Farewell to the Queen

Leanne Haas, Staff Writer

She was known as “The Queen.” She sat on her throne, “Stomping out Ignorance” as she had dedicated her life to doing. She taught history as if she had lived it. She was Greek. She was French. She was African. Her best friends were Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc and Socrates, to name a few.

She time traveled through the world – and she didn’t even have to leave her chair. But Mary Roach wasn’t just a World History teacher, she was a Tomball legend.

Mrs. Roach began her teaching career in the late 1960’s. Several years later, she joined Tomball – and stayed here for 43 years. She spent most of her life teaching generations of students, many of whom became teachers themselves at THS.

She had mastered the art of teaching.

 “I’ve never seen a teacher who could just sit in the middle of the room in a chair, look into the air, and just talk,” sophomore Nancy Nieto said.

She was fearless, and experienced in the art of humility. If someone misbehaved, they had better be prepared to hold her hand at the front of the class for the rest of the lesson.

She was the kind of woman who had no problem “leading boys by their ears to their seats,” as described by long-time friend and former student, English teacher Mary Piehl.

Sophomore Alex Lopez described the occasionally amusing strategies of discipline to have been “done out of love”.

“Many might have seen her as a hard teacher,” said Chamber of Commerce President and former THS grad Bruce Hillegiest, “but under the surface she was a wonderful woman who loved to make a positive difference in people’s lives.”

Hillegiest can recall receiving a special graduation gift from Mrs. Roach. “She sent me a hand-written note letting me know what she thought of me – my character and such,” he said.

Lopez can relate, recalling the time Mrs. Roach remembered a paper she had written at the beginning of the school year. In it, Lopez said she wanted to be a doctor. Lopez thought Mrs. Roach would have forgotten about her story, among her numerous students. But later, Mrs. Roach came up to her, embraced her in a hug and told her, “You’re going to be a great doctor.”

She was whole-heartedly dedicated to such students and the future of society, remembered as saying, “Teaching is an act of faith. You have to believe that teenagers will grow up and become productive, decent people and productive citizens, and they most invariably do.”

Hillegiest believes she never forgot her students.

“I could mention a student from 30 years ago and she would say ‘I remember him’ and give something specific about that person,” he said.

Mrs. Roach was heavily involved with THS, sponsoring the National Honor Society for 20 years, and going to UIL competitions with students, often bringing them home-baked brownies. She brought her own students on a field trip each year to Houston’s mosques, temples and museums.

Beyond that, she was an involved citizen, eager to give back. She committed herself to the community in service projects “benefitting students, staff members, community members, the homeless, and those struck by tragedy,” said Piehl, who is also the sponsor of the Red Cross club. “Through her loving example, she taught us life-lessons that extended and obliged us far beyond the classroom.”

Mrs. Roach was a strong woman – emotionally, physically and mentally. She outlived many of her family members, including her parents, husband and son. And she still wasn’t ready to give up the fight when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006.

Mrs. Roach battled lymphoma for years, relapse after relapse. And on March 7, 2012, she threw the first pitch at the 4th annual Paint the Yard Pink softball game, in honor of cancer survivors.

But at age 77, she had developed a fast-acting disease known to form within weeks – Burkitt’s Lymphoma. It was described by her doctor, Dr. Ewan Johnson, as the most aggressive and devastating form of lymphoma on the planet. And it was as rare as it is aggressive, with only 300 cases annually in the United States.

Mrs. Roach kept her diagnosis under wraps from most. She taught for as long as she could, even after being diagnosed. But her disease was rapidly spreading behind the scenes.

One day, she stopped coming to work. There was a substitute, but it wasn’t the same. Friends visited her in the hospital, students and staff made her giant get-well-soon cards. She was gone for two more weeks.

On Friday, May 11th, the sky was dark. It had been raining that day. Mrs. Roach was in her own bed, with former students now grown into dear friends nearby. Teachers and students had just been released from school. She passed away quietly in her sleep.

The history hallway outside her classroom is covered top-to-bottom with bitter-sweet goodbye notes filled with memories, promises, and love.

“Thank you for being a mother of thousands,” Erika Lovelace wrote on the giant blue paper.

“I never got to say thank you for telling me not to be scared of change, to discover things for myself,” wrote another student. “You were the only one to focus on what was important in my life.”

And even after she is gone, Mrs. Roach will still be changing student’s lives. Her wish was that instead of flowers, contributions be made to the new Mary Wilkinson Roach Scholarship, made possible through Regions Bank, to aid Tomball High School graduates wishing to pursue teaching careers.

It’s the small things that are missed and remembered of fondly.

For Piehl, it was Mrs. Roach’s “matched socks with tops, racy blingged-up denim jacket,” and “hands slapping on hips.” For Nieto, it was her “cute” hair she so humbly combed often at the beginning of class periods. Lopez misses her eyebrows, and how they constantly animated her face.

For now, ‘Mrs. Roach, World History PAP’ still remains next to the entrance of her classroom.

But walking through that door, there is still an emptiness that can be felt, even among the familiar posters, pictures, and signed file cabinets bearing the names of decades of students resting in the same place she left them. The stack of pillows previously used as a place of gathering for story time lay in a pile next to the door. One red rose and one white rose lay crossing each other upon her blue throne.

On Sunday, June 3rd, Tomball High School will join with the community in the auditorium in a Memorial Celebration honoring Mrs. Roach. Mayor Gretchen Fagan declared June 3rd as Mary Wilkinson Roach Day.

Her favorite Greek quote, handwritten in cursive in green marker remains on her white board behind multiple world maps: “There is neither glory nor honor in a stolen victory.”

Her own victory was well-earned, one that will not be forgotten by Tomball; her victory of love and dedication to her students.