Remembering Ingrid Wilson ’86
On Friends’ Central’s Lower School campus is a turtle sculpture; a beloved feature of the lower playground, it sits at ground level, inviting children to climb on it and run around it. What newer generations of FCS families and students may not know is that there’s a moving story behind the turtle. The piece is the work of a well-known local sculptor, Eric Berg, and a small plaque on the ground in front is engraved with the words, “In loving memory of Ingrid Wilson ’86 by her family, friends, and classmates.”
Bill Bower, who taught at the Lower School FCS for 40 years, knew Ingrid and her family well. He was fourth grade teacher to both Ingrid and her older brother, Nicholas Wilson ’85. Ingrid’s younger brother, Peter Wilson ’89, also attended Friends’ Central. When Ingrid and her brothers progressed out of Lower School, Bill stayed in contact with the family.
“Ingrid was a wonderful student,” recounted Bill. “She was creative and vibrant. She was full of life, and that followed her into the Middle and Upper School. She was very musical, a terrific piano player. She was also an athlete. She was very involved in the life of the School and very much a part of the School for a good number of years.”
“Ingrid graduated from Friends’ Central in 1986 and went off to Gettysburg College,” he continued. “She was interested in early childhood education. When she was at Gettysburg, she came to me and asked if she could volunteer in my class. I was thrilled to hear that she wanted to work with young children.”
In the spring of her sophomore year, Ingrid showed up for work in Bill’s classroom with what appeared to be a miserable cold, and then she had a fever. “That was the onset of this catastrophic leukemia,” he said. Despite intensive treatment at the best available facilities – including a specialized hospital in Seattle, Washington – she passed away at 21 years of age.
In May of 1990, a musical celebration was held to honor Ingrid at Friends’ Central, with musicians and singers performing pieces that were favorites of Ingrid and her family. Her classmates and family worked with Lower School Principal Joe Ludwig and other administrators to purchase a sculpture in her memory. It was determined that a piece by local artist Eric Berg, known for his naturalistic sculptures of animals, would be ideal. Intentionally erected at the Lower School as a nod to Ingrid’s passion for early childhood education, the turtle also had particular symbolic significance. “In some societies, the turtle is a symbol of eternal life – that seemed so perfect,” explained Bill.
Bill made it his job, all those years ago, to help keep Ingrid’s memory alive. He decided to write her biography in a way that would be accessible to Lower School students. “I went to the Wilsons and asked them if they would be comfortable with me doing this,” he said. “I interviewed them about her life, wrote it up, and shared it with them to make sure they approved. I got a stipend to create 80 copies of the book.” He titled the book Ingrid.
“I had a very artistic class the year I created the book; I read the story to them, and I invited them to submit drawings to illustrate the story,” said Bill. (The student illustrators’ names are listed in the acknowledgements section of the book and include current FCS Middle School teacher, basketball coach, and Assistant Athletic Director Jason Polykoff ’02!).
“The photo of Ingrid on the cover of the book has this ethereal quality; there’s this peachy-colored light all around her,” said Bill. “Her parents told me, ‘Well, peach was Ingrid’s favorite color.’”
Each copy of the book was hand assembled by Bill with the assistance of Ingrid’s father, Murray Wilson. They painstakingly glued the printed pages, one by one, into blank books. The intention was that a copy of the book would live on the shelf of each Lower School classroom to be read to students, with several copies for the School library, copies for Middle and Upper School, and a quantity to be given to Ingrid’s own family.
“During Devotions in the Lower School at the beginning of the day, we’d gather on the rug, and the teachers would read various short inspirational stories to get the kids thinking about things,” said Bill. When the book about Ingrid was first created, the Lower School teachers were committed to reading it out loud; the memory was very fresh.
“I asked my colleagues how their students were responding to it, if they were comfortable reading it aloud, and if the kids wanted to re-read it for themselves,” said Bill. Students were engaging with the book, and they loved seeing the pictures drawn by children their age.
There were times when, reading the story aloud to his class, Bill would find himself unable to continue. “I would start choking up,” he said. “I would ask a student to finish reading the story while I composed myself again.”
Bill felt it wasn’t a bad thing for students to see a teacher experience emotion and for the students to read a story about loss that was, at the same time, a celebration of the life of a former Lower School student who deserved to be remembered.
“When I was in graduate school,” said Bill, “I took a class about children under stress. By fourth grade, many kids have experienced a loss of some kind in their lives, even if it’s a pet. For years, I read a book aloud to my class called A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Smith, an expert psychologist. The book was about a little boy who was stung by a bee and unexpectedly died, and his friend has to pick up the pieces and go through the stages of grief. It was a very powerful book that I would read aloud for years and years. And kids would often go to the library and check it out themselves to reread it because it was such an impactful book.”
“I was following on the heels of that teaching experience by creating this book to be read in Devotions. It prompted conversations with students, giving them an opening to talk about a subject that they wouldn’t ordinarily bring up,” said Bill.
“Throughout my teaching career after that, I would ask the kids if they knew why the turtle was there on the back playground. I would direct students who didn’t know the story to read the book.”
ABOUT SCULPTOR ERIC BERG
November 21, 1945 – April 20, 2020
Eric Berg, who resided in Philadelphia, completed over 44 public commissions at zoos, parks, museums and universities around the United States. Locally, his work is on display at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Reading Terminal Market, Drexel University (the Drexel Dragon!), the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Please Touch Museum, among other places. His smaller works, including bronze maquettes of the life-size public pieces, have been shown in galleries throughout the country.
“The motivation behind my sculpture comes from an early childhood fascination with animal life and the natural world. The goal of my work is to place hands-on, accessible public art works which, through their character and natural appeal, foster an appreciation and respect for animal life. Unlike much art, my sculptures communicate through direct physical involvement and visual appeal. There is no intellectual challenge, only the subtle reinforcement of the beauty and value of these ‘other than human’ living beings.” – Eric Berg (from his website) Read more about Eric Berg’s pieces and where to find them locally.
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