Small-town girl, scientist, single mother. Outdoor classroom honors 1954 Greencastle grad
Dr. Grace Bert Cannon could add another chapter to her autobiography "All of It" after the June 17 meeting of the Greencastle-Antrim School Board.
The 84-year-old was wheeled into the library near the end of the meeting for the start of a presentation that concluded in the new Cannon Courtyard Outdoor Classroom donated by her son Pete Cannon and his wife, Julia.
Their gift in honor of the 1954 graduate of the old Greencastle High School on Washington Street also includes 16 microscopes and five lab balances.
The Walnut Creek, Calif., resident thought she was in her hometown to sign copies of her 600-plus-page memoir, which is described on the cover as being about "the ups and downs of a small-town girl turned scientist and single mother."
"We're not here for a book-signing tonight, Mom. This is better than a book-signing," Pete Cannon said as the unveiling of the classroom unfolded.
'Portrait of a Graduate'
Grace Cannon's accomplishments embody what over 60 community members who made up the district's Destination Design team had in mind when they articulated a "Portrait of a Graduate" and developed the five core competencies "we believe will prepare our students for success post-graduation," according to Dr. Lura Hanks.
The competencies approved by the school board in February are: critical thinking and social responsibility; creativity and innovation; literacy and communication; physical and emotional health; and general knowledge and academic preparation.
It is important to share stories of model Greencastle alumni who demonstrate those competencies, Hanks said.
"I'm proud tonight to present the first 'Portrait of a Graduate' — Grace Bert Cannon. We are G-A proud," said Dr. Ed Rife, high school principal, using a district motto.
Rife showed a slide of her picture in the 1954 high school yearbook and her quote: "It's what you do with what you've got."
"I love her quote ... she has done some great things," Rife said.
After graduating at the top of her class, Grace Cannon earned her undergraduate degree in biology/biological sciences from Goucher College and her Ph.D. in genetics from Washington University and did post-doctoral research at Columbia University and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Her career in cancer research and tumor immunology, mainly in the Rockville, Md., area saw her rubbing elbows with Nobel Prize-winners, publishing more than 50 papers and developing cell line 5637, which is still used today in bladder cancer research.
She also is a superhero to her three children, who were 8, 6 and 4 years old in the early 1970s when she lost her own mother to colon cancer and was a newly divorced single mother starting a new job in a new location, Pete Cannon recounted.
She never deviated from her focus on instilling values and prioritizing education while offering unconditional support, constant encouragement, a lot of humor and, above all, love, he said.
Pete Cannon joined Rife in unveiling a plaque that reads:
"Her Greencastle-Antrim High School education paved the way for her Ph.D. in Genetics from Washington University in 1962 and significant contributions s a research scientist and immunologist.
"A beloved mother, she worked tirelessly to raise her children with dedication, joy and humor; empowering them to find success and happiness in their lives."
'It can be fun'
"Greencastle means so much to my Mom. She loves Old Home Week, wishes she was there. It has a special place in her life," said Pete Cannon, who recalled visiting once a month growing up, eating at Sunnyway Diner and attending the Presbyterian Church.
When he initially contacted the high school in November about honoring his mother in her hometown, he had something like a bench in mind. Conversations with Rife, more than 40 emails with Rife's secretary Kim Combs and thinking about how his mother would like the money to be used progressed to the classroom and science equipment.
"I am impressed with his overall commitment and dedication to the school," Pete Cannon said. "He talked about how focused the district was on having kids in school as much as possible (during COVID-19). It struck a note with me because it was a different story for my kids in California."
His three boys Ryan, 16, and identical twins, Caden and Tyler, 14, did not attend school in person for a full year.
The outdoor classroom was created on an existing patio outside the solarium near the high school cafeteria. Old foliage and an outdated satellite dish were removed and the patio was regrouted, updated with landscaping and completed with handcrafted outdoor furniture, Rife said. A new security fence was added around the entire courtyard area between wings at the rear of the high school.
Rife noted numerous local companies were involved in the project, including Danco Inc., M.E.L.'s Landscaping, A+ Fencing, Airhill Lawn Furniture and Wertner Signs. He gave a shoutout to Tom Breeden, G-AHS facilities manager, for his help with everything from powerwashing the brick to raking dirt to fill in the courtyard.
"It's all came together and will be a beautiful area for our students to use," Rife said.
A few of the 16 microscopes and balances purchased with the donation were displayed on one of the tables and Autumn Blanchard, Nate Kirkwood, Joe Paci and Claire Paci, representing the science students who will use them were on hand, too.
"Just keep studying," Grace Cannon told them. "If I could do it, you can do it. It can be fun, it was for me."
She added, "I want the kids to know they can do it, too. They can ask questions and find the answers. That's the exciting part."
Amber Bostick, chair of the high school science department, said the donation means "we can put a microscope in front of every single student" in a science class.
"I never expected anything like this," according to Grace Cannon, who peered into one of the microscopes and said she was honored and flabbergasted by the recognition.
Grace Cannon has reduced mobility and now uses a wheelchair or walker; had her colon removed in 2004 because she suffered from ulcerative colitis and as a preventive measure since her mother died of colon cancer; is in the early stages of glaucoma; and is hard of hearing.
"But she is sharp as a tack ... I can talk with her about non-parametric statistics and she still knows the reasons for selecting one test over another," said Pete Cannon, who noted many of the papers she published were way over his head.
"It's no doubt we hit the mom lottery," he said.
Grace Cannon is proud both sons, Pete and Mike, who also was in Greencastle for the presentation, have MBAs and her daughter, Susan Antolin, with whom she lives in California, has a law degree and is an internationally known haiku writer.
Back in her hometown
"It's almost as if I didn't leave," Cannon said in the new Cannon Courtyard, turning to look at Mary Lou Goetz and saying, "I'm so glad you're here."
The two were best friends in high school and had an unscheduled reunion earlier in the day.
Goetz recently moved to the Moss Spring development, but the Cannons did not have her address. They went to development, saw a person in a yard, asked if they knew a Mary Lou who lived there and were directed about eight doors down, where they found Goetz. She and her sister-in-law, Carolle Patrick, a slightly younger Greencastle High School graduate, joined them for a tour of the high school and the presentation.
The family's visit to Greencastle also included a tour of Allison-Antrim Museum, where Cannon got to see the dolls she donated several years ago, as well as a photo she had never seen of her mother at age 10 with one of the dolls. Other pieces from her ancestors are in the museum, and she is proud to be descended from the Davisons, Berts, Raffs and Heges who settled in the area in the 1700 and 1800s.
The family went to Cedar Hill Cemetery to put flowers on the gravesite of her parents, Charles Wesley Bert and Gladys Raff Bert, then it was off to dinner at Sunnyway Diner and the cole slaw she's been talking about for 20 years.
"I was everything she imagined," Pete Cannon said of the cole slaw, which also gets a mention in his mother's autobiography.
'All of It'
The brief on the back of her autobiography says, "The antics and adventures of a girl growing up in a small Pennsylvania town flow into stories of college life, the pursuit of a PhD in genetics, marriage to an Ivy League graduate and soon-to-be medical doctor, the collapse of the marriage three children later, and the chaos of raising the kids on her own during the 1970s. The author shares all of it—the unflattering details and failures along with the triumphs. A strong, resourceful woman in an era long before the #MeToo movement, Grace perseveres through her sense of humor, desire to make a difference in the world of cancer research, and above all, her love for her children and grandchildren."
Many pages are devoted to growing up on East Baltimore Street in Greencastle, with chapters ranging from "Close Calls" to "Pumpkin Seeds" and "Sports and Scholastic Achievements." Many Greencastle residents will recognize the names of the friends and family members she writes about.
College life and working as a waitress are covered, and forthright accounts of her failed marriage, single parenthood, personal relationships, social life and challenges and success at work can be found on the pages, that then progress to retirement and being a grandmother.
Cannon wrote the chapters between 2000 and 2012, her daughter helped refine it and "All of It" was published in 2020.
It is available from Amazon as a paperback and as an e-book.