Obituary: John Swayze Thorpe / Beloved Shady Side Academy teacher
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To his kids, John "Jack" Swayze Thorpe was Big Daddy, the Voice of Shady Side and Jungle Jim.
Mr. Thorpe, a brilliant mathematics teacher who taught more than 40 years at the senior school of Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel, had loved surrounding himself with students and tutoring them.
Mr. Thorpe would continue to teach until the end of life, even as he lost his ability to walk and was unable to breathe properly or utter complete sentences.
"He just loved seeing people thinking and solving problems. And he should've joined Mensa seven times over, but he didn't. He enjoyed having the kids all round him," said his daughter Linda McCormick of Niagara Falls, Canada. "The focus was around the kids."
Mr. Thorpe died May 19 at the age of 84.
He started at Shady Side Academy in 1947, after serving in the Army in World War II and graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, where he also earned a master's degree. He remained at Shady Side until 1991, and he was committed to the school in other ways, such as purchasing the school's first computer with his own money and starting a backpacking club that went on trips to the Appalachian Mountains.
And Mr. Thorpe also served as dean of students -- the school's disciplinarian -- for several years. He knew all the tricks of the trade, Ms. McCormick said, because he once was a teenage jokester himself.
"He managed to get away with, because of his cleverness, just about every high school prank he could think of," she said.
Mr. Thorpe was born in Perryopolis, Fayette County, to Ethel D. Thorpe, a math teacher, and John S. Thorpe Jr., the manager of the only supermarket in the small town.
Perryopolis was so small, said brother Ralph Thorpe of Traverse City, Mich., that everybody knew each other. Nonetheless, Ms. McCormick said, Mr. Thorpe, as a student of Perry Township High School, somehow evaded all of the townspeople during the school day and hitchhiked to Pittsburgh to hear jazz concerts.
He only got caught after he got picked up by his high school principal one day on the road back to town.
When he worked at Shady Side Academy, he would tell this story and others to his students, building a following of loyal teenagers. They would often give him nicknames.
One year when he was house master at one of the school's dorms, the house softball team affectionately called him "Jungle Jim," after the famed athlete Jim Thorpe.
There is no relation between the two Thorpes, Ms. McCormick said. Although Mr. Thorpe did play football during his college years, his sister -- Leah Page of Dover, York County -- said he was too "big and a little gangly" to play sports well.
Ultimately, it was teaching that was Mr. Thorpe's passion: During his time at Shady Side Academy, he taught at least one class every year.
(He did leave the school from October 1950 to July 1951 to serve a military tour in Korea during the Korean War.) He also taught night classes at the University of Pittsburgh.
"[His class] was amazing. I learned a lot from Jack in terms of reaching out to kids and meeting them at their level," said Thomas Rossi, director of college counseling. He and Mr. Thorpe visited each other's classes in the late 1980s as part of professional development.
"He would find out what they were thinking about, and what level they were understanding [subjects], and he would reach to them and bring them up to a higher level," said Mr. Rossi. "He was very student-centered and would often would go out of his way to reach out and help them."
When he and his wife, Elaine, moved to Andrews, N.C., in 1991 for retirement, Mr. Thorpe continued to teach students, but the students were now adults. He taught subjects including carving and English as a second language.
But soon, Mr. Thorpe was forced to take care of ailing Elaine, who was suffering from kidney failure.
Shortly after Elaine died in 2003, the then-healthy man suffered a heart attack, resulting in five bypasses.
He moved to Buffalo, N.Y., and his heart continued to deteriorate through the years until last week, when he died in his daughter's arms.
"I'm missing him terribly," she said. "He's a pretty big force that's left us."
In addition to his Ms. McCormick and his brother and sister, Mr. Thorpe is survived by his daughter Margaret Thorpe, of Somerville, Mass., and will be remembered by those he taught at Shady Side Academy, the University of Pittsburgh and in Andrews. Mr. Thorpe will be buried this autumn at Arlington National Cemetery, although the date has yet to be set.
The family requests that all memorial contributions in his honor be sent to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
First Published May 30, 2009 12:00 am