Richard Dellapina

Stafford: Longtime friends, teachers created unforgettable moments for students

Ardath Dellapina may have reason to worry.

The collected antics her late husband, Richard, and the late Tom Wiegel have the potential to consign both to the balcony of history occupied by Muppet elders Waldorf and Statler.

One wonders, for instance, what words passed between them the day Mr. Wiegel answered Mr. Dellapina’s call for help from the South High School biology room and found his friend’s finger in the mouth of a live foot-long caiman, that smaller relative to the alligator.

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And students of human behavior may forever puzzle over Wiegel’s motives the day he planted all four legs of a cow that he’d butchered on the family farm hooves-up in the same school’s courtyard, then falsely, but memorably, informed his principal that the rest of the beast was still attached to the legs.

Fortunately for Mrs. Dellapina, at least two things speak to the well-grounded substance of the men who were inseparable colleagues for 42 years. One is the inscription “In loving memory of Tom Wiegel & Richard Dellapina” above the doorway of the Clifton Gorge Nature Center.

The other, as she learned, is posted in the brains of generations of students lucky enough to have filed in and out of the classrooms during the 80-plus years the two creative and dedicated men taught science.

“I still have people comment and ask about Mr. Dell and Mr. Wiegel not because they were colorful or played pranks, but because they were really fine, creative teachers, Mrs. Dellapina said. “For all the jokes, they both had such an impact on their students.”

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Perhaps Wiegel’s most colorful and instructive moment came the day he had his advance-placement biology students paint the backs of cockroaches found in the North High School basement with fingernail polish. The reasons were twofold: To make it easier to observe the distinctive movement style of “La Cucaracha”; the second was to create a cockroach moment students would never forget.

Dellapina likewise brought a distinctive flavor to his teaching with the wild foods feast held at the end of a summer field ecology course. The menu included dandelion salad, elderberry fritters and fried cattails. Registration for the class closed out quickly.

As multiple acquaintances of the two often said: They never missed a teachable moment.

They met in 1963 when Principal Charles Fox hired them to teach at South High.

Dellapina had been brought in from Graham High School with a second purpose: to start a wrestling program in the Springfield City Schools, as he had there. He did so successfully, coaching not only at the high school and at Wittenberg University, but establishing a wrestling development program for youth. Just as he was named an exemplary teacher for his work in the classroom he was elected to the Miami Valley Wrestling Hall of Fame for his work in the gym.

Where Mr. Dellapina largely kept the menagerie of animals he and his students observed at school, Tom Wiegel, who encouraged his children to raise 4H animals, adopted a more free-range approach to the animals from the lab.

Daughter Hana Woodson, recalls a friend she’d brought home from college opening the freezer door only to have a yellow bird - beautiful and well preserved, if dead - drop on the floor. She also remembers returning from basketball camp and noticing the ball python, a summer house guest, had slithered from its cage. From years of dealing with her husband, Sarah Wiegel, knew just what to say after she and family dog came across the snake in a bedroom.

“Wiegel! Get in here!”

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In a similar way, when the Springfield Police Division seized a cold-blooded, malnourished 8-foot python in a drug raid, an officer and former student wondering what to do with the snake answered the question “Who ya gonna call?” with the obvious answer: “Tom Wiegel.

After 34 years at South, Mr. Dellapina taught 12 more years at Catholic Central under a condition imposed by his wife: “I made him swear he wouldn’t coach wrestling.”

After teaching more than 40 years at Hayward Junior High and at South, North and Catholic Central High Schools, Wiegel served as a naturalist at Buck Creek State Park before migrating south to Clifton Gorge.

Although no pythons were in his car when he arrived, he did unload the pelts of scads of area animals he’d collected over the years. When Mr. Dellapina joined him, he brought along collections of shells and bird eggs that now have a permanent home at the preserve. His flint-knapping skills also provided him with the stone tool he used to clean the carcass of a roadkill weasel the two came across on the way to the office.

From 2011 almost until 2015, the two took advantage of teachable moments at the preserve.

Alan Barone, who volunteered with them during their final year there and carries on in their place, said that limited mobility didn’t get in the way. From chairs, Mr. Dellapina demonstrated flint knapping and Mr. Wiegel used a television projection from a microscope to show visitors the algae and protozoa that inhabit the area’s ponds and creeks.

Mr. Dellapina died on the second day of March of 2015 at 79 and Mr. Wiegel on the 31st of that month at 80. Not surprisingly, two men who had teaching in their bones both had their bodies donated to Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine.

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To Ardath Dellapina, this and the fact that three of their sons and both Weigel children are teachers underscores the more important legacy of her late husband and his favorite colleague.

Still, even she can’t resist thinking about the tricks the two might have wanted to play in the cadaver lab - and whether anatomy students were able to locate their funny bones.

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