Anyone who knew Ellen Spycher will recall her quick wit and ready smile. Those who knew her well remember a deeply intellectual person who exhibited genuine concern for all who crossed her path. Those who knew her best miss a wife, mother, and beloved “Nina” to her grandchildren, a friend who cherished time with loved ones, and who valued education as central to a life well-lived.
Born in New York City in 1946, she married Richard (also a Big Apple native) in 1968. Daughter Beth and son Rich were then born in succession. Ellen’s college career was interrupted by the family’s move to Illinois, in 1976, prompted by her husband’s employment with ADM.
As the children grew, Ellen resumed her higher education where she left off years before. Steadily, a few courses at a time, she earned her way through an associate’s degree (Richland Community College), her bachelor’s degree (from Sangamon State, steadfastly refusing to change her diploma to read U. of I. – Springfield), her master’s degree and then her doctorate in Education (both at Illinois State University). All told, it took two decades to earn the Ph.D.
Ellen’s professional activities were devoted to literacy and its importance for every person. Her name is on the plaque in the foyer of the Decatur Public Library, where she served as a board member while the building was completed. For ten years she worked for and managed Project Read, an outreach to adult learners. She taught the Masters in Reading program at ISU, and also English and related courses for undergraduates. Her coordination of a teaching cohort designed for Decatur educators helped several earn their own master’s degrees. Other work included the development of a reading methods curriculum for the Illinois prison system, as well as a program for teachers in Tanzania (where she visited several times to assist with implementation).
The long process by which she earned her own certifications gave Ellen an acute awareness of the encouragement a person needs along the way. To this end, she founded a scholarship program to provide annual assistance for a student pursuing ISU’s Masters in Reading.
She also recognized the importance of supporting those already working directly with younger learners, establishing the Ellen Spycher Teacher’s Fund with the Decatur Public Schools Foundation. She realized that teachers are expected to deal with a multitude of issues above and beyond instruction. Every student carries something different in their figurative backpacks; effective educators feel a yearning to address it all, but often lack the resources to do so.
Ellen embodied this kindness, pairing it with a sense of fun and a colorful wit in keeping with her New York roots. After Ellen’s passing in February 2015, Martha Henderson – a teacher at Muffley Elementary School – became a steward of the Fund.
“She was my mentor, my role model, and my best friend,” Martha says. If Ellen’s life were presented as a book, the cover “Would be a collage of, first and foremost, her family. It would also have pictures of her friends, places she has visited, titles of her favorite books, her dogs, and, of course, knitting needles. The title would be told through the pictures. That way each individual could give it their own.”
Martha oversees the distribution of classroom awards to 25 teachers each November. Winners submit their names to be drawn at random, and are advised to put the gift to use in a meaningful way. Every fall, this stroke of luck for each teacher reminds us of our good fortune in having known Ellen.
Thank you to those who have joined Ellen’s family to create an endowment that forever benefits teachers. Friends can make a memorial contribution to Ellen’s Fund by following this link and clicking on her name: