy’s been “swinging” them, between the sky above and the ground below. It ends as follows:
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Lorraine embraced her time on this earth. She will be remembered with gratitude, for her keen intelligence, her exceptional talents, her devotion to public service, the generations of young lives she inspired, and her unshakable conviction, imparted to her students and to all those fortunate enough to know her, that anything worth doing is worth doing well.