PHS loses teaching icon this week

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 28, 2010

Things were different at the beginning of this semester at Pleasant Home School. A booming voice was missing from a sixth grade classroom, and the halls were empty of Mamie Wahl’s infectious laughter. After being constant sounds for 26 years at the small rural school, the students and teachers there won’t hear them again.

Wahl passed away Thursday afternoon in a hospital in Dothan after having been ill several weeks. She was 58.

“We had a lot of prayers for her to return to us,” Pleasant Home School Principal Craig Nichols said. “We had her students ready and waiting for her.”

Wahl grew up in Mobile, where she also went to college. It was the summer after her freshman year that she and her husband, Randy, met while working at Scott Paper Company. Randy said her feistiness was one of the things that drew him to her.

“She could put me in my place, that’s for sure,” he chuckled, as spoke about his wife’s strong will.

Wahl worked briefly in the Mobile City Schools System and in Mississippi before settling in at Pleasant Home.

“I saw a lot of good things in her,” said former Pleasant Home Principal Jim Garner. “She was determined, and she had a plan. She wanted to be the best.”

Wahl was the first teacher Garner recommended for hire after he became principal. She taught sixth grade in the mornings for most of her years there, and sounds of high school voices singing in unison radiated from her afternoon choral class for many years. Wahl took hundreds of kids to choir competitions throughout Alabama and even traveled with wide-eyed teens to New York City in 1994 to sing at Carnegie Hall. She was the spark behind LBW Ensemble performers and professional musicians.

But 14 years ago, Wahl’s teaching career almost ended. She became sick, and learned she needed a kidney transplant. Wahl was a fighter and endured tiring dialysis during her planning period so she didn’t let her students down.

“She promised the Lord that if he would allow her to live, she would become the best teacher ever,” said Brenda Mooney who teaches at Pleasant Home.

And that’s a promise Wahl intended to keep.

“If a kid didn’t want to be taught, that was too bad,” said former Pleasant Home teacher Margie Thomasson. “She was going to teach them anyway.”

“Oh, she could make you mad in the process,” said 1998 Pleasant Home graduate Jennifer Heichel Withrow. “But then the light bulb went off, and you knew she was pushing you, because she knew you could achieve so much more than you thought.”

About two years ago, Wahl suffered a stroke, but even that didn’t keep her from her calling. As soon as she was able, she returned to work with a new class and an even more determined attitude.

“She loved those children, all of them,” her husband Randy said. “She wanted them to have a fountain of knowledge.”

Remembered as being tough, but caring, Wahl was well known for a couple of phrases around the school. If a student wanted their way, she’d respond, “Who died and made you king?” And if she had to discipline a child more than once she’d quip, “Next time I’ll sit on you!”

“Those are things my son won’t get to experience now,” Withrow said. Her son, Zach Payne, was set to be in Mrs. Wahl’s class this year. Withrow had been one of Wahl’s sixth graders, and even in her high school chorus. “Her discipline and structure and responsibility, those are so important for that age group. And love. He won’t get to be loved by her.”

Wahl had three sons, Adam, 29; Todd, 31, and Brad, 32. She was a member of First Baptist Church and active in the hand bell choir there.

“She loved her family, and her church and she gave 110 percent to Pleasant Home School,” said Patricia Lassiter, who worked with Wahl for about 20 years. “She cared about her students’ success. If their test scores weren’t good, she thought she wasn’t doing her job. And Mrs. Wahl wasn’t one to fail at anything.”