Florence R. Kelly Fay, 85, a beloved teacher who spent more than four decades at Archbishop Ryan High School, died April 14.
Fay, of Chalfont, Bucks County, influenced generations of students after joining Ryan’s English department in 1973. Following her retirement from the classroom at age 70, she continued to work in the school’s library until 2016.
Condolences and memories from former students flooded Ryan’s Facebook page after the school posted about Fay’s death.
Her impact stretched beyond the students to fellow teachers. Ryan had been open only seven years when Fay was hired, and she became a friend and mentor to a group of younger English teachers who also started at the school in the 1970s.
“We were all kids. We were all babies right out of college,” said Pat Carlo, a teacher who still works at Ryan. “She had 20 years on us, and she was very experienced, but she fit right in with all of us.”
“We were like her students,” she added.
Fay graduated from Little Flower High School and taught at several local colleges, including Thomas Jefferson University and La Salle University, before coming to Ryan.
As a woman in the then-male-dominated ranks of college professors, Fay battled sexism, according to Rosemary Leone, an English teacher who started at Ryan a year after Fay.
When she arrived at Ryan, Fay told her students not to rely on their husbands and urged them to work toward a career, Leone said. Boys and girls at the school were segregated until 1989.
“I think if you talked to anybody in the school who knew her they would say she was the smartest woman they ever met,” Leone said.
Fay was known for taking her students to the opera. For many, it was their first trip, and Fay prepared them by explaining the art form and playing music in class. Fay would go downtown to fight for tickets, which were divided up among schools.
“She took me to my first opera, and I hated it,” Leone said. “And yet, she had the kids all around mesmerized.”
Fay also organized class trips to New York. She knew the city well, having earned her master’s degree from St. John’s University.
Once, during one of those trips, a school secretary left theater tickets on the bus, even after the driver warned everyone to take everything they needed. Fay, according to Arlene Brickman, another teacher she mentored, talked her way into the show and saved the trip for the students.
“She was that kind of charming person,” Brickman said. “It was because of her fast-talking that we actually got in that day.”
In the classroom, Fay encouraged her students and delved into the material. She was particularly remembered for her lesson on A Streetcar Named Desire, the play written by Tennessee Williams.
“She actually became Blanche DuBois in the classroom,” said Ryan teacher John Molnar, referring to the story’s main character.
Fay thought failing students was pointless, Leone said, and she challenged other teachers to not fail their students. However, she wouldn’t just give them a passing grade. Fay would show up early or stay late to work with struggling students to help them avoid failure, according to Leone.
“That was one thing as young teachers I think she taught us — to be sensitive to the kids,” Brickman said. “That you don’t know what their backgrounds are, where they’re coming from. That was something that was very important to her.”
Fay received her bachelor’s degree from Chestnut Hill College and enjoyed several years working as a patient actor for Drexel University’s School of Medicine.
She is survived by her children William Fay, Maura Scott, Kristin Sauers and Timothy Fay; her siblings Mary McCormick and Jack Kelly; and several grandchildren.
A celebration of Fay’s life will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. at Church of the Holy Family, 234 Hermitage St. in Manayunk. ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org