‘My spiritual life-giving guardian’
Molly Troxell never thought that when she first met John Garrity their working relationship would become a 40-year friendship.
Troxell, who recently began her 18th year as an elementary school art instructor, was Garrity’s student teacher at Northern Lehigh Elementary School.
“I student-taught in England for half a year before I met Mr. Garrity,” said Troxell, who teaches in the Bethlehem school district and is a resident of Emmaus. “At the time, Northern Lehigh was an open concept school with no walls between the classrooms. Despite the very loud and constant noise, Mr. Garrity was an amazing teacher who included pottery making and ceramic art in his curriculum. For him, it was all about encouraging his students to use their imaginations to produce wonderful artwork.”
She still calls her mentor and longtime friend “Mr. Garrity.”
He has lived all 86 years of his life in his grandmother’s house in Slatington. Their passion for art and for teaching the subject has resulted in Troxell writing her book, “Jack the Junco” and in Garrity filling his home with self-made tabletop sculptures of elements and animals from nature.
Garrity, who has also created large kiln-fired sculptures in Philadelphia when he took a sabbatical from teaching, builds his nature sculptures with what is called a lost wax process. Clay is molded off a potter’s wheel. It’s then injected with wax before the final step when the sculpture is bronzed with hot liquid metal. His personal collection includes several deer and their fawn, a bobcat and wild birds.
“Mr. Garrity used to take long walks down the Appalachian Trail. He taught me how to ‘get quiet’ in nature, and about how I can get though life’s tragedies by spending quality time outdoors.”
Troxell had accompanied Garrity on many walks through the woods. He taught her about rattle and copperhead snakes, how to identify wild birds and when to be aware there might be a bear nearby.
“He showed me a berry bush one time and said there was a bear nearby because many of the berries had been recently eaten. Sure enough, we spotted a black bear on the edge of the trail just a few yards ahead of us.
“Because of Mr. Garrity, I came to understand that nature is a spiritual place,” said Troxell, who had walked trails with him until he reached his 70s. “He would sit in a tree with his hunting bow and say his prayers. He not only is my friend. He’s my spiritual life-giving guardian.”
“Jack the Junco” was inspired by a trail walk we did years ago when Mr. Garrity came upon a small bird that was caught up in a bramble bush. As it struggled to free itself, “Jack” (what others have called Garrity) took great care to free the bird.”
In the book, which Troxell illustrated with her drawing skill, a vine of the bush ties around the junco’s leg. At first the bird is stubborn and refuses to accept help from his animal friends. Then he realizes he needs them and they help free him from the bush. The message to young readers is about the importance of family and friends.
“I have a dog in the story named Comet. Mr. Garrity had a springer spaniel named Comet that actually found the trapped bird when we walked the trail.”
As one of 10 children, Troxell had very little time to be alone with nature, but as the oldest daughter, she learned much about taking care of her siblings. She now looks in on her friend once a week and helps him out with his laundry and assists him when he attends church on Sundays.
She holds onto fond memories from when they both were more physically active.
“We did a rafting trip down the Lehigh River in 1999,” she said. “It got a little frightening for me when we got stuck and I had to get out and pull the raft when he was in it because he had a bad knee.
“We laughed about it all and then when the river became slow and smooth, we saw a beautiful blue heron. We were experiencing God’s beautiful world together.”
This experience lifted their faith, and as Troxell put it, “When you see the incredible design of the natural world, your worries go away because of your faith.”
As she creates another illustrated storybook for children, this one about a peace wagon that travels the world to help bring people together, Troxell marvels at her friend for his extraordinary faith in humanity.
“He talks about how difficult it is to forgive, but how the act of forgiveness has the incredible power to heal,” she said. “Thanks to Mr. Garrity, my faith can help me do anything, including teaching art to kids, some of whom are abused and who are unloved.
“Each day I walk into school and say to myself, ‘Angels around me please!’ ”
And. for the past 40 years her friend, John Garrity, has been her guardian angel.