“The Third Half of the Show”: Tributes to Teresa “Teri” Riley
October 15, 1956 – September 20, 2015
Teresa Riley would have turned 59 this week. The tributes in this article — with its puns and allusions to “Car Talk,” one of Teri’s favorite NPR shows — express both admiration for her life and career and great sadness over her untimely death from cancer a few weeks ago.
“Click and Clack”
In fall 1984 — just a year after marrying and soon after earning Ph.D.s from Syracuse University — Teresa Riley and Tod Porter joined the faculty of Youngstown State University as assistant professors in the Economics Department.
Over the next 31 years, Teri and Tod functioned as a team, both at home and at YSU. Their family grew; their careers prospered.
It’s difficult to talk about the accomplishments of one without talking about those of the other. Nonetheless, Teri made many distinct contributions over the course of her life and career — and her exceptional personal qualities underlie the reflections in this tribute.
“Historic and Folkloric”
Flash forward from fall 1984 to September 2015. Photographs larger than life cycle across a screen at the funeral home and again on the wall of the sanctuary at Poland Presbyterian Church.
A little red-haired girl — chopped bangs, an adorable smile. A young woman in a wedding gown. Newly-weds. Teri and Tod together, sporting copious 1980s hair.
Teri snuggling with three young children — her smile of contentment as broad as her face. A recent photograph, the three children all grown up: daughter Molly and Teri (so close, we learn, that they share a sense of humor and language of their own); sons Andrew and Matthew standing with Tod, in back.
For many associated with YSU — who remember Teri the consummate professional, an outstanding teacher, associate dean, director of faculty relations, associate provost — the personal photographs reveal facets of Teri’s life that we might never have imagined for someone who worked so hard on campus. Added to our image of Teri the professional, these photographs depict a life so full, so multi-dimensional, so rich with love and accomplishment that it’s hard to believe they reflect just one “whole.”
Yet, the family members, YSU colleagues and community members who provided reflections for Teri’s Celebration of Life and this article attest to a life overflowing and well lived. We offer a few excerpts exemplifying common threads.
“Dewey, Cheetham & Howe”
In a perfect world, everyone would work and play fairly. But our world is not perfect. Too often we find ourselves embroiled in controversy, “unencumbered by the thought process.”
From 2006 to 2012, Teri served as YSU’s director of faculty relations, a difficult and sometimes thankless position created to help resolve issues fairly and judiciously. She also served on the Staff Relations Committee at her church. All venues need a Teri Riley to listen, reflect, adjudicate and advocate on behalf of fairness and justice:
Julia Gergits, chair, YSU English department: “I served as president of the faculty union on and off while Teri served as Director of Faculty Relations. As DFR, she was honest, clear-minded and straightforward, even when we were pressing . . . for changes or decisions. We were never easy on her; in fact, we were often very difficult. But she remained calm and reasonable.”
Rev. Robbin Del Nagro, parish associate for Teri’s Celebration of Life at Poland Presbyterian Church: “Teri was . . . extremely competent, no-nonsense and organized. But she was also dedicated to a higher ideal. Teri had a strong sense of justice — she stood up in the face of injustice and was unafraid to confront the powers that sought to prevent a level playing field.”
Jodi Clowes, executive secretary, Provost’s Office: “Teri was always fair. She knew the rules and followed them. If you didn’t like a decision of Teri’s — it wasn’t because of her, it was because she was following a rule you may have wanted to bend.”
Ikram Khawaja, provost/dean/jack of all trades emeritus: “There was never any doubt how Teri would handle a difficult issue. The matter would be decided with utmost professionalism and integrity, with good humor and common sense. Indeed, Teri was blessed with a vast reservoir of common sense — something not always encountered in the higher-education community.”
“Erasmus B. Dragon”
Teri worked hard in every realm of her life, joyfully raising her children and doing the academic work she loved, but also taking on the nitty-gritty work that others shunned:
Matthew Porter, son: “The thread that would tie together a random selection of stories about my mother was her willingness to do work that others often would not do — and she would do it completely and efficiently. This clearly was my mother’s most admired quality and the one that I think she admired most when she saw it in others and occasionally in her children.”
Jodi Clowes: “Teri . . . always helped when needed, regardless of the situation. Whenever phone calls came in from people who were upset or difficult, she always told me to transfer the calls to her — she would deal with these situations.”
Rev. Brent J. Eelman, interim pastor, Poland Presbyterian Church: “Teri got her hands dirty in the richness of life, whether it was in her garden, cooking in her kitchen, helping out with a meal at church or organizing the annual spaghetti dinner for the local Boy Scout troop.”
Andrew Porter, son: “Mom wanted us to know that there were no guarantees in life, but that didn’t mean you stopped struggling. Just because we don’t know what will happen doesn’t mean we just give up. Instead, she showed us that we needed to work hard if we wanted things to happen.”
“Don’t Drive Like My Brother!”
Clearly, Teri was a teacher-exemplar from beginning to end. One of the last things the family read to Teri was a letter from a former student:
Tom Wakefield, former student, now associate professor, mathematics & statistics: “I sought out your classes, taking all that I possibly could, because your teaching style and presentation of the material stimulated my interest. … Your faith in me meant so much and propelled me to pursue graduate work. Most importantly, you provided me an example of the influence college faculty can have in shaping students. … Thank you for being one of the most influential teachers in my life.”
Stephanie Smith, professor, art department, and successor to Teri as director of Faculty Relations: “In the past few days, I have found myself visiting the over-1600 emails that I still have from Teri, as a means of denying her absence while trying to cope with the loss of a wonderful colleague and friend who has been one of the most important models to me of professionalism, capability and kindness in the workplace. … [M]y greatest hope is that she knew how loved and valued she is by so many of us. I do believe that she left the best sort of legacy in that she had a profound effect on the people with whom she worked.”
Andrew Porter: “The final time mom, Molly, Matt and I spoke, she told all of us she loved us deeply. Then she told us that ‘love and honor’ are the keys to life. That we needed to stick together as a family, and she would always be with us. Even to the end, she never stopped worrying and teaching us.”
Matthew Porter: “One of the last things our mother told us was to treat everyone with love and respect. I find this profound . . . because she so clearly demonstrated what this meant.”
“Stump the Chumps”
Why do terrible things happen to good people? Teri the loving daughter, wife and mother, valuable member of the YSU community and active church member left this world too soon. We end our tribute with a statement from Rev. Eelman: “The quality of life trumps quantity, and Teri’s life was filled with — was all about — quality.” May Teri rest in peace, and may her family, friends and colleagues find comfort in this time of sorrow.
Tributes Compiled by Bege Bowers, professor of English and associate provost emeritus