Greater Morristown remembers Irene Phelan: Teacher, dancer, super volunteer, super mom

Irene Phelan
Irene Phelan
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By Peggy Carroll

The kids on the Assumption School bus never forgot to greet her. For years, when the bus passed her house in Morris Township, they would chorus: “Hello, Mrs. Phelan!”

For the children, and for many of their parents before them, Irene Phelan was a beloved physical education teacher. For 40 years, she led the youngest students in the school through games and exercises they still remember.

Irene Phelan
Irene Phelan

When she retired, she began teaching another kind of student: Older adults. She led exercise classes for seniors in three communities. Often, one friend quipped, some of these older folk were young enough to be her children.

She was more than 90 years old.

She also was a materfamilias — the mother of a large family -– with eight children, 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

This week, her family, her past students of all ages, her fellow volunteers and the people she knew in her 56 very active years in Greater Morristown joined to mourn her loss.

Mrs. Phelan died on Sept. 17, 2016. She was 96.

A LONG AND ACTIVE LIFE

Irene Phelan was born on June 12, 1920, in Dunkirk, N.Y., to Victoria (Czapiga) Weglinski and Frank Weglinski, Polish immigrants. She was extremely proud of her Polish heritage and spoke the language fluently. She was a member of Polish Falcons Club and Dom Polski.

After graduation from Dunkirk High School, where she played tennis, golf, swam, biked and danced, she went on to Cortland State Teachers College (now SUNY Cortland)on a full academic scholarship. She then taught physical education in Delmar, N.Y.

While attending graduate school in 1944, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Phelan met Dave Phelan at a USO dance. They were engaged within months and married on April 21, 1945, in Dunkirk, N.Y. Dave, later president of Hoechst, died in 2006.

Child-rearing kept her busy for awhile, though she remained active by volunteering as a ballroom dance instructor in her spare time. When her youngest child entered first grade, she returned to teaching and went to work at Assumption.

According to her obituary, she started out with kindergarten-through-8th grade students, but in her last decade she down-sized to teaching three kindergarten and four pre-K classes once per week. She officially retired when she was 90.

In an online condolence, a former student recalled that Phelan had been a teacher to her mother and aunts before her, and to her younger brother after.

“I still remember playing tag while standing in the hula hoop,” she said. Others recalled the scooters they rode and something called “chicken fat.”

She did so well with the children, a friend said, “because she was a kid at heart” herself.

A family who had children in the school for almost a decade called her “Assumption School’s icon, one of a kind.”  With her death, they continued, “we all have another angel looking over us.”

In an interview with the Morris News Bee when she turned 93, Mrs. Phelan talked about her work with seniors. She was teaching four classes a week in Morris Township, Morristown and Morris Plains, each with between 30 to 60 people, who ranged in age from the late 50s to 94.

“I’m lucky that I have all these things to keep me occupied. I count my blessings,” Phelan said then. “I am grateful that I can still teach and maybe make a little difference in somebody’s life.”

She said she started teaching ballroom dancing in the ’70s with the Morristown Department of Aging before moving the class toward aerobics routines. She played music from their generation– sort of “exercising to the very oldies.”

Some of her students, it was noted, came to nearly every class she taught.

TEACHING RIGHT TO THE END

Wayne Cresta, manager of the Division or Rent Leveling and the Division of Senior Services for the Town of Morristown, met Phelan 23 years ago. “She was an amazing woman,” he said. “She was full of energy, even through her last days.”

Even near the end, when she was on oxygen, she kept teaching. “She was still teaching until a week before she died,” Cresta said.

Her children remember her as an “incredible mother,” a tireless volunteer heading committees, organizing festivals, fairs and school activities at the elementary, high school, and colleges of her children, and at Assumption Church and School.

She racked up decades of service above and beyond.

Phelan was a Democratic poll worker for 56 years. She also volunteered at Morristown Medical Center in the coffee shop for 30 years and at its Bargain Box thrift shop for more than two decades.

A Catholic, she brought communion on Sundays to nursing home patients. She was a member of Assumption Parish for 56 years and served on committees too numerous to count.

She also taught line dancing at the Woman’s Club of Morristown, and was a member of the Board of the Mt. Kemble Home for Elderly Women.

People who sent condolences mentioned her warmth and cheerfulness. But several mentioned another trait they will miss. A Morris Township neighbor talked about the “fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies she would send across the street on cold mornings.”

A friend of the Phelans put it all together. “We will miss your mom,” she wrote, “her smile, her energy, and her chocolate chip cookies.”

She is survived by her eight children, Kathy van Rijn, Ellen McCann, Mary Beth Phelan, David Phelan, Martha Phelan, Amy Phelan, Chris Phelan, and Jennifer Bensen; by her sons-in law, Willem van Rijn, Joe McCann; daughter-in-law, Kathy Phelan; grandchildren, Paul, David, Elizabeth, Kerry, Casey, Kate, David, Sean, Colleen, Kyna, Colleen, Anne, Tory, Pieter and Anne, and great-grandchildren, Mira, Emma, Zoe, Delia, Molly, Andrew, Brendan, Sara, Roos, Samuel.

The family asks that those who wish to honor Phelan consider a donation in her name to Assumption School or the Town of Morristown-Senior Trust.

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