On May 16, 2018, Thea DeGroot, well-known educator and social justice activist from Sarnia, Ont., passed away two months after receiving the “hard diagnosis,” as she put it, of pancreatic cancer. She leaves behind her husband Art, three daughters and their husbands, eight grandchildren, and a multitude of friends. In 2016 Cathy Smith interviewed DeGroot for Christian Courier about her participation in a reconciliation trip to Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwig (KI), a fly-in community in Northern Ontario. You can find a summary of DeGroot’s accomplishments at CRC News (crcna.org, “Justice Warrior and Kingdom Worker”).
Here, Cathy Smith offers a more personal remembrance.
From the time I met her, when I started teaching at John Knox Christian School in 1986, Thea kept giving me stuff. Like a book called Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner. I wasn’t familiar with Buechner, but Thea guessed right. I subsequently inhaled volume after volume of his work, my soul insatiable for his brilliance. She gave me other books, too, on poetry and drama. A lecture by Gregory Wolfe on CD, The Wound of Beauty, about the necessity, and cost, of creating art. Stacks of old journals. But beyond the “stuff” lies the incalculable treasure of all the intangible gifts Thea gave me over three decades of friendship.
In a profile on Thea in 1993 for Christian Educators Journal, I tried to capture something of her influence as a Christian educator; a role model not only for me but for many. The resource program Thea initiated at our school energized us in fresh ways – reading partners across the grades, a study skills unit she team-taught with classroom teachers, staff workshops on new strategies like collaborative learning, an enrichment program, an extensive volunteer network designed to provide supplemental instruction in motor skills, penmanship and math facts. Thea taught herself the necessary computer skills to implement computer-assisted learning for her students, eventually morphing into our staff computer “expert.” She went on to utilize those skills further when she helped Sarnia Christian School organize its first computer lab.
One particular commitment of Thea’s impacted me tremendously. In order to integrate a visually-impaired student into our school, she spent two summers at the Brantford School for the Blind, learning Braille and preparing us all for the transition. She was a catalyst for inclusion – pushing, prodding and persuading our whole school community to do our best to meet the needs of one individual. This was one of the earliest intangible gifts Thea gave me – the belief that it was possible to balance the worth of the individual and the responsibility of the community. When Thea left John Knox to pursue a different career path, I took over her resource position. She came back to the school regularly to mentor me, providing unflagging encouragement and advice.
Thea never preached; she taught instead by modelling her beliefs. What I learned from her I learned because she invited me along on her own journey. She invited me to a Taize service, my first. She invited me to an Institute of Christian Studies conference, welcoming me and my kids to join her family for meals and fellowship. She invited me to an art exhibit on The Stations of the Cross, an experience we shared in near silence. She invited me on a bus trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens to view African sculpture. She invited me to visit an herb farm; to her home to hear about her trip to India and enjoy Indian food; to the Blanket Exercise at her church; to join a committee to bring Aboriginal artist Ovide Bighetty’s paintings to Sarnia and to speak about this art at a local seniors’ event.
Her hospitality and generous spirit kept opening doors for me. Quietly she was showing me things I could do and things I should do. More gifts.
I became interested in gardening because of Thea. As she freely shared her expertise about perennials and willingly indulged my “tours” of her property, I began to learn about creation care. Her gardens were evidence of a heart that cared deeply about food and hunger issues. I had little interest in vegetables or cooking; my enthusiasm sparked by the colours and textures of plants – the “art” of gardening. Nonetheless, her dedication to the sharing of food resources and to stewardship of the land gradually led me to a broader perspective.
What’s more, Thea included me in her life while she was also doing the following: teaching at Christian schools as well as social justice and outreach organizations like Kairos and the Council for Exceptional Children; sitting on committees and boards of directors; hosting exchange students from around the world; studying to finish her degree; working on adult literacy at Aamjiwnaang First Nation; and participating in way too many other social justice initiatives for me to even remember. Oh, and all the while, she was also a faithful wife, a caring mom and a loving grandmother.
I could share so much more. Thea regularly sent me links about art and literature. She turned off her car in the driveway while she waited for me. She brought her own stainless steel thermos everywhere. She gave me daffodils from her garden for my birthday. She put edible flowers on the apple pie made for dessert.
If Thea could read this, she’d object. She’d laugh and tell me that our friendship was mutual; I brought things to her life, too. She was completely humble that way. She’d be the first to deflect attention from herself and point out that whatever talents and energy we have, we must use them to Creator God’s glory and for our neighbours’ benefit. She loved me. I loved her. What can I do but praise God for the gift of Thea? The gift of her self. And try to emulate her example.