Former GASD teacher turns 105

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - Updated: 10:35 AM


Recorder News Staff

For more than 40 years, Florence Collins spent much of her time teaching in the Greater Amsterdam School District.

Collins turns 105 years old today. Although a Pennsylvania resident now, Collins was born and raised in Amsterdam, spending 100 years in the city. She first attended the St. Stanislaus School before transferring to the Greater Amsterdam School District, where she went on to teach.

"My mother was an Amsterdamian. She's very proud of the fact that she was from Amsterdam," Collins's son, David Collins, said.

Florence Collins began teaching at the former Vrooman Avenue School around 1933, her son said. She first started teaching music for about six months before moving to fifth grade. She moved to fourth grade and taught the curriculum until she retired in 1976.

Her name changed over the years, as well as her curriculum. She went from Miss Dabowski (her maiden name) to Mrs. Cage, her first husband's last name, who died just before World War II. She remarried Andrew Collins after the war and they remained betrothed until he passed away in 1999.

David said teaching was his mother's role as part of the "Greatest Generation" and during the wartime.

"She tried to do her part as best she could," he said. "I know she never serviced in the military. She was part of the home front to make sure the sons and daughters of those boys who went off to war received their education."

One of her greatest joys, David Collins said, was teaching the adult education classes.

"I think she enjoyed that as much as anything else and I remember she would tell me she would have the people who didn't speak English, she would have them read the newspaper," he said.

Florence Collins' niece, Constance Ducanto, said her aunt greatly enjoyed teaching the classes, which was a volunteer position teaching immigrants English.

"This is volunteer, she never got paid for it, but those were her favorite meetings," Ducanto said. "We met many, many interesting people who came to the house because of Florence and her immigration classes."

Florence Collins' specialty was teaching reading, although David Collins recalled his mother being good at fractions. She also taught history, spelling and arithmetic.

David Collins said his mother would say reading was necessary to understand math problems. He remembered her telling a story of a fourth-grade teacher who told her one student going into her class didn't read. His mother, who was teaching fifth grade, replied, "There's no such thing as a non-reader." By the end of the school year, the student was reading at a fourth-grade level.

"She made it a point that reading was the most important thing," David Collins said. "That's what she excelled at if she had a sub-specialty."

Ducanto recalled that Florence Collins often had her students recite her favorite poem, "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost.

David Collins said she also made sure to treat each student equally, consoling one young girl who transferred from St. Stanislaus and had a tendency to cry, and allowing boys to bring transistor radios to listen to the World Series.

Her former student, David Dybas, of Amsterdam, said she was a "teacher's teacher."

"She actually taught," Dybas said. "She knew what she was talking about. She fueled the interest of each child in that class."

Dybas graduated from the Greater Amsterdam School District in 1963. He said there were about 20 students in his fifth-grade class and Florence Collins took an interest in what each student was doing.

"There's no question, she was my favorite teacher, certainly in grade school. She was a great teacher," said Robert Cudmore, a local author and historian. Cudmore and Dybas were in the same class.

Both recalled when their class was chosen to be on "Ding Dong School," an educational program that aired on WRGB. Some students in the class went to the studio to be filmed for the program.

Cudmore said Florence Collins' class was chosen for a lesson on town of Florida native Sheldon Jackson, a missionary who went to Alaska and founded several schools and centers.

"We went there dressed as Eskimos," Cudmore said.

"What we did was rehearse the entire show and the entire class, along with Mrs. Collins, was responsible for figuring out what Eskimos do," Dybas said.

David Collins said his mother adapted easily to the changing styles of teaching over the 40 years. At his high school reunion, he said former students of his mother would tell him how they were the first ones Florence Collins took on field trips to study sciences, such as geology or weather.

Florence Collins also brought in fertilized chicken eggs to show the class stages of an embryo.

Until 2012, David Collins said his mother lived on Pulaski Street, in a house her mother owned. She spent her entire teaching career at the Vrooman Avenue School.

"She treated people with a tremendous amount of respect and that was a two-way street living in the community. She really got to know those youngsters," David said, adding that his mother would follow students through their high school careers. She was particularly proud of having taught two members of the "Fabulous Five," basketball team: Tim Kolodziej and Tom Urbelis.

Cudmore said he lived on the same street and remembers seeing Florence Collins at community events over the years, such as the St. Stanislaus festival.

David Collins said if asked, his mother would likely say exercising has been her key to the long life she's lived so far. Two or three times a week, she would take exercise classes for seniors at the now-closed YMCA in downtown Amsterdam.

David Collins attributed her still-sharp mind to reading.

"My mother was a voracious reader. Not only did she teach reading, but she read everything she could. That kept her mind pretty sharp," he said.