Celebration of life April 24

Beloved Riley School founder remembered

By Stephanie Grinnell | Apr 10, 2013
Source: "Riley Adventure in Learning" Glenna Plaisted

Glen Cove — Through four decades, Glenna Wade Plaisted has left her imprint on the Midcoast as founder of Riley School.

Plaisted died March 6, in Glen Cove, in the presence of close friends.

In 1972 she founded Riley School, and served as the institution's director until her death. Plaisted was raised in Belfast by her grandparents after her mother died at a young age, according to her niece Lisa Houllahan. She attended Temple University in Philadelphia before transferring to Boston University, where she majored in philosophy.

Plaisted took her first foray into education at the urging of a friend's father. She taught at Kent's Hill School near Augusta for a year. Following a year off — during which Plaisted and a friend traveled to Arizona to play tennis under the tutelage of a renowned coach — she accepted a job at a school in Monroe, Conn., and remained there for three years. She taught at several other schools before starting her own.

The idea of establishing her own school did not begin with Riley. In 1966, Plaisted and several fellow teachers who also were unhappy with the public school system's methods ventured out on their own. The group founded Pinehenge in Waterford, which opened in 1967 and closed in 1973, a year after Plaisted left that school and founded Riley.

In a book published about the school, Plaisted said she named the Midcoast school after the play "The Life of Riley." During its first year, Riley educated 23 children. Since its founding, several buildings have been constructed on the property including the Lower School, library and art building.

At the heart of Riley always has been Plaisted's strong will and belief in education.

"Education is a process, not a product. Like a seed that you care for and nurture, you must allow children to grow and develop strong roots as their own surprising and miraculous identities unfold," Plaisted is quoted as saying in the book.

She later goes on to say, "I want them to take responsibility, to make choices and to make mistakes. You didn't do something right this time? So what? Learn from this experience, I tell them, so that when you move on, you can stand on your own two feet."

Plaisted celebrated her birthday on Founder's Day, Feb. 1, at Riley School, never revealing her age to students.

"With children and adults alike, I have always resisted pigeon-holing people. Age is one way in which we are locked in, so I have always made it a point not to reveal how old I am. When people ask, I tell them I'm 39. Over the years, that has become a theme — 'the girl who owns the school,'" she wrote for the book. "Two years ago, a nine-year-old girl crawled into my lap and whispered confidently that she had discovered how old I was. 'You have?' I asked. 'Yes.' 'Well, how old am I?' 'Forty-one,' she answered proudly. 'Don't tell anyone,' I warned her. 'Oh, no, I won't,' she said."

Houllahan said she has many fond memories of her aunt.

"She was always a very independent woman," she said. "When she had an idea, she could make it reality."

"I admired her to pieces," Houllahan said. "She was a great aunt to me, she was just a wonderful person. She really was an inspiration for a lot of people."

Houllahan said Plaisted had a large collection of books, all of which she likely read; and animals held a special place in her aunt's heart — as evidenced by the presence of dogs over the years on the grounds of Riley.

Plaisted encouraged children to participate in education rather than sit still and listen.

"[School] needed to be experienced, not just sitting there. What the kids do, they learn," Houllahan said. "She did everything she could that way. She always would encourage everyone to do what they wanted."

Susan St. John enrolled her children at Riley School in 1982 and joined the board of the school, where she served until 2001.

"And I have been a friend of Riley and a friend of Glenna ever since," she said. "Glenna is truly the advocate for children in a way I've never seen."

St. John said Plaisted helped not only her Taiwanese children — one of whom, at age 6, did not speak English — adjust to school, but also herself as a parent.

"She would get us to look at it from a kids' point of view," St. John said of conflicts.

Outside Riley, St. John became Plaisted's teacher through Outward Bound.

"[Plaisted] was a wonderful leader but also a wonderful student," St. John said. "She was impossible, brilliant, generous, strong, vulnerable...all of those things."

A celebration of Plaisted's life will take place at the school Wednesday, April 24. In lieu of flowers, people are asked to consider making a donation to the Glenna Wade Plaisted Endowment Fund through Riley School, P.O. Box 587, Rockland, ME 04841.

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