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Beloved teacher at 3 Western Pa. schools hears from students across nation

- Long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, and his wife Dawn, 58, both of Shaler told Facebook friends on Monday Bill’s cancer was terminal and his time very limited, drawing hundreds of responses for a man they said would never be forgotten. The two are pictured here in healthier times at Phipps Conservatory in November.
Long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, and his wife Dawn, 58, both of Shaler told Facebook friends on Monday Bill’s cancer was terminal and his time very limited, drawing hundreds of responses for a man they said would never be forgotten. The two are pictured here in healthier times at Phipps Conservatory in November.
- Scores of former students changed their Facebook profile photos to that of their long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, of Shaler, who told friends on Monday he would die soon of inoperable cancer. DeTillo, who taught at Kittanning Middle School, Aquinas Academy, Shady Side Academy and the Community College of Allegheny County, reiterated his gratitude to the hundreds of students he met along the way.
Scores of former students changed their Facebook profile photos to that of their long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, of Shaler, who told friends on Monday he would die soon of inoperable cancer. DeTillo, who taught at Kittanning Middle School, Aquinas Academy, Shady Side Academy and the Community College of Allegheny County, reiterated his gratitude to the hundreds of students he met along the way.
- Long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, of Shaler, pictured just before his last gig with the Pharaohs at the Baldwin High School Class of 1963 reunion at South Hills Country Club, Sept. 28, 2013. DeTillo, who taught at Kittanning Middle School, Aquinas Academy, Shady Side Academy and the Community College of Allegheny County, told friends on Monday he would die soon of inoperable cancer. He reiterated his gratitude to the hundreds of students he met along the way.
Long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, of Shaler, pictured just before his last gig with the Pharaohs at the Baldwin High School Class of 1963 reunion at South Hills Country Club, Sept. 28, 2013. DeTillo, who taught at Kittanning Middle School, Aquinas Academy, Shady Side Academy and the Community College of Allegheny County, told friends on Monday he would die soon of inoperable cancer. He reiterated his gratitude to the hundreds of students he met along the way.
- Long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, pictured with one of his last English classes at then-Kittanning Middle School in Armstrong School District. DeTillo told Facebook friends on Monday his cancer was terminal and his time very limited, drawing hundreds of responses for a man friends, students and colleagues said would never be forgotten.
Long-time English teacher Bill DeTillo, 72, pictured with one of his last English classes at then-Kittanning Middle School in Armstrong School District. DeTillo told Facebook friends on Monday his cancer was terminal and his time very limited, drawing hundreds of responses for a man friends, students and colleagues said would never be forgotten.

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In honor of a teacher

Shady Side Academy alumnus Nick Coslov, 40, donated $500,000 to seed the William DeTillo Scholarship Fund, named in honor of the former middle school English teacher who died Friday. The annual scholarship will fully fund tuition for at least one qualified student per year who wouldn't be able to afford tuition on his or her own.

To give to the fund online, visit supportssa.org and enter “William DeTillo Scholarship Fund” in the comments box. Donations may also be sent via check payable to Shady Side Academy with “William DeTillo Scholarship Fund” in the memo line, to Alumni & Development Office, Shady Side Academy. 423 Fox Chapel Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15238.

By Megan Harris
Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 10:57 p.m.
 

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.

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