In recognition of her excellence and contributions in the field of education, St. Mary's Catholic Church and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend will present the Father Tom Light of Christ Award to longtime local educator Betty Stein.
Stein, who also has written columns for The News-Sentinel since the early 1980s, will receive the award during a ceremony at noon Friday at St. Mary's, 1101 S. Lafayette St.
“I was absolutely shocked,” Stein, 97, said of the honor.
The award is presented annually to a person or group whose efforts reflect the values exemplified by O'Connor during his many years as a priest, including 34 years as St. Mary's pastor. O'Connor died March 17, 2004.
Education “was something very near and dear to Father Tom's heart,” said Andrea Thomas, the award committee chairwoman and a longtime St. Mary's parishioner.
Stein has taught, and continues to teach, both inside and outside the classroom, Thomas said. She cited Stein's longtime and ongoing work at Memorial Park Middle School and her New-Sentinel columns.
Stein often writes about books, poetry and literature — or poses quizzes about them — in her column “By the Way,” which appears every other Tuesday on the News-Sentinel's editorial page. She also writes the Page Turner column published Saturdays in the Features section, for which she interviews people about books and publications they are reading.
Thomas said she got to know Stein through the Catholic-Jewish dialogue program several years ago involving members of St. Mary's and members of Congregation Achduth Vesholom, the city's Reform Jewish congregation, of which Stein is a member.
“It was just a wonderful experience for me personally to work with her so closely,” Thomas said, noting she also shares Stein's love of books and literacy.
The same sessions also gave Stein the opportunity to get to know O'Connor.
“I had tremendous respect for him — fondness and respect,” she said.
Born in Fort Wayne, Stein has lived here all her life except from about 1940-1945, when the job of her late husband, Curt, took them to Dallas.
After graduating from Central High School, she earned a bachelor's degree in social administration (social work) at Ohio State University. She worked briefly at the Wolf & Dessauer department store before becoming a stay-at-home mother for her son and daughter.
After they became older, she inquired about taking classes for a master's degree in English and the Humanities at what is now University of Saint Francis. The nun she spoke with recommended she get certified as a teacher.
“The day I was certified, there was an opening in Fort Wayne Community Schools,” Stein recalled.
She started teaching at the former Fairfield Junior High School about 1965.
“I loved it,” she said, and she has worked with middle school students ever since.
“The kids are really thinking, but they still are young enough to tell you how they feel,” she said. “It is very satisfying. They are capable of being really wonderful people.”
Stein taught at Fairfield Junior High for 13 years, and then was selected to be curriculum coordinator and assistant to the principal when FWCS opened Memorial Park Middle School in 1979 as a fine arts magnet school.
“I knew I would miss the classroom,” she said. “But it was an opportunity to help and affect a lot more kids — and teachers, too.”
She retired in 1982, but has stayed on at Memorial Park as a consultant, currently still working at least one day a week.
She also has been active in the community and in her congregation.
Her many contributions include serving as Achduth Vesholom's first woman board member and first woman president.
In 1988, Stein worked with the Fort Wayne Jewish Federation to create the Minority Literature Project, which brought the poetry and literature of African-American and Hispanic writers to students in area middle and high schools.
For many years, she also chaired the committee organizing the Jewish Federation's annual People of the Book lecture, which brings a noted author to town to speak.
She enjoyed serving for 20 years on the local Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Stein was president of the Building Corp. of the Allen County Public Library, which coordinated the remodeling several years ago of the downtown Allen County Public Library and the system's branch locations.
She also is a past president and current board member of the Friends of the Allen County Public Library, an organization supporting the library system.
“I fell in love with the library when I was 5 or 6 years old,” she said. “It is a love affair that never ended.”