Teacher made history come to life for students

09/16/2012 12:00 AM

09/15/2012 10:42 PM

Myron Piper, a retired history teacher who was recognized nationally for his innovative approach to bringing the past to life for young people, died Sept. 8 after a lingering illness, his family said. He was 63.

Mr. Piper coached students in Sacramento and Riverside for many years in the National History Day program, an academic contest that draws more than half a million students annually who research historical topics and present findings to experts. He also expanded participation as coordinator of Sacramento County's History Day events.

A gifted teacher, he encouraged young people to view history as more than a recitation of dates and places. He taught students how to investigate historical topics – including interviewing sources, researching archives and taking field trips – to understand their influence on current events.

"He was always so enthusiastic about history and working with kids," said Bob LaPerriere of the Sacramento County Historical Society. "He loved it, and it rubbed off on everybody."

Mr. Piper used the History Day program to engage young people in learning history, especially minority and at-risk students. At Valley High School in Sacramento, where he taught history and economics from 1992 to 2001, he set high academic standards and instilled a "refuse to lose attitude" in contestants, he told The Bee in 1997.

"He mentored students and taught research and study habits they would use for the rest of their lives," said Suzanne Hicklin, director of the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum. "Some of them came back in college or after college and served on his History Day committee. They still called him 'Mr. Piper.' "

Contest participants at Valley High wrote dramatic plays, created visual displays and produced insightful documentaries on national and world events that happened many years before they were born – including forced American Indian migrations, South African apartheid, the Bataan Death March and the Port Chicago Mutiny. Many presentations earned honors in local, statewide and national History Day contests.

In 2002, Mr. Piper was honored with the History Channel Outstanding History Educator Award and a $5,000 prize during a National History Day ceremony at the University of Maryland. Organizers praised his efforts to improve history education for students from underserved communities.

"He considered students to be his kids once they came into his classroom," said Cynthia White-Piper, a Southern California educator and his former wife. "He gave them nicknames and built relationships with them. He had a passion for kids.

Born in 1948 and raised in South Haven, Mich., Mr. Piper earned bachelor's degrees in art history and economics and a teaching credential at Michigan State University. He began teaching social studies at a school for unwed mothers in Kalamazoo, Mich. He also went to Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, White-Piper said.

He moved to California in 1980 and taught history at Wells Intermediate School and Norte Vista High School in Riverside before joining Valley High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District.

He earned a master's degree in administration and an administration credential from Sacramento State.

He served as a visiting educator at UC Davis in a program that aids underperforming schools.

After leaving Valley High School, he worked in a staff development program for the Elk Grove district and retired in 2010.

Mr. Piper had two daughters with White-Piper. After a divorce, he remarried and had another daughter with his wife, Ira Piper.

He took his children to museums and on educational outings when they were young and enjoyed his free time watching sports on TV.

He told The Bee in 2007 that he was inspired as a student by history teachers, including one who enjoyed playing the role of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. He also noted that he had lived through historic times as well.

"The day I graduated from high school in South Haven, Michigan – June 5, 1968 – was the day Bobby Kennedy was assassinated," he recalled.

Myron Piper

Born: Sept. 14, 1948 Died: Sept. 8, 2012 Survived by: Wife, Ira Piper of Sacramento; daughters, Chenique Murphy and Mikala Piper of Moreno Valley, and Myra Piper of Sacramento; brother, Vincent Piper of Oakland; sister, Bonnie Kerlew of Oceanside; and four grandchildren

Services: 11 a.m. Oct. 6 at Pathway Christian Church, 6755 Victoria Ave., Riverside

Remembrances: In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Sacramento County Office of Education History Day Program, P.O. Box 269003, Sacramento, CA 95826-9003. Condolences may be mailed to the Piper family at 12799 Dolomite Lane, Moreno Valley, CA 92555.

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