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Obituaries

Michael Fiveash, 67; he made Latin come alive in Lexington

Dr. Fiveash was hired to fill in for a Latin teacher. He ended up staying at Lexington High 37 years.

Dr. Fiveash was hired to fill in for a Latin teacher. He ended up staying at Lexington High 37 years.

In one corner of Michael M. Fiveash’s classroom stood a cardboard cutout of Homer Simpson, a laurel wreath atop its head. On a nearby wall was a Latin phrase for manure, tucked inside a red circle with a red line drawn through it.

Modern cultural touchstones and the occasional eyebrow-raising reference brought Latin to life for hundreds of students who passed through his classroom doors at Lexington High School.

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“Teaching Greek and Latin was a difficult task,” said Alan Bartels, a former student who is in his first year at Tufts University. “He was able to do it so that you not only understood what the lesson was, but also how it applied to your high school experience and your life in the future.”

Dr. Fiveash, whom many students called “Doc Five,” died Sept. 19 in his Jamaica Plain home from neuroendocrine tumors. He was 67.

For many teenagers, his classroom “was just a happy oasis in the middle of everything else,” said former student Krithika Pichardo of Manassas Park, Va. “He was very funny and engaging, but he also called you out when you didn’t do your homework. He drew that line between being your friend, but still being your teacher, and I think that is one of the reasons it was so important for all of us to not drop the ball.”

Dr. Fiveash used props and dramatic flourishes in the classroom to illustrate points he was making, or to keep attention focused. He might use a plastic ax decorated to look bloodied to point at a student and ask: “Who is my next victim?” At the end of an impassioned lecture, he would turn to ask: “Questions? Comments? Howls of outrage?”

“He really openly reflected on his teaching every class,” said former student Lily Barrett. Barrett and her sister were impressed by how willing Dr. Fiveash was to give up time to review their work.

“He really sat down with us multiple times a week for a couple of hours and just reviewed immense amounts of classroom materials, and made sure we were ready,” she said.

Dr. Fiveash often referred to students as whippersnappers, and might greet a student: “Hello, child.” The phrase might sound patronizing coming from anyone else, but from him “it always felt like a hug,” said former student Melodie Kinet.

She was particularly impressed by his teachings on ataraxia, a Greek term for a tranquil state. “I remember that because he explained it so beautifully,” Kinet said.

Dr. Fiveash often arranged desks in a U-shape and used slides to showcase artwork that illustrated his lessons. As students entered his classroom, classical music played in the background. Sometimes he paused to say: “Too much truth and beauty makes my head go around in circles.”

Born in Boston, Dr. Fiveash grew up in South Weymouth. He went to Harvard College, graduating in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in classics. From Boston University he received a doctorate in classics and anthropology.

While a graduate student, he was hired to teach at Lexington High School, filling in for a Latin teacher. He stayed 37 years.

Dr. Fiveash married the former Katherine Vorhaus in 1969, and they raised their two children in Cambridge. Their marriage ended in 1993.

In 1998, he married Doris Jackson and they moved to Jamaica Plain.

“One of the effects that Mike’s teaching had was to create a real sense of community among his students,” said the Rev. Peter Meek, minister emeritus at the Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, who took adult education courses from Dr. Fiveash. “I’ve known that to happen but it’s pretty rare. I think at the end of the day, what Mike was about was love: for his subject, for his students, and for the opportunity to be a teacher. That was such an enormous gift.”

Dr. Fiveash retired from the high school in 2011 and taught the classics in adult education courses in Lexington.

“He was a brilliant teacher,” Meek said. “He had just this immense energetic love for his subject.”

Dr. Fiveash’s teaching was recognized with many awards, among them teacher of the year at Lexington High.

“His impact was very immediate,” said Skye Shirley, a former student who now teaches Latin at Newton Country Day School. Shirley added that his classroom was “a really safe space for a lot of us, and we were often coming to class early and staying late.”

Many students ended up taking Latin because Dr. Fiveash was the teacher. “I think when you are a teenager, you are very much seeking guidance from any adult except your parents,” Shirley said.

A service has been held for Dr. Fiveash, who in addition to his wife and his former wife leaves a daughter, Polly of Northampton; a son, Matthew of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a sister, Elaine of Newburyport; and two grandchildren.

Dr. Fiveash was a go-to teacher for colleagues with questions about how to cope with certain students. As he compared and shared experiences, he listened to their stories “and he would make you feel like you were not alone,” said former colleague Heidemarie Floerke.

“He was a very witty, warm, and outgoing person,” said Michael Punzak, a longtime friend and fellow teacher who added: “All of his friends would have wanted him to be their teacher.”

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.

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