Mrs. Rhines’ Opus: Former students and colleagues thank beloved educator in Morristown

Ann Rhines exclaims as she sees Chip Rae, left, her 6th grade student from 1965. Rhines was honored at Morristow High on April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Ann Rhines is one of those rare people who knew her calling at a tender age.

“I want to be a kindergarten teacher!” she informed her parents after her first day of school, almost eight decades ago.

Ann Rhines listens with her family to accolades at a celebration of her 60-year career in education, April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

She made the right choice, according to parents, colleagues and former students who sang her praises Sunday at Morristown High School.

Rhines stepped down from the Morris School District board last December, concluding a 60-year career in education.

Nearly 40 of those years were in Morristown and Morris Township classrooms, as an elementary school teacher. The balance has been spent volunteering for the nonprofit Morris Educational Foundation, and serving on the regional board.

“Everyone looked up to her. I copied almost everything she did,” said Bob Luchs, who taught with Rhines at the Alexander Hamilton School.

‘NOT A JOB, A JOY’: Ann Rhines reflects on her long teaching career, April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Generations, it seems, have looked up to Rhines– which speaks volumes, considering she’s barely tall enough to peer over a podium.

When they met years ago, Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra said, he mistook Rhines for Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

To many in Greater Morristown, Rhines has been as inspirational as the late Supreme Court Justice.

“She was one of those people you don’t want to let down,” said Octavio Zapata, an Alexander Hamilton 5th grader in 2000-2001, Rhines’ last year of teaching.

“Ann Rhines is the heavyweight champion of the Morris School District. She inspired everyone to succeed,” added Joanne Borin, a grateful parent.

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Borin credited Rhines with nudging Borin’s son James to try fencing — he became an NCAA champ at Yale–and with boosting her daughter Jill’s confidence en route to Phi Beta Kappa status by confiding: “You’re smarter than your brother!”

Cousins Rosie Rhines, 7, and Justin Sontupe announce Legacy Fund honoring their grandmother, Ann Rhines, April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Town hall sent a proclamation declaring Sunday “Ann B. Rhines Day” in Morristown. The district teachers union unveiled a new “Ann Rhines Exemplary Educator Award.”  Rhines’ family and friends announced a $100,000 “Legacy Fund” for recruiting and retaining top teachers.

Later, they watched Mr. Holland’s Opus, one of Rhines’ favorite films, about a frustrated composer who makes his mark as a music teacher.

Much like the movie, Sunday’s highlights were testimonials from former students, recounting how “Mrs. Rhines” changed their lives.

‘VIVACIOUS, KIND, STYLISH’

Chip Rae, who went on to a Wall Street career, remembered his 6th grade class at the Hillcrest School in 1965.  Most of his teachers there, he said, were “a cross between my grandmother and Bess Truman.”

Then along came “vivacious, kind, stylish, highly energetic, 23-year-old Ann Rhines, exuding charisma,” Rae said. Smitten, he chased after her one day, downtown. Rhines treated him to a chocolate milkshake.

“She made me feel like the most special little boy in the world,” Rae said.

Former Morristown Mayor Jay DeLaney Jr. shows off essay book he wrote for his 6th grade teacher, Ann Rhines, at celebration on April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Jay DeLaney Jr. was in that same class. Decades later, Rhines suggested he should run for mayor. He won. DeLaney thanked Rhines by managing her school board campaigns.

As a pupil, though, DeLaney acknowledged being a handful. Rhines got through to him, with qualities the lawyer compared to legendary football coaches Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.

“Your work ethic? Second to none. You demanded excellence. You were creative. But most importantly,” DeLaney said, “you treated all of us like individuals.”

Every year, Rhines tasked students with compiling an anthology of their essays. She challenged DeLaney to apply himself. On Sunday, he displayed the results: Tales of an Irish twin brother, and fishing with his grandfather, and other boyhood vignettes.

“It’s one of my most prized, valuable possessions,” DeLaney said of his anthology.

The audience saw a video rendition of For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow from Alex Wintz, a  student who grew up to become a classical guitarist and composer. Ben Sesar also sent video greetings.

Sesar’s schoolboy desk-tapping led Rhines to coax him to audition for the school band. He returned to class rejected, and dejected. Rhines grabbed his hand and marched back to the band room. This time, he made the cut.

Today, Sesar plays drums for country star Brad Paisley.

Debbie Rhines Sontupe emceed a tribute to her mom, Ann Rhines, April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Rhines’ first teaching gig after graduating from Hunter College was in the Bronx. When her husband Warren landed a job in Whippany, she wanted a shorter commute.

An interview in Madison jumped the tracks when Rhines refused a request to remove her eye makeup, said her daughter, Debbie Sontupe. Chatham wanted Rhines to sign a pledge not to have children for five years. Bye bye, Chatham. (Rhines is a mother of three, and awaits the birth of her seventh grandchild.)

When Morris Township educators observed Rhines in action in her Bronx classroom, they hired her on the spot, Sontupe said. The court-ordered merger with Morristown that established the Morris School District still was years away.

When her children were young, Rhines became active in their Home School Associations. She worked as a substitute teacher before returning full-time, Sontupe said.

SCARECROWS, BATHTUBS AND GREEN PENS

Teachers who love teaching teach students to love learning, proclaimed a sign in Rhines’ office at home. Green pens were everywhere; she could not inflict red comments on her pupils’ work, Sontupe explained.

Rhines’ classrooms were fun.

At Halloween, she trotted out Hildie the Scarecrow for kids to decorate as they pleased. She invited children’s authors to visit; when it was Barbara Cohen’s turn to give workshops about The Carp in the Bathtub, Rhines and her colleague Bob Luchs brought a bathtub to school.

Ann Rhines is flanked by her former 5th grade students Octavio Zapata and Ryan Reuther, April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Ryan Reuther, now a 32-year-old sales rep in New York, beamed as he described the 5th grade pizza parties Mrs. Rhines hosted every Friday. Reuther’s buddy, Octavio Zapata, an accountant, never will forget the teacher’s phone calls that helped him cope with personal struggles as a boy.

“Teaching was never a job for me. It was a joy,” Rhines said, when the microphone finally was hers.

Teacher Erin Hazen says she was inspired by Ann Rhines, April 24, 2022. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

That joy will live on.

Erin Hazen, a teacher at the Unity Charter School in Morris Township, strives to be like her 5th grade teacher from 1998.

The bar seems impossibly high. But she has a little ball of fire for a mentor, to whom she turns, on good days and bad, for sage advice.

“I love you, Mrs. Rhines,” Hazen said.  “Thank you so much.”

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