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Sarah D. Ottiwell

N. Gifford

For over 60 years, Sarah Delano Ottiwell (1832-1912) served as teacher and administrator in New Bedford Public Schools. In 1870 she was appointed assistant principal at New Bedford High School, where she remained for 41 years. Well-respected by three generations, Sarah was known as both kind in her discipline and thorough in her instruction. In 1918, the Sarah D. Ottiwell School was named in her honor.

“It is well to do all the good you can in this world, and never mind the appreciation.”

Sarah Delano Ottiwell (1832-1912) is another teacher enshrined forever in the hearts of all who knew her. For 61 years she served the public schools faithfully and well, which sets a record for length of service in New Bedford. She taught the children and grandchildren of her earliest pupils, and by her kindliness of heart and eager helpfulness won them all as her admirers. She was my teacher in High School and I enthusiastically bear witness to the esteem in which she was held by us all.

Naturally at times she was called upon to scold us for our delinquencies, which no doubt, were manifold. “Polly,” as we termed her, might continue scolding, but we continued loving her. There was an indefinable something about this tall and portly woman which kept us in constant accord. She was able and thorough in her instruction. I had her in English literature. Her custom of requiring us to memorize and recite selections from the great English writers was of lifelong benefit, and some of them linger in the mind to this day. She was especially partial to Milton.

My father, an educator, was accustomed to visit the public schools. One day Miss Ottiwell punished me for whispering by standing me in a corner. There was a rap at the door, and father came in. The class snickered at my supposed discomfiture. Miss Ottiwell was probably more flustered than anybody in the room. Soon she ordered me to my seat, warning me to remain silent if fellow pupils whispered to me first, thus trying to relieve me partially of blame. Father, of course, said nothing at the time, but made a few personal remarks to me later. My loyalty to Miss Ottiwell never wavered.

In her younger days Miss Ottiwell was an accomplished dancer. It is related that High School boys contended vigorously for the privilege of having their popular teacher as a partner at High School alumni reunions or other dances. This was before my time. When I was in school she was one day observed pirouetting lightly about in the assembly hall at recess time when she fancied nobody was watching her. 

She was quick-witted and apt at repartee. It was her duty to accompany the classes of Arthur Cumming, the drawing master (nicknamed “Pete”), to the drawing room to keep order while he taught. One day Mr. Cumming did not happen to see her with the class, and inquired, “Well, boys, where’s Polly?” From behind the door, sharpening a pencil, she responded promptly, “Here I am, Peter.”

She was one of a family of 10 children, born in this city August 27, 1832. Her father, William Ottiwell, was a cabinet maker. Her mother, Sarah, was a daughter of Timothy and Abigail (Dexter) Delano. Two of her brothers, William and Nathaniel, served in the Civil War. The latter, a Navy man, died at sea aboard his ship in the Fall of 1861, one of the city’s earliest casualties. 

At the age of 17, she entered on her life work. First she was assistant in the Grove School, and then was transferred to the Boys Grammar School on Bush (now Madison) Street. In 1853 she was appointed principal of the Sixth Street Intermedial School (south of Bedford Street), where she remained for 15 years. Her work was highly commended in School Committee reports. Then followed a period as principal of Lunds Corner School 

In 1870 she was appointed an assistant to Principal Rugg at the High School, beginning a service there of 41 years. At various periods she taught English literature, French, German, algebra and geometry. Because of her apparent fondness for the last named study, somebody coined a popular phrase which involved a pun on her pet name, “Polygon on geometry.” In algebra she was particularly strong on quadratic equations. A fine penman, she eventually combined with her instruction the duties of school secretary, with charge of all the books and paper supplies.

Miss Ottiwell assisted many scholars in preparing for college, returning to school afternoons for this purpose, without extra compensation, merely as a matter of good will. Principal G. Walter Williams spoke to her about a boy whom she had helped in this way, remarking, “I hope he appreciates it.” Laying a motherly hand on Mr. Williams’ shoulder, she rejoined, “It is well to do all the good you can in this world, and never mind the appreciation.”

Miss Ottiwell took a deep interest in her pupils, and when meeting them in after years evinced a wonderful memory for them and facts about them. For many years she served as a clerk of the First Christian Church (the “White House”) where she was an ardent member.

After her retirement from teaching, Miss Ottiwell remained at the High School as the efficient secretary and clerk. And so she continued at her duties day by day until the burden of years led her to resign in September 1911. Within a few months she died, February 1, 1912, aged nearly 80, leaving a cherished memory of her abiding influence and rare spirit.

Dear “Polly” Ottiwell! What a surge of gratitude and joy would have come to this modest, faithful woman had she ever dreamed a High School Alumni Association scholarship would be named in her honor, and that her native city would be proud to erect the Sarah D. Ottiwell School as a memorial. Tears of happiness in her eyes!

 William M. Emery                                                                                                         

Originally published in 1945 in The Standard-Times

Addendum: The Sarah D. Ottiwell School was constructed in 1918 at 26 Madeira Avenue, New Bedford, MA. The City used the school until 2010. Today, where the original building stood is the Sarah D. Ottiwell Campus of the Alma del Mar Charter Schools.

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