Longtime Columbus educator Mike Edmondson died about a week ago after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.
He was 66.
Edmondson was five days from death when we talked earlier this month. And he talked for one reason.
“I want people to know that I cared,” Edmondson said. “I want people to know that I wanted the best for them. I want people to know I would have done anything for them.”
Many of the more than 11,000 students he taught at Spencer, Shaw, Northside, Hardaway and Carver High Schools knew that. In the mid-1990s, he was a loaned teacher for the startup of the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center. He was on the ground floor of the engineering magnet at Northside.
In his final days, Edmondson was concerned he would be forgotten in death.
One of his former students, Dr. Woodrow McWilliams, a 1993 Spencer High graduate and now a radiation oncologist at the John B. Amos Cancer Center, is quick to answer that.
“There is no chance of that happening,” McWilliams said. “One of the things that is very striking to me about him is he established his legacy a long time ago… He influenced so many of us.”
Ryan McCann was a Spencer student in the early 1980s and taught with Edmondson in the early years of Northside, where Edmondson’s name is on a memorial wall near the flagpole.
“…You don’t have to put names on walls to remember Mike,” McCann said. “People will remember him in their hearts. And that’s where he will be forever.”
And there is a reason for that, says Dr. Jacqueline Flakes, who worked with Edmondson at the Space Science Center and is now the principal at Key Elementary.
“He just knew how to reach different types of children, to use hands-on science, or be able to lecture,” she said. “He had a huge amount of resources he could use to bring space science alive. Very talented. Very brilliant man.”
Friday at his memorial, Hunter Parrish’s song from “Godspell,” “Beautiful City,” will be played.
“Reaching for the day that we can live in a Beautiful city. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Not a city of angels, but a city of men. We may not reach the end but we can start.”
This song helps explain his teaching philosophy.
“In teaching, I wanted to make people better, help them be better,” Edmondson said. “And that they could be that Beautiful City. That’s what I wanted for them all. And help build a better world. That’s grandiose, but doesn’t every teacher think that?”
Mike Edmondson devoted his life to learning – and teaching the sciences to high school students throughout Columbus.
“A principal looked at me one day, and said, ‘I need you to teach physics,'” Edmondson said. “I said, ‘OK.’ And he said, ‘Well, you chemistry guys can teach anything.’ I said, ‘OK, false statement, but OK that’s fine.’”
What that principal didn’t know was physics was Edmondson’s favorite course to teach.
Long before he was a radiation oncologist, McWilliams was an 11th grade physics student being taught by Edmondson at Spencer.
“Definitely influenced us and piqued my interest in the scientific method,” McWilliams said. “That is one of the first courses I took that cinched a lot of things for me as far as wanting to go into a science-based career.”
One of the things that Edmondson found in physics was an intersection of science and his Christian faith.
“Science, dare I say, is religion,” he said. “Physics, if you keep going with it has this very mystical piece to it. And in my humble opinion, that mystical piece is what we would call philosophy.”
And Edmondson believed it was the “absolute tool of God.”
“…It is how he built it,” Edmondson said. “It’s how he built us, there. And that’s certainly not belittling God. When you start looking at the tools and mechanisms, oh, my God. It’s incredible.”
Edmondson had a way to reach students that was powerful.
Hunter Hall learned under Edmondson for four years at Northside High School.
“Mike understood that a teacher’s job is to teach how to think and how to prepare for the world they are going into after high school,” said Hall, who graduated in 2014. “One of the things he taught me and my peers here at Northside is how we approach a situation, access what needs to happen and figure out what we need to do to get through the situation with as good an outcome for everybody as possible.”
“You just find ways they understand and begin unlocking the doors from there,” Edmondson said.
He taught thousands of students and unlocked thousands of doors through hands-on learning.
But he had a special way with the nerdier kids says McCann, who briefly followed Edmondson into education.
“He made being a science nerd or a computer nerd or whatever you want to call it, kind of cool. He was himself all the time and he didn’t change that anyone,” McCann said. “And I think a lot people saw that about him and they felt more comfortable in their own skin being a science nerd.”
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Mike about his faith. I wanted to know what was his favorite hymn.
“Softly and Tenderly,” he said without hesitation. Then he sang.
“… Come home. Come home for ye who are weary. Come home. Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for sinners come home.”