Former students of Delia West remember her as a beloved teacher
By ERIN ROLL
The Montclair community is mourning the loss of Delia West, a former well-liked elementary school teacher with a 50-year career in the Montclair public schools.
West, 89, died in a fire at her house at 39 Walnut Crescent on Feb. 21.
The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Montclair Fire Department’s fire investigation unit are investigating the cause of the fire.
West was the only person in the house when the fire started at 3 p.m., and no one else was reported injured.
Neighbors spotted smoke coming from the back of West’s house and attempted to get into the house to help West escape, but could not gain access. When firefighters arrived they gained access, and brought West out, but she did not survive.
Units from Bloomfield, East Orange and West Orange responded along with the Montclair Fire Department. Caldwell, Bloomfield, East Orange and West Orange fire departments provided fire coverage to Montclair while crews were responding to the fire.
Marilyn LaVergne, who lives three doors down from West’s home, said her daughter Avery came home from school and saw heavy smoke coming from the back of the house.
LaVergne’s husband Lance tried to get into the house to help West, who was in the area of the kitchen, but the electricity was out and the smoke was too heavy. Another neighbor attempted to help, but also could not get inside, while other neighbors called 911. By the time fire crews arrived, the right side of the house was engulfed in flames, LaVergne said.
“It seemed like it caught so fast,” she said.
The fire was extinguished by 6:01 p.m.
West’s career took her to different schools around the district, including Edgemont, Northeast and Hillside. West’s former students shared memories of their teacher on social media in the days following the fire.
“Everybody’s shocked and saddened,” Amirah Toler-Stoute said. She said people in the community had “heavy hearts” with the news of West’s death.
In 1982, Toler-Stoute began third grade at Hillside. Her family had just moved to Montclair from Newark, so she was new to the town as well as the school. It was West’s first year at Hillside as well, after being transferred to the school from Northeast.
West’s class that year included an elective called “Our Town, Montclair.” For that class, West taught her students about different aspects of Montclair: who the mayor was, who the town and school leaders were, and about different places in town.
Toler-Stoute said her classmates had grown up in Montclair and already knew about places like the parks and the Nishuane Pool. But for Toler-Stoute, it was all new, and very useful. “I absorbed all of it,” she said.
During the 1982-1983 school year, Montclair had both its first female mayor, Mary Mochary, and its first female superintendent of schools, Mary Lee Fitzgerald. West was particularly excited to discuss that with the students, Toler-Stoute recalled.
“She was a really nice lady,” she remembers. “She had that grandmotherly-like appeal.”
West kept a joke soda can on her desk, one that made it look like soda had spilled. And children would always get concerned about what looked like soda spilled all over papers: something that West was always amused by, Toler-Stoute remembers.
Sharon Smith had West for a teacher when Smith was in the second grade at Edgemont during the 1975-1976 school year: a year that Smith vividly remembers because of the Bicentennial celebrations taking place that year. “I always tell everyone that she was my favorite teacher,” Smith recalled, saying that West was always kind and compassionate. “I remember myself as a very shy and bashful second-grader who Ms. West brought the best out of.” A month ago, she encountered West for the first time in 15 years when both women attended a funeral, and West still remembered Smith.
Current and former members of the Montclair Board of Education also offered their tributes to West.
“Though it was not my honor to work alongside her while she was still in the district, I knew her as one of our most respected veteran and experienced teachers,” BOE Vice President Latifah Jannah said. “Ms. West was a powerful influence in the lives of the hundreds of students she taught over her 50-plus years of teaching. My deepest condolences to her family.”
Former BOE member David Cummings said his nephew was among West’s students over the years. West was a member of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Montclair, where her son, Tyrone, is a deacon, he said.
Neighbors on Walnut Crescent remembered that West liked to decorate her front door for holidays and special occasions. On the day of the fire, West’s door was still decorated with red foil hearts for Valentine’s Day.
West had retired from the district as of 2007, according to state pension records.
On the 50th anniversary of her becoming a teacher, West was asked to throw out the opening pitch in a softball game at Kaveny Field on Walnut Street and Grove Street.
Services for West are to be held on Thursday, March 5 at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Montclair. Arrangements were by Woody Home for Services, Orange.