Margaret Ann Wotthlie Curtis, career-long Baltimore County educator of special needs children, died Aug. 11 of cancer at Dove Housein Westminster. She was 71.
Born in Baltimore on Oct. 20, 1939, Mrs. Curtis grew up on Rogers Avenue, and graduated from the prestigious, all-female Western High School in 1957. She married Eugene Curtis the same year, and they raised their three sons in Reisterstown.
Mrs. Curtis, affectionately known to her family and friends as "Peggy," began her education career as a cafeteria volunteer at Chatsworth Elementary School in 1975, one year after the Reisterstown school opened with Nancy S. Grasmick — who would later become the state superintendent — as its principal.
At the time, the school served only special education children, and Chatsworth desperately needed volunteers to help with students at mealtimes. Mrs. Curtis was a stay-at-home mother raising her three boys while her husband worked long hours, but she answered the call.
According to Patricia Mattson, a former colleague at Chatsworth and friend of 36 years, Patricia Mattson, was more than a helping hand in the school cafeteria.
"She just had a special way of helping them through that part of that day," recalled Ms. Mattson, who met Mrs. Curtis at Chatsworth shortly after she began volunteering.
Mrs. Curtis' ability to connect with students, many of whom suffered from behavioral problems and learning disabilities, landed her in the classroom full-time, teaching special education students.
Because of the demands of motherhood, Mrs. Curtis never intended to become a teacher, but shortly after she began volunteering at Chatsworth, "that's just kind of where she fit," her family said.
"She seemed to really connect with those children," said her daughter-in-law, Kathryn (Katie) Curtis. "She just had a way of identifying where the kids were having problems, and relate to them in a way that they could learn."
Mrs. Curtis was assigned to Ms. Mattson's classroom as an instructional assistant, and the two taught together for at least a decade before Ms. Mattson moved on to become an administrator in the county.
"I felt like I was the richest person to have her as an instructional assistant," Ms. Mattson said. "I always felt when I was in the room with her, it was like having two teachers."
Mrs. Curtis stayed at Chatsworth for 30 years, building a portfolio of lesson plans that were tailored to every student, and a reputation as the go-to person for teachers who needed an extra hand, new idea, or relief from the sometimes taxing job of teaching students with special needs. Her skills seemed innate, her colleague said, and even encompassed medical knowledge — Mrs. Curtis' mother was a nurse.
"She was such a wonderful cushion for a teacher, because when you just needed a little time, she was able to step right in and take over," Mattson recalled. "And the youngsters loved her. She didn't let them get away with anything, but they knew she was very fair, and her intervention was always positive."
Mrs. Curtis was admired among her colleagues for her ability to personalize her lessons to each student. She wrote her own stories and came up with games to help teach reading skills to below grade-level students.
"She had a very, very unique way of helping children in a variety of different ways, particularly with self-esteem," Ms. Mattson said, adding that Mrs. Curtis' creativity and positive reinforcement earned her the title "Queen of Stickers."
Mrs. Curtis' skills were also in high demand outside the classroom, her family and former colleagues said. In addition to her full-time job at Chatsworth, Mrs. Curtis tutored students on weekends and after school.
"The parents would call and beg to give them support as they were adjusting to middle school," Ms. Mattson said. "She gave them a lot of the self-confidence with students to help them move forward."
Mrs. Curtis tutored until 2005, her family said, when her declining health and mobility problems forced her to retire from Baltimore County Schools. "Teaching was her life, so she was sad to leave," Katie Curtis said.
But in the last years of her life, her love of children and teaching was extended to her grandchildren, whom she often engaged in card games — War, Go Fish, and Crazy Eights were among her favorites — as lesson plans in disguise. She moved to Manchester, Md., after retiring.
Mrs. Curtis liked to cook, bake, play bridge and other card games, and enjoyed the television show "House." She was always a cat lover until she met Charlie, her shih-poo, her family said.
Mrs. Curtis' love for teaching will extend beyond her life, her family said, as the life-long educator donated her body to science.
"That's what she wanted to do," Katie Curtis said. "She wanted people to continue to learn from her."
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Curtis is survived by three sons: Thomas Curtis and his wife, Victoria, of Virginia Beach, Va.; James Curtis and friend Karen Kelley of Taneytown; and Kenneth Curtis and his wife, Kathryn, of Manchester. She also had six grandchildren.
A private service will be held at noon Friday at The Mount, 17700 Foreston Road in Upperco. A public memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. at Piney Branch Golf Club, 5301 Trenton Mill Road in Hampstead.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Carroll Home and Hospice Care, 292 Stoner Ave., Westminster; Chatsworth School Memorial Fund, 222 New Ave., Reisterstown, or the American Cancer Society, 1041 Route 3 North, Bldg. A, Gambrills.