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Alcott School Drama Teacher Inspires Students Until Her Final Days

By Paul Biasco | February 5, 2013 8:56am

LINCOLN PARK — A longtime member of Chicago's theater scene and a tireless teacher at the Louisa May Alcott School in Lincoln Park died unexpectedly Saturday, having worked right up to the end at her beloved school.

The halls of the school, at 2625 N. Orchard St., were quiet Monday, absent the unmistakable voice of Mary Ellen McGarry, 62.

"We thought she was irreplaceable," Alcott eighth-grader Benjamin Keats said.

McGarry, who was involved in Chicago performing arts for 40 years after graduating from Loyola University Chicago, was known to preside over her classrooms with a booming voice and fill students with confidence.

She died Saturday after suffering from sarcoidosis for two years.

"She just was a person who had a tremendous impact on so many kids, instilling a sense of fearlessness and bravery, the ability for a kid to stand alone up on the stage," said David Keats, who has two children at the school. "She's one lady who's been able to reach thousands of kids."

Alcott Principal Elias Estrada called McGarry a "foundation of the community."

He said parents rallied to raise the funds to maintain her teaching position at the school.

"The kids, they ate up anything she put out there," Estrada said. "It's very quiet. There's an extreme sadness. She had a very boisterous voice. You knew when Ms. McGarry was in the school."

Estrada said he had just met with McGarry on Thursday to plan the four-week summer drama program she taught at the school.

Despite requiring an oxygen tank and a walker to get around the school, McGarry never complained, Estrada said.

"She never let that stop her," he said.

McGarry directed a number of plays in the city over the past four decades, and for a period taught at Loyola. But her passion was instructing the children at Alcott and inspiring them to love Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare was definitely her thing," David Keats said. "My son in second and third grade was reciting 'Hamlet' on the stage."

Keats' son Benjamin, 13, said McGarry was most recently working with his eighth-grade class to create a production based on a recollection of all of their memories at Alcott.

"She was really supportive," Benjamin said. "She always tried to get everybody up to try and do something, even when people didn't want to. She was always trying to introduce us to new things."