Alma Mater

alma mater

Cheryl Joy Lowe was born the second daughter of Harold and Evelyn Vittitow on August 6, 1945. She was born on Gaulbert Street in Louisville’s West End, in a neighborhood where houses were full of stay-at-home moms and children ran the neighborhood safe and free. There, she began, but dropped out, of kindergarten. This is the only thing we know of her ever quitting. She started first grade knowing only two letters. Soon she made it to the top reading group, and this is where Cheryl Lowe, the scholar, got her start. Mrs. Lowe was very proud of her dad, who worked hard to learn the refrigeration business, and, with an eighth grade education, started a repair business, moving the family to the South End of Louisville. He then expanded to a shop on National Turnpike. The space had a dirt floor and it rented for $40 a month. Mrs. Vittitow, also with an eighth grade education, did the bookkeeping, and the family business thrived.

Mrs. Lowe always remembered fondly the house her dad built on Esplanade, a beautiful street at the foot of Kenwood Hill, a street where doctors, lawyers, and professionals lived. One of her neighbors was the principal of Butler High School, from which Mrs. Lowe graduated in 1963. She recalled that if the weather was bad he would offer to pick her up in her driveway so she wouldn’t have to stand at the bus stop. Choking on cigar smoke in the car, however, made the prospect of standing in bad weather seem mild by comparison.

To Mrs. Lowe, the 50s and 60s seemed like a golden age. On Saturdays, she and her sister, Iris, dressed up in their Sunday finest, complete with white gloves, and rode the city bus downtown to shop at Stewart’s, Byck’s, and Selman’s. They ate banana nut bread and cream cheese sandwiches at Stewart’s. On other days they ate lunch at the Blue Boar, where the lady added up the total of your tray items in her head. Waitresses with 18-inch waists carried a tray on each hand up a winding staircase to your table. Watching them, it seemed they were infallible. Mrs. Lowe dreamed of being a Blue Boar waitress when she grew up.

People dressed up in those days. Informal dress— shorts and pants—were exclusively for the home, yard, or park. Even a trip to the grocery required a dress. It seemed that the world that had existed was changing in the blink of an eye for Mrs. Lowe—a world “gone with the wind.”

Mrs. Lowe spent two years at Florida Christian College in Tampa, a junior college of about 250 students. Her mother couldn’t have been prouder. The University of Louisville, then a small, private university of about 4,000 students, accepted her twelve hours of Bible and she transferred. Mrs. Lowe loved her math and science classes and was always grateful for the brilliant teachers there. The turbulence of the 60s went straight over her head—she was happily studying in the Math and Science Building.

Mrs. Lowe received her degree in chemistry at the University of Louisville and began working as a microbiology researcher. Worried that she would never look up from her work, her close friend, Jeannie Davis, introduced her to a boy from Sunny Point, Kentucky, James Arthur Lowe. Mr. Lowe claims that, once, when he came for a date, he had to wait on the front porch with Mr. Vittitow because, as he tells it in his dry manner, she had gone on a motor scooter ride with another boy. Even those who know Mr. Lowe well aren’t sure whether to believe this story.

For instance, when he returned from the Vietnam War, Mr. Lowe proposed by saying, “If I asked you to marry me, what would you say?” Mrs. Lowe answered, “Yes!” joyfully and thought they were engaged. Upon reflection, however, she found that question ambiguous. The next day, she had to re-confirm their engagement, and soon they were married.

They attended Western Kentucky University together, where she received her master’s in biology and Mr. Lowe earned his degree in agriculture. While Mrs. Lowe learned all she could about biology from books, Mr. Lowe had grown up on a farm without running water or electricity, and where he was the first member of his family to be delivered by a doctor. The fact that the doctor was a veterinarian does not deter Mr. Lowe’s pride in this fact one bit. Mr. Lowe taught his academically trained bride about plants, animals, birds, trees, and flowers. He showed her the joy of walking through the woods and identifying the nature around them.

Mrs. Lowe always said that Mr. Lowe grew up like Almanzo in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, and that she appreciated the beauty and simplicity of the life he had lived. The couple celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary the day before she passed, and during their marriage they always had a farm where Mr. Lowe could work, Mrs. Lowe could read, and together they could share the beauty of God’s creation. Early in their marriage, Mrs. Lowe set forth on two life-changing paths: She became a teacher, and she became a mother. She taught geometry and chemistry at Eastern High School for four years, and she had two sons, Andy and Brian. Mr. Lowe always said they started naming the children with the letter A and planned to go through the whole alphabet, but Brian was such a bad baby they had to stop at B. As her boys were coming of age, she researched every school in the city and sent them to the best she could find. Then she went back to school for minors in religion, math, and astronomy, and, armed with conviction and purpose, she eventually brought Andy and Brian home to school them herself.

While homeschooling, she discovered Latin, a subject she soon decided was the indispensable subject for training young minds. She saw how Latin provided discipline to the language arts in the same way math orders the sciences. Mrs. Lowe fell in love with Latin. She taught it to herself and then wrote her own Latin program for young students. At the same time, she began lobbying in Frankfort for traditional schools. There she met Martin Cothran from Danville, who shared her passion for education. They started working on a publishing company, Memoria Press, which consisted of one computer in the Lowe’s living room, but soon expanded to a two-desk office above her garage. With two new BM computers, Mrs. Lowe and Martin set to work on a new classical Christian curriculum.

With her living room now empty, Mrs. Lowe filled it with wooden desks and started teaching Latin to a handful of students. In a year’s time, she had twenty-seven students and moved into a rented church in the Highlands neighborhood. Soon, Mrs. Lowe gathered those same families, again in her living room, and shared her vision for a complete classical Christian school. Mrs. Lowe’s vision was a school that her future grandchildren would attend: a school with an unexcelled education, a school that was warm, joyful, and nurturing, a school with a wholesome culture that offered respite from an increasingly secular world, a school that would fortify her students with noble, Christian virtues.

She needed a principal and she wanted to hire 23-year-old Shawn Wheatley, who was teaching at a local middle school and had graduated with Brian from college. She saw something special in Mr. Wheatley and wanted him to lead her new school. Mr. Wheatley attended the first living-room meeting and immediately, by his own admission, decided Mrs. Lowe was crazy. Nonetheless, the seed had been planted, and two years later Mrs. Lowe had 70 students and her chosen principal, who has faithfully led the school with broad shoulders ever since.

Highlands Latin has grown to a school with more than 600 students. And, with the help of Tanya Charlton who runs Memoria Press, a Highlands Latin School education is now available to all who seek it.

Last year, 650 schools across the country were using Mrs. Lowe’s curriculum, and 30 were HLS model schools. More than a half million students have used her programs in the last twenty years. This was Mrs. Lowe’s dream. She was humbled and blessed to see her vision of a renewed classical Christian education come to fruition in her lifetime.

But Mrs. Lowe is more than the sum of her successes. She was a mother, a grandmother, and a friend. Many of us, myself included, always referred to her as Mrs. Lowe. We would never dream of addressing her without the respect she deserves. Many call her Cheryl, though, and that seems appropriate too. That was her charm. Though she seemed a giant to us, she never saw that in herself.

Her public manner was dignified, even formal, and in our overly casual culture, refreshingly reserved. But we all fondly remember chatting giddily with her about clothes, hair, shoes, food—the trivial things we commoners like to discuss. Mrs. Lowe was truly just as likely to giggle about her pink passion nail polish as she was to quote Thucydides off the cuff. Our memory of her vacillates between an awe-inspiring woman in a suit behind a podium to a warm friend in a baseball cap and ponytail at the hayride.

She was a role model, not for her ambition or success alone, but for recognizing and honoring so astutely the seasons of her life. When she was a student, she learned all she could. As a wife and mother, she loved and served loyally. When it came time to share her knowledge, she fearlessly accepted the opportunity. She was 50 years old when she wrote her first book. Each season of her life was accepted graciously, patiently, and gratefully. Nothing had to be sacrificed. She quietly and faithfully accepted God’s plan for her life, and He lovingly allowed her to have it all.

Mrs. Lowe used to quote Cardinal Newman at our opening school ceremony each year. “A school should be an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one. Not a factory, or a mint, or a treadmill.” Mr. Wheatley had it right when he said that she didn’t know it, but she was talking about herself all those years. She was our nurturing mother.

So, Mrs. Lowe, in your honor, we will continue your legacy of excellence. We will learn our conjugations and declensions. We will memorize all 70 stanzas of Horatius at the Bridge. We will translate our ten lines of Caesar, knowing the subject must be in there somewhere. And most importantly, we will hold our pencils correctly and write in the beautiful cursive you and your sister taught us.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher  Winter 2018 edition

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