Marion Ostwald Brecht, who used humor and high standards during her 46-year teaching career to persuade students to believe in themselves as much as she believed in them, died of ovarian cancer Dec. 21 at her Towson home.
She was 73.
Perhaps because she herself was born with the deck stacked against her, Mrs. Brecht had scant patience with students who presented seemingly ironclad reasons for not completing their schoolwork.
"She ran her life on the basis that nothing was impossible if you put your mind to it, and she taught her students the same way," her husband, George Brecht said.
"If her kids gave her excuses, she'd say, 'Yes, you can learn, and I'm going to teach you.' She was tough but fair, and she had a great sense of humor. The kids loved her."
Marion Ostwald was born in the Netherlands in 1943, during the German occupation of Holland, in World War II.
"Marion was born just before the 'Hunger Winter' of 1944, and her parents ate tulip bulbs to survive," Mr. Brecht said. "Her family was thrown out of their house twice by the Germans, who told them, 'Pack your belongings and get out.' I don't know how they survived, to be honest."
She was dyslexic and left-handed, at a time when all children were forced to write and eat with their right hands. As a result, she fell behind in class, unable to read or write.
"Her father pulled her out of public school," Mr. Brecht said, "and taught her himself."
When she got the knack of learning, it stuck. Mrs. Brecht became fluent in four languages — Dutch, German, French and English — and as an adult studied Spanish. In her teens, she earned a Diplome Superieur (the rough equivalent of an associate's degree at a junior college) from the Sorbonne in Paris.
She immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1960s to study languages at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., earning a bachelor's degree in 1963. Ten years later, she received a master's degree in foreign language education from Boston University.
She later became a U.S. citizen.
In the early 1970s, the new teacher fell in love with a young accountant named George Brecht, whom she met during a road trip out West. The couple wed and moved to the Baltimore area in 1975.
During her four decades in the classroom, Mrs. Brecht taught all levels, from elementary school through college, and in all settings, from boys at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy to girls who attended North Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School.
From 2002 to 2012, Mrs. Brecht taught French at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
"Marion was a really, really good teacher," said Charlie Britton, McDonogh's headmaster. "She was devoted to the school. When Marion did something, she was always all in."
During Mrs. Brecht's years at Bryn Mawr, for example, she became involved in the Magic Me program, in which students make regular visits to nursing homes to visit elderly and disabled residents.
In the mid-1980s, her work caught the attention of powerful admirers. Mrs. Brecht and her students were invited to meet President Ronald Reagan in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Brecht said.
Not that the elder-care facilities were always pleased to see Mrs. Brecht walk through the front door.
"One of the first nursing homes she visited was filthy," Mr. Brecht recalled. "The patients were filthy and there was food on the floor.
"The owners kept saying they'd take care of the problems, but they never did. After my wife saw a rat under a bed, she placed a call to the Health Department. They conducted a surprise inspection and shut the place down."
Those who knew Mrs. Brecht tell story after story about her unflagging energy and daunting determination.
According to a friend, it wasn't unusual for Mrs. Brecht to complete two workout sessions at the gym before her 10 a.m. class. When school ended for the day, she would often work out a third time and then head off to one of the volunteer causes that she embraced so passionately.
"At McDonogh, we adopt about 150 low-income families each year," said Mara Daniel, the former head of McDonogh's world languages department.
"In the early fall, Marion would start knitting scarves and hats. By the time the holidays arrived, she'd have made dozens and dozens to give away. Even this year, when she was in home hospice, she was able to complete one scarf and one hat. She was still thinking about that project during her last days."
Mrs. Brecht's friends also tell stories about her fierce devotion to her students.
Mr. Brecht recalled a young man at Loyola who had great potential but no money. Thanks to Mrs. Brecht's efforts, the boy was admitted to McDonogh School and now works in broadcasting in New York City.
Ms. Daniel remembered a girl at McDonogh who faced heavy personal challenges at home and sought Mrs. Brecht's counsel almost every day after school.
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"Marion meant everything to that young girl," Ms. Daniel said.
Mrs. Brecht was a staunch friend to animals — occasionally, her husband said with a laugh, to the point of irrationality. Dozens of cats, dogs and hamsters found temporary or permanent shelter in the Brecht home over the past half-century.
"A few years ago, she found a few stink bugs in the plant behind our living room sofa," Mr. Brecht said.
"I wasn't allowed to kill them. She made sure they had plenty to eat throughout the winter, and once it got warmer, she got them safely outside."
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 28 in the chapel at McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
In addition to her husband, survivors include a son, Matthew Brecht of Portland, Ore.; a daughter, Courtney Brecht of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and a brother, Eric Jan Ostwald of The Hague, Netherlands.