Islanders come together to salute a teaching legend

A crowd of 350 people gathered to honor a remarkable local math teacher for his 60-year career in education.

They came from far and near — a crowd of approximately 350 admirers of a remarkable local math teacher, Cornelius Lopez, who on Saturday was honored for his 60-year career in education at a celebration held at Vashon Theatre’s new “Backlot” outdoor event space.

The Backlot — a spacious and shaded place fitted with a giant LED screen illuminating bigger-than-life images of Lopez in the classroom throughout the years— seemed the perfect setting to fete Lopez’s well-earned local celebrity as a rock star educator.

A reporter and crew from KOMO News were also there, to capture the scene as generations gathered to acknowledge Lopez’s legendary career.

Lopez, at age 83, will retire from McMurray Middle School at the end of this school year, after teaching at the school for only two years shy of half a century.

Do the math: with an average of 120 students per each of his 48 years at McMurray, that means that Lopez has taught approximately 5,760 middle schoolers on Vashon alone. Add in another 1,400 students he encountered earlier in his career, before being hired to work at McMurray in 1975, and the total number swells to well over 7,000.

The celebration, organized by Lopez’s colleagues at McMurray, boasted a boisterous local band, Cap’n Dick and the Portholes, which naturally included some of Lopez’s former students, and speakers that included his family members, friends, colleagues, and students.

Some of those who spoke at the event, including McMurray math teacher Jenny Granum, were examples of Lopez’s lasting, multi-generational influence on Vashon. Granum — like several other of Lopez’s current district colleagues — was also once his student at the middle school.

Others in the crowd had long been part of Lopez’s tight circle of friends on the island — formed with his late wife Tish Lopez as they had raised their children, Anita and Jamie Lopez, and then welcomed four grandchildren, Sofia, Elsi, Oscar and Edie, to the family fold.

But others who spoke went even further back, including his brother John and sister Priscilla — who shared her memories of “Corny” as a favored child who had endearingly eaten unwanted vegetables from his siblings’ plates “when mom wasn’t looking.”

Many in his current crop of students — a group that includes his own granddaughter, Edie, now a sixth-grade student at McMurray — were also in the audience.

At the event, Cornelius took the stage to thank the crowd and share his understanding of a job that he has held for six decades — posing the question, ‘What is teaching?”

“Teaching is facilitating the learning and the growth of young people,” he said. “That is what teaching is, plain and simple. What’s a teacher? You have to be an instructor, that’s a primary thing, but you also have to be a manager, and you also have to kind of organize and … take attendance and make sure that everybody is responsible for their stuff.”

“You’re a little bit of an entertainer at times,” he continued. “You have to be a little bit of a scientist — to know about the science of learning and how people learn. You have to be a little bit of a parent sometimes, you have to be a little bit of a counselor sometimes, and sometimes you have to be a little bit of a nurse — I mean, when do you give them the BandAid and when do you give them permission to go out and see the real nurse?”

Lopez then told the crowd that balancing all these different roles, with so many different types of students, had made his work endlessly fascinating and deeply fulfilling.

“It’s so exciting and it’s so interesting, and it’s so much fun — it’s really a special thing that you get to do,” he said. “So thank you for letting me do it on Vashon. I had a great time doing it and I kind of wish that I could keep doing it. But you know, I’m 83 — and as you get older it becomes a little bit harder, so it’s time to retire — it’s time to take a break from it all and do something else.”

At McMurray, Cornelius was renowned for classroom antics such as encouraging students to stuff dozens of pencils into his beard and leaping from behind the classroom door to welcome students by crying out, “Welcome to the math experience!”

He embraced extracurriculars and outdoor learning, leading his students in measuring the height of trees, based on their shadows, on the school’s campus. He and his students also helped plant almost 200 more trees in the forest trails behind the school, so that future classes could identify and measure them.

He has kept track of the trees as best he could through the years, but at the celebration on Saturday, his son Jamie said that his father had told him, “There are still trees on Vashon that I haven’t claimed yet.”

Jamie summed up his father’s devotion to his work by citing his example: “Whatever you do, commit to it.”

For Cornelius, that commitment extended beyond the classroom. On far-flung field trips, he has repeatedly guided eighth-graders on journeys to see the world and feed their minds.

One year, he led students on a community service trip to the economically disadvantaged town of Jonestown, Mississippi, to paint houses and clean up dilapidated properties.

And for 25 years, Cornelius took eighth-graders on McMurray Exploratory Week bike trips to the San Juan Islands and Vantage, Washington.

And if all that wasn’t enough, for 10 years, he also opened up his classroom on Saturday mornings, to welcome students who needed extra help with math. Students were encouraged to invite parents and friends to join them, and many did — lured by Cornelius’ promise of maple bars for all.

“Kids will do anything for a glazed donut,” Cornelius has been known to quip.

Just this year, he again started up his “Saturday school” to help kids catch up on math in a laid-back, relaxed setting. On the morning before his retirement party, in fact, he’d worked with five students who showed up at the school.

But for Cornelius, something much deeper has always been at play with his relationship to his students, and his approach to teaching.

“You have the opportunity to be a person from whom students might gather strength,” he said. “Everyone deserves respect and support.”

Cornelius’ final years at McMurray were marked by the seismic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic — requiring him to first shift to teaching online, and then help navigate the cautious return of kids to the classroom.

In an interview on Sunday, Cornelius shared some of his revelations about the shake-up in education wrought by the pandemic. All the changes weren’t bad, he said.

Public education has remained locked in a “factory model” for too many decades, he said, adding that the kinds of changes that have now come to workplaces should also be considered for schools.

He said he loved the idea of a flexible four-day week for children to attend school, if that was an option for their families. He championed practical, rather than rote learning, saying that standardized tests did not help kids learn how to be “collaborative and creative and do a lot of things that today’s workplaces require.”

Instead, he pointed to another one of his longtime practices — inviting community members and former students into his classroom to talk about the ways they used math in their jobs. These special guests, he said, included firefighters, doctors, scientists, and islanders who worked in business or banking — most of whom were parents or the grandparents of students.

“Everyone uses it,” Cornelius said of his subject area. “Life is more comfortable with math.”

What’s next for Cornelius, after so many years of teaching? He’s getting used to the idea of retirement slowly, concentrating on the tasks immediately at hand, such as cleaning out his classroom after decades in the space.

But whatever comes next for Lopez, it will surely be centered on his community — now filled, in an unbroken circle, with his former students.

“If someone calls me and asks who is a good dentist, I say, Mark Langland, who was our student at McMurray,” he said. “If someone says, who should I check in with about real estate, I say, Sophia Stendahl, who was our student. If I need something at the house, there’s Jeff Tobiason — he’s a painter now. So the tables are reversed now — I helped them with fractions and algebra, and now they’re helping me.”

“That’s the real benefit of being a teacher,” he said. “And I wish I could do it for longer, but I can’t. But that’s okay. I’ll find good things to do.”

His years at McMurray, though, will live on in legend.

“Cornelius is an icon of positivity and service to our community,” said Greg Allison, McMurray’s principal.

Correction: The online version of this article corrects a date error in The Beachcomber’s May 18 print edition: the retirement party for Cornelius Lopez took place on Saturday, May 13, not Sunday. We strive for accuracy and regret the error.