Family and Friends Remember 'Whirlwind' Teacher

Family and friend reflect on Debra Schmitt's impact on their lives.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 12, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ross, for Terra Linda High School teacher Debra Schmitt, 53, whose body was found Jan. 30, on the banks of a creek behind her Ross home.

Ms. Schmitt disappeared January 19, after leaving a goodbye message on her classroom board and school keys behind. Results of a toxicology report are pending.

As an educator Ms. Schmitt stood out from the crowd, teaching classes in exciting ways. “She absolutely refused to allow her lessons to be boring,” recalled Steven Shapiro, a friend and colleague at Stuyvesant High School in New York, where she taught English before moving to Marin County. When presenting “The Scarlet Letter,” Ms. Schmitt dressed as protagonist Esther Prynne. For a classical mythology lesson, she came to class as Athena, goddess of wisdom.

A whirlwind

“She was a whirlwind, a joy to be around,” added Shapiro.

“Debbie had this way of really making students want to learn,” said her cousin Linda Czarnik of New Jersey. “Her world was about her work, her students. She inspired my daughter to become a schoolteacher.”

Born February 27, 1957, in Staten Island, New York, Ms. Schmitt moved to Manhattan at age 18 and put herself through college waiting tables. She graduated from Hunter College with a bachelor’s degree in education, along with a teaching credential. She went on to Penn State University, earning a master’s degree in English Literature.

She joined the faculty of Stuyvesant High School and was mentored there by Frank McCourt, who would later gain literary fame as author of his memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.”  To this day, when new Stuyvesant teachers appear timid, they’re encouraged to take charge, show some passion, and “be a Debbie,” said Steven Shapiro.

Manhattan to Ross

A New Yorker through and through, Ms. Schmitt’s loves were literature, art and music. In 1997 she gave birth to her son, Wyatt. Three years later she married Stephen Smith.  In 2001 the family moved to Ross, where Mr. Smith had roots.

A striking brunette, Ms. Schmitt prided herself on a thrift-store chic wardrobe, buying apparel at Salvation Army and Goodwill, while looking like she stepped out of Nordstrom, her husband said.

Funny and entertaining, she had a knack for bringing lightness to the most serious of subjects. “She would make me laugh to the point of tears,” Ms. Czarnik said.

Ms. Schmitt was predeceased by her mother, Edna Schmitt.


She is survived by her husband, Stephen C. Smith; and her 13-year-old son, Wyatt Domingo Smith, both of Ross; father, Charles Schmitt of Sunrise, Florida; and her sister, Donna Bracco of Staten Island, New York.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Ritter Center, PO Box 3517, San Rafael, CA 94912.

Gina February 07, 2011 at 11:09 PM
Thank you, For the Love of learning and aLWAYS keeping it fUN! Gina (a fellow Teacher)


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