Beloved teacher at 3 Western Pa. schools hears from students across nation
Bill DeTillo had a tradition.
Whether at Kittanning Middle School, Aquinas Academy or Shady Side Academy, every student in his 30-year tenure joined the Aardvark Club, christened by DeTillo with a nickname befitting its new owner.
“He would never tell you why you got your name,” said Charlie Cheever, 32, a software developer in Palo Alto, Calif., whom DeTillo dubbed “Iguana.”
He didn’t need to, said Neil “Alligator” Aggarwal, 32, San Francisco entrepreneur. “It helped to make everyone feel like they belonged.”
Long-time teacher, mentor and friend, DeTillo, 72, announced his terminal cancer diagnosis online Monday.
“I don’t know if I’ll have the ability to write much more on Facebook, so I want to say goodbye to all of you,” he wrote. More than 1,000 messages, photos and memories poured in from former students, echoing the gratitude he wrote that he felt for all of them.
“I figured a few people might notice,” he said from his bed at Canterbury Place in Lawrenceville. “But nothing like this.”
In a dark T-shirt and jeans, the amiable grammarian swapped stories with visitors and listened to letters read aloud by his wife, Dawn, over the hum and hiss of an oxygen tank.
“I had no intention of being a teacher, but I won a teaching fellowship, so I thought I’d grade papers and go to school and that would be it. Well, I was wrong,” DeTillo said, patting his pit bull mix, Sedona. “Those first five minutes in front of a class, I just knew. If it weren’t for my health, I’d still be teaching today.”
He never raised his voice, said Brandon Tung, 33, “Orangutan” and New York corporate lawyer, but could settle a class of rowdy, middle school boys with a wave.
Matt “Coyote” Hall, 33, a linguist, recalled the English lessons that cemented the “forms of be,” macabrely illustrated with withered bee carcasses taped around the chalkboard.
“He made you feel respected, like you were his friend,” said Andre “Raccoon” Moura, 33, a private equity director in New York City.
Chicago-based medical consultant Dr. Andres Quintero, 36, learned the sad news about DeTillo online.
“Having him as a teacher was magical,” the one-time Moose said. “I remember him stacking my papers against that of all the other students combined. I wrote more, but I didn’t say much. He taught me the economy of words in a way no one ever had before.”
St. Louis attorney Samir “Armadillo” Mehta, 33, called DeTillo’s classes “the brightest spot” of his day. Neil Badlani, 35, of Houston and Len Wholey, 33, of Brookline, Mass., both “Pterodactyls,” remember his honesty and cool demeanor.
Family friend Jared Lange, 34, of Aspinwall said DeTillo’s literature course was the best he ever took; Lange attended England’s University of Cambridge.
“He cut out the B.S.,” said Shawn Badlani, 32, “Wombat” and senior investment analyst in San Francisco. As a drama coach, DeTillo led “faculty meetings,” mock debates that encouraged students to impersonate their teachers. “You felt he cared about you — his students — more than anyone or anything else,” Badlani said.
As a “Groundhog,” Squirrel Hill-based event planner and designer Sean Gray, 35, said he still uses the core of what DeTillo taught him every day.
“It’s incredible, the sheer number of people who’ve been impacted by his life,” Gray said. “Thousands have responded since he posted about his cancer on Monday, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he remembered every one of us.”
Madelyn Brookwalter, 64, worked with DeTillo at Kittanning. She marveled at the outpouring of support.
Smart kids, jocks, band geeks, he loved them all, said John Curry, who taught with DeTillo for 15 years.
Randy Broker, 53, started teaching at Shady Side Academy in 1984, just four years after Curry, now 58. DeTillo welcomed them, they said, just as he embraced the individual strengths — and spirit animals — of his kids.
“You showed me that ‘how’ you teach can be as important or more important than ‘what’ you teach,” Broker wrote on Facebook. “Thanks for helping me find my way.”
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.